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How to Take a Photo with a Blurred Background

Updated on July 22, 2016
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Kymberly loves to take photos, spurred by her first trip to Japan. Macro, landscape, plant and animal photography are her favourites.

Photos with soft, blurry backgrounds are perfect for making the subject stand out.

A blurred background does not compete for the viewer's attention, and can make photos appear more professional.

Portrait photos, macro photos (flowers, insects, food), low-light photos, and photos where you want to focus on only one detail, all benefit from having a blurred background.

Source

What affects background blur?

The following aspects majorly affect the blurriness of background clutter:

  • Aperture - Specified by an f-value or f-stops. Larger apertures have smaller f-values, and allow more light to reach the camera sensor. When using a large aperture, the shutter speed should be faster, to prevent the photo from being over-exposed. The lower the f-value, the softer the background blur.

  • Distance from your subject - Moving closer to and focusing tightly on your subject, ensuring the background is far away from your subject, makes it easier to to achieve a blurred background.

  • Focal length - A short focal length has a wide angle of view, it keeps details in focus both in the foreground and the background. Zooming in on a subject narrows the angle of view and makes the focal length longer, resulting in more background blur. To blur the background, use a long focal length lens, or a good variable focus length lens and zoom in on your subject.

  • Sensor size - A small sensor has a short focal length and wide angle of view. Cameras with larger sensors can achieve longer focal lengths, and subsequently better background blur.

Bokeh - blur quality

The type of background determines how well the background can be blurred. Bokeh occurs when light sections of the background are rounded and softened, typically seen with a background of trees or foliage.

Good bokeh, good quality blur, enhances and highlights the subject, with interesting light and dark patterns. Bad bokeh, a distracting blur, occurs when the lighting balance is poor, or if there are too many light highlights in the dark background.

Bokeh can also be used to create artistic, blurry photos of lights on a dark background. The shape of the highlights can be altered by using creative bokeh attachments on SLR cameras.

Bokeh behind the old cockatoo. Canon Powershot S3 IS, in automatic mode.
Bokeh behind the old cockatoo. Canon Powershot S3 IS, in automatic mode. | Source

Depth of field

Using a wide aperture, and moving close to or zooming in on your subject, means you have a shallow depth of field.

This is also known as shallow focus or selective focus.

Depth of field - focus is on the subtitle. Everything else, both in front of and behind the subtitle, is out of focus. Taken with a Canon 650D, 100mm IS lens.
Depth of field - focus is on the subtitle. Everything else, both in front of and behind the subtitle, is out of focus. Taken with a Canon 650D, 100mm IS lens. | Source

Both the background and the foreground outside of the depth of field will be out of focus.

When you have a shallow depth of field, the further away from the focus point, the background (and foreground) will become softer and more blurred.

DSLR lenses allow you to modify settings to achieve the depth of field you want, in manual and semi-automatic modes.

Macro and close-up settings on DSLR cameras and the higher end point-and-shoot cameras automatically choose a shallow depth of field.

Point and shoot cameras keep a large range of distances in focus.

It is more difficult to achieve a shallow depth of field with a camera that does not have either a macro setting, or the ability to modify the aperture and shutter speed.

But it can be done!

How to blur the background

You can achieve a blurred background in a number of ways, depending on your equipment and camera settings.

Super macro setting on Canon's Powershot S3 IS makes the background very blurry - perfect!
Super macro setting on Canon's Powershot S3 IS makes the background very blurry - perfect! | Source

Use the macro settings

The macro settings on your digital camera, preselect a wide aperture and fast shutter speed.

This will automatically result in background blur.

  1. Select the macro or super macro mode, and turn off the flash.
    Macro mode is usually represented by a small flower or tulip.
  2. Get close to and zoom in on your subject, try to get closer to the subject than the background is.
  3. Focus clearly on the subject, and hold the camera still.
  4. Take your photo.

This is much easier when using super macro settings, where you can get within a few millimeters of your subject.

Be careful there is enough light, and you are not causing unintended shadows from the camera position. You may find a tripod useful if your camera or lens does not have built in image stabilization.

