Certain filters in Photoshop get a reputation as being intended for a particular task but they can often be used for a wide variety of different creative effects. The Surface Blur Filter is just such a filter. It is used mostly for retouching portraits, because it does a great job of smoothing out skin textures without smoothing out everything else in the photo making it look out of focus. But you can also use Surface Blur to produce an interesting sort of ethereal look in a photo. Let's take a look at how it's done. I'll start off by creating a copy of my background image layer, by dragging the thumbnail for that layer down to the Create New Layer button down at the bottom of the layers panel, and then I'll choose Filter > Blur and then Surface Blur, from the menu.
That will bring up a very basic dialog, we just have a radius and a threshold. The radius controls the size of the Blur effect, in other words how far out from each pixel that's being blurred should we apply that Blur. The threshold determines which pixels will actually get the Blur. Basically, what's happening here is that the Surface Blur filter is trying to Blur only areas that do not have very much texture, while protecting areas that do have texture or should have texture. In other words, protecting strong contrast edges, but blurring out everything that doesn't have too much texture.
So, in this photo, for example, the leaves in the background that are out of focus or the petals of the sunflower would very quickly get that Blur effect, whereas the stronger contrast edges for example, the edges of the petals themselves or portions of the interior will not get that blurring. So, we're blurring the petals of the flower for example, without blurring the actual edges of the petal. So, it doesn't look like an out of focus petal, it looks like a smooth petal. If we increase the threshold value, then that Blur effect will apply to more and more areas of the photo.
You'll notice, for example, that we start to see a very clear blurring along the edges of the petals. And then, when we increase radius, we'll start to see a stronger and stronger effect. Now, this by itself can be kind of interesting. We've got this almost ethereal, sort of a painterly effect in the image. But if we want to retain both smooth textures and crisp edges, we can keep that threshold setting relatively low. So, reducing the value for threshold, you can see that we retain relatively crisp edges on the flower petals even though we're applying a significant Blur effect to the petals themselves.
So, now I have sort of a painted look in the image but one that has reasonably good definition. And you can continue fine tuning the various settings determining how much of a Blur effect you want and the specific threshold, to determine to what extent you're going to protect particular edges in the image. When you're happy with the result you can simply click the OK button in order to apply that effect. So, you can see the Surface Blur filter, even though it's generally considered to be a portrait retouching filter, it can be a very effective tool for creative adjustments.
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