Create a Dreamy Photo Effect with Photoshop Elements

A soft image

This tutorial shows you how to give a photo that soft, dreamy quality. It's especially nice for close-ups and portraits because it softens the photo and minimizes details that might be distracting. This tutorial will show you some of the benefits of using blend modes, adjustment layers, and clipping masks. Some might consider these advanced features, but you'll find out that it's not so hard.

We're using Photoshop Elements 4 for this tutorial, but the required features are available in other versions of Photoshop and Elements, as well as other photo editors, like ​​Paint Shop Pro. If you need help adapting a step, feel free to ask for help in the discussion forum.

Right click and save this practice image to your computer: dreamy-start.jpg

To follow along, open the practice image in the standard edit mode of Photoshop Elements, or whatever photo editor you'll be working with. You may follow along with your own image, but you'll need to adjust some of the values when working with a different image.

Duplicate Layer, Blur, and Change the Blend Mode


With the image open, show you layers palette if it's not already open (Window > Layers). From the layers palette, right-click on the background layer and choose Duplicate layer... Type a new name for this layer in place of ​Background copy, name it Soften then click OK.

The duplicate layer will appear in the layers palette and it should already be selected. Now go to Filter > Blur Gaussian Blur. Enter a value of 8 pixels for a blur radius. If you're working on a different image you may need to adjust this value up or down depending on the size of the image. Click OK and you should have a very blurry image!

But we're going to change that through the magic of blending modes. At the top of the layers palette, you should have a menu with Normal as the selected value. This is the blending mode menu. It controls how the current layer blends with the layers below it. Change the value here to Screen mode and watch what happens to your image. Already the photo is getting that nice, dreamy effect. If you feel like you've lost too much detail, dial down the opacity of the Soften layer from the opacity slider at the top of the layers palette. We set opacity to 75%, but feel free to experiment here.

Adjust Brightness/Contrast

Adjust Brightness/Contrast

At the top of the layers palette, locate the New adjustment layer button. Hold down the Alt key (Option on Mac) as you press this button and choose Brightness/Contrast from the menu. From the new layer dialog, check the box for Group With Previous Layer and press OK. This makes it so the Brightness/Contrast adjustment is only affecting the Soften layer and not all layers below it.

Next, you should see the controls for the Brightness/Contrast adjustment. This is subjective, so feel free to experiment with these values to get a "dreamy" quality that you like. We've boosted the brightness up to +15 and the contrast to +25. When you're happy with the values, click OK.

Essentially this is all there is to it for the dreamy effect, but we're going to go on to show you how to give the picture a softly fading edge effect.

Copy Merged and Add Solid Fill Layer

Layers palette

Up to this point, we've done our work without ever altering the original photo. It's still there, unchanged in the background layer. In fact, you can hide the Soften layer to remind you what the original looked like. But for the next step, we need to merge our layers into one. Rather than using the merge layers command, we're going to use copy merged and keep those layers intact.

To do this, do Select > ALL (Ctrl-A) then Edit > Copy Merged then Edit > Paste. You will have a new layer at the top of the layers palette. Double-click on the layer name and call it Dreamy Merged.

From the New Adjustment layer menu, choose Solid Color... and drag the cursor up to the top left corner of the color picker for a pure white color fill. Click OK. Drag this layer below the "Dreamy Merged" layer in the layers palette.

Create the Shape for a Clipping Mask

Settings for creating a shape for a mask.
  1. Choose the custom shape tool from the toolbox.
  2. In the options bar, click the arrow next to the Shape sample to bring up the shapes palette.
  3. Click the small arrow on the shapes palette and choose Crop Shapes to load them into your shapes palette.
  4. Then select Crop Shape 10 from the palette.
  5. Make sure the style is set to none (white square with a red line through it) and the color can be anything.

Convert the Vector Shape Into Pixels

Convert the Vector Shape into Pixels

Click in the top left corner of your picture and drag to the lower right corner to create the shape, but leave some extra space around all edges of the photo. Then click the Simplify button on the options bar. This will convert the shape from a vector object into pixels. Vector objects are great when you want a crisp, clean edge, but we need a soft edge, and we can only run the blur filter on a pixel layer.

Group With Previous to Create Clipping Mask

Group with Previous to Create Clipping Mask

After you click simplify, the shape will seem to have disappeared. It's there, it's just behind the "Dreamy Merged" layer. Click on the "Dreamy Merged" layer in the layers palette to select it, then go to Layer > Group with previous. Like magic, the dreamy photo is clipped to the shape of the layer below. That's why the Group with previous command is also called a "clipping group."

Adjust the Position of the Clipping Mask

Adjust the Position of the Clipping Mask

Now click back on Shape 1 in the layers palette, then select the move tool from the toolbox. Put your cursor over any one of the small squares that appear on the sides and corners the bounding box and click once to enter transform mode. The bounding box will change to a solid line, and the options bar will show you some transform options. Swipe across the numbers in the rotate box and enter 180. The clipping shape will turn 180 degrees. Click the check mark button or hit enter to accept it.

This step is not required; we just liked the way the shape looked better with a rounded corner on the top edge and it was another opportunity to teach you something.

If you want to adjust the position of the clipping shape, you can do that now with the move tool.

Blur the Clipping Mask for a Soft Edge Effect

Blur the Clipping Mask for a Soft Edge Effect

The Shape 1 layer should still be selected in your layers palette. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Adjust the radius however you like it; the higher the number, the softer the edge effect will be. We went with 25.

Add Some Finishing Touches

Finished dreamy effect.

Optional: If you'd like the edges to fade out into a different color other than white, just double-click the left thumbnail on the Color Fill 1 layer and choose another color. You can even move your cursor over your document and it will change to an eyedropper so you can click to pick a color from your image. We picked a color from the girl's pink shirt.

Save as a PSD if you want to keep your layers intact for further editing. As long as you keep your layers, you can still modify the edge color and the clipping shape. you can even modify the dreamy effect, although you will need to paste a new merged copy above the shape and color fill layers if you do that.

For the final image, we added some text and paw prints using a custom brush.