AV settings to blur the other blossoms and focus tightly on the bee. Canon Powershot S3 IS, AV mode plus zoom.
AV settings to blur the other blossoms and focus tightly on the bee. Canon Powershot S3 IS, AV mode plus zoom. | Source

Use the aperture priority mode

Aperture priority mode is a semi-automatic mode, available on most cameras. When you change the aperture's f-value in aperture priority mode, the camera automatically chooses the appropriate shutter speed and ISO-setting.

Selecting a wide aperture (the smallest f-value possible), will make the background more blurry.

Blurred background behind a dried seed head, Quedlinburg castle gardens.
Blurred background behind a dried seed head, Quedlinburg castle gardens. | Source
  1. Select the aperture priority mode (A or AV).

    If using a dSLR camera and lens, choose the smallest f-value you can. On most kit-lenses, when zoomed this will be around f5.6.
  2. Keep the subject closer to you than to the background.
  3. Zoom in on your subject.
  4. Take your photo.

Take a portrait photo with a blurred background

When taking portrait photos, a blurred background removes distracting elements by focusing only on the subject.

Portrait of cosplayers at Manifest, Australia. Canon Powershot S3 IS at full zoom.
Portrait of cosplayers at Manifest, Australia. Canon Powershot S3 IS at full zoom. | Source
  1. Select the aperture priority mode (A or AV) or manual mode (M).

    Aperture priority mode is better if your subject is moving, as the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed and ISO settings, to ensure the subject is correctly exposed.
  2. Select a small f-value if you can.
  3. Make sure your subject is closer to you than they are to the background.
  4. Zoom in on your subject.
    If you zoom in manual mode, you may need to increase the ISO and decrease the shutter speed.
  5. Take your photo.

Use a cell phone or small point-and-shoot camera

Some cell phone cameras can achieve a small amount of background blur if they have a setting for image destabilisation, where the lens and the sensor are moved together, remaining focused on your subject, but blurring the background (and foreground).

However, it can look more like motion blur than the traditional background blur.

Even if your phone or camera does not have these advanced settings, you can still take a photo with a blurred background.

  1. Choose portrait mode, and turn off the flash.
  2. Make sure the subject is far from the background.
  3. Get close to your subject, and zoom in.
  4. Take your photo.

Post process photos to add background blur

Some graphics editors can create a blurred background in a variety of ways.

Simulated bokeh effect - simulates the rounded quality of blurred highlights on the dark background.

Background blurred with a circular unsharp mask in iPhoto. Original photo: Powershot S3 IS, supermacro mode.
Background blurred with a circular unsharp mask in iPhoto. Original photo: Powershot S3 IS, supermacro mode. | Source

Gaussian blur - applies a soft and even blur throughout the background.

Unsharp mask - blurs details around an area, commonly a circle in the center of the photo - useful when your subject is a (round) flower and is in the middle of the photo!

Choose a DSLR lens to blur backgrounds

Kit lenses that are sold with most consumer grade dSLR cameras have small apertures (f4 to f8). You can achieve blurred backgrounds by zooming in, keeping your subject close to you and far away from the background.

However, for the best blur effect, consider buying a lens with a large aperture (smaller f-values), often sold as low-light or fast lenses.

An affordable choice for most dSLR models and brands is a 50mm lens with an aperture of f1.8.

Lenses with long focal lengths (or strong zooms) can be used further away from the subject, yet still blur background details.

You do need to ensure the subject is further away from the background than you are from your subject.

A fixed aperture lenses with a wide maximum aperture (low f-value), uses the same shutter speeds and ISO settings when shooting at different distances.

When zooming with a variable aperture lens, the shutter speed should be decreased and ISO increased to evenly expose the photo.

The aperture priority mode (A or AV) is the best way to achieve a blurred background in photo.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
I chose the Canon 100mm IS macro lens because of its ability to beautifully blur the background, with image stabilisation. It's also ideal for food photography!Apple and rum bundt cake. Taken with the Canon 100mm F2.8 L IS lens and 650D.My cat, Johnny, sitting right in front of the dirty door to the balcony - but it's nicely blurred thanks to the shallow depth of field.The focus is on the center of the flower, both the background and the petals are out of focus. With Canon's 100mm IS lens
I chose the Canon 100mm IS macro lens because of its ability to beautifully blur the background, with image stabilisation. It's also ideal for food photography!
I chose the Canon 100mm IS macro lens because of its ability to beautifully blur the background, with image stabilisation. It's also ideal for food photography! | Source
Apple and rum bundt cake. Taken with the Canon 100mm F2.8 L IS lens and 650D.
Apple and rum bundt cake. Taken with the Canon 100mm F2.8 L IS lens and 650D. | Source
My cat, Johnny, sitting right in front of the dirty door to the balcony - but it's nicely blurred thanks to the shallow depth of field.
My cat, Johnny, sitting right in front of the dirty door to the balcony - but it's nicely blurred thanks to the shallow depth of field. | Source
The focus is on the center of the flower, both the background and the petals are out of focus. With Canon's 100mm IS lens
The focus is on the center of the flower, both the background and the petals are out of focus. With Canon's 100mm IS lens | Source

