One of the best ways to elevate your photographs from snapshot to amazing shot is to take advantage of your lens' ability to blur the background. It is pretty easy to do IF you know the basics of Aperture AND you know where to place your subject in relation to the background and to you. Ok, it isn't completely simple but you can learn it and I've made a free, downloadable cheat sheet to help you every step of the way. It will give you step by step camera instructions and has a diagram on the back to remind you where to stand and where to place your subject. You can grab it here.
Blurry background 101
A blurred background (or bokeh) is achieved by a combination of these three things:
- 1A low aperture
- 2Standing close to your subject (or zooming in with your lens)
- 3Creating distance between your subject and your background
Let's take a look at the photo above and break down why there is such nice bokeh in the background.
First of all, I've chosen a fairly long lens that zooms in to 75mm. I've zoomed all the way in and gotten close to the centerpiece.
Secondly, I am using a wide aperture lens that opens all the way to f/2.8. This aperture will achieve greater background blur. Don't worry if you don't have a lens that goes to f/2.8. You can achieve this look at higher apertures too. You just have to make sure you get in close.
Finally, the centerpiece is a fair distance from the other tables and the wall. The further your subject is from the background, the more blur you will see.
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mistakes I see all the time
If you really want to achieve a blurred background but are frustrated by your results, the odds are you are making one of these mistakes. I work with beginners all the time and this is very common. The good news is that with a few tweaks, you can see a big difference in your results.
Mistake #1: Using a wide angle lens
Wide angle lenses by nature do not produce much blur. This is why your iPhone is so tack sharp. It is a very wide angle lens. There are exceptions...if you get in really, really close at a very low aperture it is possible. But most people, when they are just starting out are using a "kit" lens (the lens that came with the camera) and if you are standing a comfortable distance from your subject and your lens is at its widest, you won't see much, if any, blur. If a blurred background is your goal, look for your longest lens (biggest number.) If you only have one lens (Example: 18-55mm) shoot at 55mm not 18.
In the photos below, I am using a wide-ish angle lens zoomed in to 35mm. You can see the 2nd photo has almost no blur even though I am at f/2.8. This is due to a combination of a wide angle lens and I am too far away (see #2.) In the first photo, I do get blur because I've gotten in very, very close and zoomed all the way in.
Look at the above pictures of the flower field. What a difference between the look and feel of the two photos. Hugely different. But check it out...the camera settings are EXACTLY THE SAME in both photos. I used the same lens at the same focal length as well. The only difference was getting in close. The next time you have a "meh" photo in a beautiful place, try moving around and see how you can mix it up.
Mistake #2: standing too far away from your subject
Most of us like our personal space. We don't like to get up in people's grill. That being said, I've seen student's assignments time and again where they've done everything right (low aperture, subject is far away from the background) but they can't figure out why there isn't much blur. Usually it is a matter of simply getting in closer. If there is equal distance between you and your subject, AND your subject and your background, believe it or not, there won't be a lot of blur...even at a low aperture. I don't know the science behind it, but you are just going to have to trust me on this one. If you don't like getting in people's face when you take their picture, it is time to invest in a longer lens where you can remain at a safe distance but zoom right on in. They won't even know!
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Mistake #3: standing too close to the background
For there to be blur, there must be distance behind your subject and the background. The further apart they are, the more pronounced the blur. One of my favorite places to shoot is in an old alley nearby. There are dumpsters, weeds, peeling paint, etc. In focus, it is not an attractive place to shoot at all. But when you pull your subject away, zoom in close, and shoot wide open (low aperture) it turns into magic. All of that mess becomes a texture of colors and shapes.
In the pictures above, I am standing in that alley I was telling you about. You can see in the first photo, I am standing close and she is far away from the background creating some really nice bokeh. You would never know we are in an ugly place. When I move further away to get a full body shot, I am getting more of the background in focus. But notice the camera settings didn't change at all. I merely walked in and walked out with my 50mm prime lens (it doesn't zoom...you zoom with your feet.)
The same with sports. Look at Sports Illustrated the next time you are at the grocery store. In general, the photographer will be using a massively long lens to isolate a single player. That player is very far away from the crowd. The crowd becomes a see of bokeh, all in school colors.
3 things to remember to blur the background
Achieving blur consistently, and on demand, takes some practice, but once you get it...you will LOVE the results. It will elevate your photography. My mantra is practice. The photos you take, the better you will get. You will start to identify what you like, and figure out why you don't like something and make adjustments.
Do you have some favorite photos you'd like to share? Do you have photos that you can't figure out what went wrong? If so, join our Facebook group or follow us on Instagram and use the hashtag #thebiggirlschool to show us your work!
Related Articles: Confidently Set Your Camera
Andrea Ferenchik, Founder
Andrea started The Big Girl School because she loves sharing her passion of photography with other women. As a former trainer at Microsoft and current professional photographer, she has the unique ability to break down technical jargon of the camera into easy to understand language. She loves nothing more than to see her students grow and thrive in their photographic journey.
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