Watch video: Home photography ideas – Hollywood portraits with pantyhose!
Adding a touch of soft focus can transform the mood of your photography. It can add a dreamy quality to portraits, produce fantastic flare and halation effects for lighting, and can recreate those glamorous black-and-white movie star headshots of Hollywood's golden age.
You can achieve soft focus in a number of ways: you can buy a speciality lens, such as the Lensbaby Velvet 28 (opens in new tab); you can mimic the effect using Photoshop Elements (opens in new tab); or you can use a classic cinematography technique called ‘netting’ to do it in-camera, on any lens you like.
This process uses a pair of tights or stockings to ‘net’ your lens, giving you a unique degree of control to produce an ultra-creative soft focus effect. Using either light or dark tights, stretched either tightly or loosely, enables you to manipulate the amount of diffusion in your shot, as well as whether the highlights or the shadows and midtones are affected.
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In addition to increasing or decreasing the diffusion of your light sources, netting your lens can also produce halos, flares and starbursts. So this technique can also modify your lighting, even used bare, giving you an amazing amount of creative agency for a minimal amount of effort and expenditure.
Best of all, the technique can be performed using any lens mounted on any camera. So once you’ve acquired your tights, you can start experimenting with every bit of glass in your kit bag.
This is a legitimate cinematography technique that has been used in filmmaking for decades. It may seem hard to believe, and you might feel silly doing it, but shoot safely in the knowledge that some of Hollywood's finest cinematographers have got this pantyhose filter down to a science – even knowing which brand and patterns to use for particular effects!
How to 'net' your lens
01 Fogal length
You can use any make of tights, though the lightness / darkness make a key difference to the effect; we suggest trying a nude and a black pair for starters. It should be noted that Hollywood filmmakers favor the Swiss brand Fogal, particularly its Noblisse and Tulle patterns. Just remember, as with all your ‘proper’ kit, the idea is far more important than the gear – try a cheap pair from eBay or the laundry basket!
02 Use a portrait lens
Obviously you should always use a portrait lens to shoot a portrait (we're using the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 (opens in new tab)), but especially so here as a longer focal length lens will compress the pattern more and increase the level of diffusion. Conversely, a wider lens will produce inherently less diffusion.
03 Stretch your net
In cinematography the net would be applied to the rear element, but we’re going to stretch it over the front of the lens. A looser stretch will produce more diffusion, a tighter stretch will produce less.
04 Band aid
Secure the net with an elastic band. You can cut off the excess material if you want to, but we recommend shooting a bit first in case you want to tighten or loosen the net (to control the diffusion).
Join the Dark Side, or the Light?
Light stockings will primarily diffuse the shadows and midtones, while dark stocking primarily affect the highlights. So, as strange as it sounds, choosing a pair of nude tights or a pair of black tights will yield very specific effects.
And when you introduce lighting, that's when netting can produce truly dreamy Hollywood-style portraits. Netted lenses lose between a third to half a stop of light, so you will need to overexpose your image – particularly with dark tights, which soak up even more illumination.
Here's how using the different tights affects images when we introduce a touch of flash using a speed light.
One of the most striking effects that a netted lens can create is starbursting. When a bare light source is visible in your frame, different degrees of stretch (and different darkness) on your tights will produce halos around your light – as well as some striking starbursts.
In the first image below you will see the effect of using pale tights, which produces a strong starburst (since pale tights mainly affect the midtones and shadows). However, using dark tights doesn't achieve as strong an effect as it controls the highlights and doesn't diffuse as much.
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