Updated: January 5th, 2022
Are you looking to create blurry backgrounds in your photographs? Do you like that buttery, smooth look in the portraits you create? Learning how to blur your backgrounds can be one of the most useful and artistic photographic techniques in your toolbox.
You might notice that in some of the most stunning portraits, the subject is super sharp, but the background is blurry and out of focus. It’s something that many amateur photographers don’t bother with. But it could make a huge difference in your images. How do you achieve those results? Matter of fact, it’s easy!
As photographers we have the ability to direct our viewer’s eye and point it in the direction of where we want them to look. By learning a few simple techniques, we can create those super smooth, buttery, soft, delicious, blurry backgrounds. When you blur your background you’re directing the viewer’s attention to what’s not blurry — that is, the subject of the photograph! It’s a great way to get the viewer’s attention and keep it where you want it! It’s all about learning how to control something called “depth of field”.
Depth of field is the term we use to describe how much of an image is sharp. If an image has a “shallow” depth of field, a very thin slice of the image is sharp. There may be areas of the photograph in front of the subject — and behind the subject — that are out of focus. The photographer intends for the viewer to notice only what’s sharp, and virtually disregard the rest of the image. The background becomes just that — a backdrop for the main subject to be set against. Because, after all, if seeing detail in the background was important to the image, you can bet that the photographer would have made certain it fell within the depth of field. If it was important for the viewer to see, the photographer would have made it sharp.
Conversely, if an image has a deeper/greater depth of field, most (if not, all) of the image is perfectly sharp. From the closest area of the frame (the foreground) all the way through to the background, the entire photograph is sharp. Nothing is “off-limits” to the viewer. The photographer intends for the viewer to see, notice, examine and appreciate all parts of the image.
By making decisions when you’re shooting that will create a shallower depth of field, you will be able to create blurry backgrounds! In this post we’ll describe four super easy ways to achieve a shallow depth of field.
1. Open up your aperture.
The aperture on your lens is the hole (the opening) that lets light into your camera. The larger the opening, the more light hits your sensor. The smaller the opening, the less light hits your sensor. You may not think much about the aperture that your lens is set at, especially if you’re shooting on an automatic mode. After all, your light meter balances out the exposure and you don’t necessarily have to mess with the aperture that the camera chooses. But aperature is important. Because not only does the size of the aperture affect how bright your image is, but it also controls the depth of field (how much of the photograph is sharp). This is a basic fundamental of photography and something that all photographers shuld pay attention to. It’s one of the things that makes photography such an interesting art form.
It’s important to understand how aperture settings are measured. Aperture settings are also called F-stops. Smaller F-stop numbers mean a larger opening (hole) in your lens that lets more light hit your camera’s sensor. Larger F-stop numbers mean a smaller opening in your lens that lets less light hit your sensor. We can change aperature settings on our lens and when we do this, it results in a huge effect on our depth of field (because of how the optics in a lens shift based on the size of the opening).
F/1.4, F/2, F/2.8, and F/4 are wide apertures that will enable you to create shallower depth of field in your photos. The wider apertures are typically used in portrait photography when the photographer wants the viewer’s attention on the person’s face and not on what’s happening behind the subject. Larger F-stop numbers mean a smaller opening in your lens that lets less light hit your sensor. The smaller the F-stop number, the larger the opening, and the shallower the depth of field. (We know that can be confusing!) When we say “open up” your aperture, we mean set your lens on a smaller F-stop number. For example, if your lens is set on F/5.6 and you want to “open up”, you will set it on F/1.4 or F/2 or F/2.8 or F/4.
F/8, F/11, and F/16 are small apertures that will create a greater depth of field. These F-stops are typically used in landscape photography when the photographer wants everything — foreground, middle ground, and background — as sharp as possible. But in order to create backgrounds that are blurry and out of focus, set your aperture to a lower number/wider opening.
Below is an example of how aperture affects depth of field. Notice the difference in the sharpness of the background when we take a photo at F/1.4, and at F/16.
2. Choose your lens wisely.
The second factor that affects depth of field is your choice of lens. The lens you choose plays a huge role in your ability to blur out backgrounds. A wide-angle lens, such as a 24 or 35mm, naturally creates a greater depth of field. These lenses tend to make images sharp all the way through, while longer lenses compress our scenes, making backgrounds naturally blurrier.
So if you are trying for a blurry background, using a longer lens will make that easier to achieve. Here’s another way to think about it: The typical portrait lens is around 85mm, while a landscape photographer who wants a great depth of field typically uses a lens in the 16mm to 35mm range. Why? Because the inherent qualities of the lenses make sense relative to the depth of field that those types of photographers typically want in their images.
Below is an example of how lens length affects depth of field. Notice the difference in the sharpness of the background when we take a photo with a 24mm lens vs. a 200mm lens.
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3. Move closer to your subject.
When you move close to what you’re shooting, your subject will be more easily differentiated from the background areas. Once you step back and get farther away from your subject, they start to appear closer to the background and the background looks much sharper.
If I am taking a picture of you and I come in real close, that photograph is automatically going to have a blurrier background. What I’m focusing on (your face) is close enough to my lens that, by nature of optics, it’s going to actually make everything behind your face much more blurry. As soon as I back up and I get further from you, I’m going to get more things in the image sharp. If you’re closer to your subject you’re going to naturally get a blurrier background. If you’re further away from something, you’re going to naturally get a greater depth of field.
Below is an example of how distance from your subject affects depth of field. Notice the difference in the sharpness of the background when we take a photo 4 feet from our subject vs. 10 feet from our subject.
4. Move your subject away from the background.
The fourth and last technique we want to mention for getting blurrier backgrounds is to move your subject further away from the background. When your subject is really close to the background, you’re going to struggle with achieving a shallow depth of field. It’s just common sense. When your subject is close to the background, getting the subject sharp often means the background is more likely to be sharp as well (since it’s close to your focus point). When your subject takes a few steps away from the background, separation is created, and your depth of field is less likely to extend to the background, creating a beautiful buttery background.
When you’re taking a portrait, ask the subject to step a few feet forward. Even a foot or two of separation can make a difference. Focus carefully on your subject. Even if your depth of field extends a little beyond the subject, the small distance of separation should keep the background out of focus.
Below is an example of how your subject’s distance from the background affects depth of field. Notice the difference in the sharpness of the background when the subject is 8 feet from the background vs. 6 inches from the background.
We hope we’ve helped you understand four simple techniques for creating beautiful blurry backgrounds in your images. By opening up your aperture, choosing a longer lens, moving closer to your subject, and putting some distance between your subject and the background, you should be well on your way to creating beautiful portraits. If you want to learn more, we recommend doing additional research into lens optics! It’s pretty fascinating.