The best DSLR lens for gorgeous bokeh and backgrounds

My personal favorite is the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras

It has incredible sharpness, almost no distortion, and results in amazing background blur.

All the photos on the right were taken with this lens.

It can be used as a portrait lens, if you have enough distance - you'll have to stand far away from your subject!

I've also recently found the cheaper Canon 35mm f2 IS USM lens and I am very happy with how well it blurs. It also lets me get closer to my photo subjects than the 100mm.

Comments

Do you have any tips for achieving background blur and good bokeh?
Please leave them in the comments below!

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    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 5 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Thank you so much for this informative hub! Now I am going to go practice my photography using some of your ideas and see what I come up with. Fantastic sharing. Look forward to more of your writing and great pictures.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 5 years ago from Western NC

      I'm going to bookmark this. As I do more and more hubs, I find that quality pictures are key. I have an idiot camera, though. It's a Kodak Easyshare. I consider myself an artist, but I feel so challenged when it comes to good photos. I know enough about not using flash, but the details are great. I'll have to check if you have more photo hubs - this was so helpful to me. Voted up U/A/B/I.

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Thanks Ruby! I'm happy to have written a useful hub!

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      cclitgirl - good photos are possible with all sorts of cameras, although getting detailed macro shots can be difficult (or impossible with my old phone camera!) I look forward to seeing more of your photos in future hubs!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

      Excellent hub filled with fantastic information. I have a decent camera but don't know what all of those buttons on the top and in the menu mean. Guess I'll be bookmarking and rereading this hub when I have some time to play around with my camera!

    • Turtlewoman profile image

      Kim Lam 5 years ago from California

      I'm in the market for a DSL camera so I've bookmarked this article. Thank you for sharing your photography skills! Great layout, and a very thorough tutorial.

      Voted up!

    • profile image

      rajveer 5 years ago

      sir i have a semi slr fujifilm s2950 camera ... plz tell me that is blur blackground future is available semi slr camera

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Rajveer - You can blur the background relatively easily with the Fujifilm S2950 Finepix camera, because it has a range of settings and functions. It has a manual mode (M) and an aperture priority mode (A) on the shooting mode dial, and the camera can focus at macro and super-macro distances.

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Turtlewoman - thanks! I'd love to know which camera you choose, and if you are happy with its capabilities.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Awesome tips! Thanks for including information about achieving the blurred background effect without a fancy camera.

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Natashalh - thanks! I love background blur, and bokkeh highlights. I'm glad the information was useful!

    • cablemanagements profile image

      S K Sinha 5 years ago from India

      Great tips ! Till date I knew that it can be done through the help of add on lenses or filters only. Never tried these options before but going to try it immediately. Thanks for this !

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Cablemanagements - thanks! Which camera do you use? I'm glad these tips were useful!

    • Darrylmdavis profile image

      Darrylmdavis 4 years ago from Brussels, Belgium

      A good and very informative hub. Sigma has a couple of good lenses which offer good quality at a democratic price such as their 50mm and 70mm macro lenses

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Darryl - Sigma lenses are definitely reasonably priced. Thanks!

    • EyesStraightAhead profile image

      Shell Vera 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Great hub. I am learning photography as an art but enjoy it very much. I know how to take a picture I will enjoy but would like to learn how to take good pictures that others may enjoy as well. I would then like to create my own line of notecards to help people with their customer relations management. I think photos, when taken the right way, can convey such emotion. I look forward to applying these tips next time I try shooting with a blurry background, which is my favorite type of shooting for people and children.

