updated 03:29 am EST, Wed February 26, 2014
MacPhun software offers options to direct attention in photos
MacPhun software, known for its line of photo-editing software, has introduced a new version of its Mac-only photo-emphasis program Focus 2 with a new Pro version that can also be used as a plug-in as well as a standalone app. The upgrade adds a number of features over the more casual Focus 2, giving photographers more freedom to enhance or alter their work for emphasis and attention. MacNN has been testing the new Focus 2 Pro, and we like what we see.
Both Focus 2 ($15, available from the Mac App Store) and Focus 2 Pro ($40, available directly from MacPhun) offer preset refocusing settings that are aimed at portraits, nature shots, architecture, macro and tilt-shift effects, allowing normal point-and-shoot devices to simulate the type of aperture effects normally found on much more expensive cameras. On both, there are controls to help fine-tune what areas of the picture are blurred and which are clear, the ability for photographers to "draw" their own focus zones, and some basic tools to enhance photos with saturation, brightness, contrast and "vividness," as well as real-time previews.
Focus 2 Pro distinguishes itself from the regular version in, essentially, two ways: the ability to be used as a plug-in in other graphics programs, and additional fine-tuning options. The Pro version supports Apple's Aperture, and Adobe's Lightroom, Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, alongside the standalone version -- giving users their choice of how best to fit the app into their workflow.
The Pro upgrade from the regular version of Focus 2 also offers the ability to add clarity within a focus ring, adjust saturation separate inside and outside the focus area, four different kinds of motion blur (Zoom, Twist, Radial and Linear), more realistic Bokeh simulation with more advanced controls, and export options from the standalone version to Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, iPhoto and other MacPhun products the user owns.
Focus 2 example provided by MacPhun
We enjoy all genres of photography, including shooting flowers with a macro setting; event photos (often shot from a substantial distance); architecture and landscapes, portraits and other formats. We've previously been impressed with the company's Intensify Pro, Snapheal Pro, which also offer plug-ins for Photoshop et al and even its casual ColorStrokes painting app (for selectively re-applying color to a photo).
Adding the ability to direct the viewer's attention through selective focus can really distinguish a photo, particularly when the original was shot with a fixed and/or small-aperture lens as used by the "auto" setting on cameras and smartphones. We're going to include some our own original photos we've worked on in Focus 2 Pro (only) in thumbnails below (larger sizes are available in the gallery at the end of this article).
(top image: original, bottom image: modified)
The first example seen above is English actor Paul McGann -- best known for his work in Withnail & I and more recently Doctor Who -- giving a talk in Los Angeles, shot with a "superzoom" camera due to the distance from the subject (about 40 feet). The original photo is fine, but as with most portraits we like to add some softening to the background and unimportant foreground elements, directing the viewer's eyes right to the face. We occasionally add some extra brightening there and some vignetting to darken the area surrounding him. Small touches, but they really add up into a more well-realized portrait that looks more like it was shot with a DSLR and a far more expensive zoom lens (the changes may be more obvious in the gallery versions; these thumbnails are shrunk down quite considerably).
(top: original, bottom: modified)
In the photo above (top image), you can see that the camouflaged frogs (shot at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens) get a little lost in the overall image (of course, that's what they are trying to do). Using the "portrait" rather than "nature" preset, we took advantage of a particular Focus 2 Pro feature -- the ability to control saturation both in the "focused" zone as well as the "blurred" area -- to make the frogs stand out a bit more (and again some vignetting to create more contrast with the subject, as seen below).
Some other apps we've tried that offer to blur backgrounds through user "drawing" (particularly for iOS rather than OS X) don't give you much control over the amount of focus and blur, and some assume that you've already centered the subject and thus only allow such alterations to the center of the photo. In addition, sometimes you want to create a dramatic effect through the use of truly customized focus. Below, you'll see an example of "focus masking" using the custom setting.
This photo, from Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island in Canada, was taken with a point-and-shoot. Since the subject here is Hatley Castle more than the grounds -- and we wanted to obscure a few construction markers at the foot of the stairs (we could have -- and probably should have -- employed Snapheal to get rid of them) -- we hit upon a custom focus that emphasized the castle rather than the steps. This creates a "look" that hopefully makes the viewer feel like they are stepping into a dream.
Users can also save works-in-progress to a proprietary ".focus" format so as to be able to do more refinements later (as with most other MacPhun apps). On the Hatley Castle image above and the "tilt-shift" experiment below, we really enjoyed using the "spacebar to compare" feature to flip rapidly between the original image and our alterations, helping us be sure we had it the way we wanted it.
Another feature that we enjoyed very much was the ability to make focus zones (particularly on macro pictures as below) something other than perfectly round. This is another option that is conspicuously missing from many photo-editing apps, which is odd considering that not everything in nature (particularly faces) are perfectly round or rectangular. For the macro shot of the cherry blossoms in Victoria BC, we used Photoshop to brighten, "warm" and sharpen the image (which was taken on a very cloudy day), then passed it on to the Focus 2 Pro plug-in to enhance the existing bokeh effect and clarify the areas that were the sharpest in the original image -- which, as it happens, were both off-center and spheroid in area.
Focus 2 (the regular version, $15) is likely to be sufficient for amateur or casual photographers. It's great for directing where viewers should (pardon the pun) focus their attention -- from adding some background blur and vignetting to make a portrait stand out, to making an off-center object or distant horizon the emphasis point of a photo. Focus 2 Pro ($40) is aimed squarely at more serious photographers who usually work in Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop. It works well with RAW images (40MB and larger) and offers better bokeh effects, multiple sorts of blur and some additional controls.
A user could do much the same thing with Photoshop itself with sufficient time and skill or other plug-ins, but the app brings those specialized effects to the fore, making post-production faster, easier and more pleasurable. The ability to do our basic post-production in Photoshop and then use Focus 2 or one of the other MacPhun "Pro" plugin versions without leaving the program is an enjoyable workflow that makes a fine photo spectacular.
We like the delineation between the "regular" and "pro" versions of MacPhun's apps: casual shooters still get all the tools they need to make a good photo great, and pros get extended fine-tuning and integration with other graphics programs to make great photos soar. With Focus 2 Pro in particular, the company has done a good job making each version perfect for its target audience. Users of Focus 2 can upgrade to the Pro version for just $20, making it a square deal for shooters who have expanded their skills and are ready to work in the pro environment.