How to Take a Photo with a Blurred Background
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Select the macro or super macro mode, and turn off the flash.
Macro mode is usually represented by a small flower or tulip.
- Get close to and zoom in on your subject, try to get closer to the subject than the background is.
- Focus clearly on the subject, and hold the camera still.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- Keep the subject closer to you than to the background.
- Zoom in on your subject.
- 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.
- 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.
- Select a small f-value if you can.
- Make sure your subject is closer to you than they are to the background.
- Zoom in on your subject.
If you zoom in manual mode, you may need to increase the ISO and decrease the shutter speed.
- 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.
- Choose portrait mode, and turn off the flash.
- Make sure the subject is far from the background.
- Get close to your subject, and zoom in.
- 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.
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.
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.
Do you have any tips for achieving background blur and good bokeh?
Please leave them in the comments below!