    • Ingar Filinn profile image

      Ingar Filinn 4 years ago from Ireland

      Would this also work in darkness or reduced light?

      Nice pics

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      photostudiosupply, pringoooals, belleart - thank you so much!

      EyesStraightAhead - Photos can certainly convey heaps of emotion! I like your idea of notecards, and would love to know how your customers respond!

      Ingar - This also works in reduced light. Perhaps not complete darkness though! You will need to increase the ISO setting in low light, which may introduce more noise. And you'll need a steady hand or a tripod - it's much harder to focus in low light and keep the camera still enough to avoid blurring the photo.

    • sradie profile image

      sradie 4 years ago from Palm Coast FL

      I like it. I have been doing photography for years and already knew most of this. But, you have increased my knowledge of the AV, aperture priority mode which will now be more useful to me. Clearly written, good job.

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      jainismus - thanks! Happy you liked it!

      sradie - I hadn't played too much with the aperture priority mode of my camera before writing this (the programmed settings are really good for my usual subjects), but had a lot of fun tinkering. Glad it was useful!

    • TrahnTheMan profile image

      TrahnTheMan 4 years ago from Asia, Oceania & between

      HI- are you still using a Canon Powershot? Is that what you used for the photo of the parrot?

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Hi Trahn! I am still using my old Canon Powershot 3IS! It's been a fantastic camera for me - light enough to use one-handed, and great macro and distance shots, thanks to the fantastic image stabilisation. All of my photos at this site have been taken with the Canon Powershot 3IS.

    • TrahnTheMan profile image

      TrahnTheMan 4 years ago from Asia, Oceania & between

      Wow- it's still doing a great job! Imagine the quality of the shots you could take with a DSLR-- I think you'd put a lot of to shame! Thanks for the helpful hub.

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Trahn - Thank you! I've used an older DSLR, but find them very heavy and they don't seem to have as good image stabilisation - many of my photos were blurry from camera shake, unless I used a tripod or rested my arms on a solid surface. The lightness of the Powershot with it's great image stabilisation is perfect for me at the moment. However, I do lust after some of the great DSLR macro lenses (and also the mega-zoom lenses). Perhaps some of the newer DSLRs are lighter, something to look into when I have funds available. ;-)

    • TrahnTheMan profile image

      TrahnTheMan 4 years ago from Asia, Oceania & between

      You might be a candidate for the new micro 4/3 ("four thirds") format/sensor, which have interchangeable lenses, no mirror (so are smaller and lighter than a traditional DSLR), and cheaper. Canon, Nikon, Sony (NEX) and Panasonic (G2 & G3) have some well-regarded models.

    • raydevlin profile image

      Ray Devlin 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Great article - comprehensive and informative. I have occasionally used software, such as Alien Skin, to create a bokeh effect - but you cannot beat getting it right in the camera first. Thanks for sharing!

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 4 years ago

      This blows me away. I had no idea what that little tulip thing was for! I kept accidentally turning it on, getting annoyed and turning it off again, then searching for a way to blur the background by going in a couple of levels to change the speed. (lol) Every once in a while I would get the background I wanted and have no idea why. Thanks for the tip, nifwlseirff. I'm delighted.

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      TrahnTheMan - the micro 4/3 cameras looked interesting - but I shook terribly when holding them! I went with a 650D, and am loving it!

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Thanks raydevlin! I haven't used Alien Skin, but have used various Photoshop, Gimp, iPhoto, Snapseed and even Instagram tools. You are right - they don't do as good a job as blurring the background in the real photo.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Very helpful. I always appreciate photo tips like yours, because they are down to earth and easy to understand.Thanks!

    • lemonkerdz profile image

      lemonkerdz 3 years ago from TRUJILLO, PERU

      Great tips and this is a great help for our photos on HP.

      Or if you are a cheat you can use a Galaxy note for dummies like me.

      Thanks

    • nifwlseirff profile image
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      Kymberly Fergusson 3 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Thanks lemonkerdz! There's no such thing as cheating!

    • AvineshP profile image

      Avinesh Prahladi 3 years ago from Chandigarh

      Let me start by saying that I was on a lookout for such a hub. Though I am a novice in the photography arena, but I always wanted to have such effect in my clicks. Now, that I have found it, I would definitely try it.

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