One of the photography questions I hear most often is, “How can I get a blurry background in my photos?” That dreamy, out of focus blur, (bokeh), helps make your subject pop out from the background and creates beautiful portraits.
There are a few different ways to achieve that blurred background look with your DSLR, and they are very simple.
You don’t have to be an experienced photographer or know a million photography terms to do this. I’ll try not to get too technical but will just give you the nuts and bolts of what you need to do to get those blurred backgrounds.
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One very simple way to get a blurred background is to use a wide aperture (low f-stop number.) For instance, f/1.8 or f/2.8 will give you a much more blurry background than f/8 or f/16.
This method works best with a fast prime lens, as most kit lenses don’t allow as wide an aperture. Kit lenses don’t open up to 1.8 or 2.8. (Prime fast lens = a lens that doesn’t zoom and has a large maximum aperture (small f-stop number, like 1.8 or 2.8.)
I love my 50mm 1.8 and my 40mm 2.8 lenses for this reason (among others!) See the bottom of the post for resources.
But, no worries. Although it’s more difficult, you can still get blurred backgrounds with a kit lens, especially outdoors, where there is more light and space. You’ll see more tips for that later in the article.
The photo below left was shot at an f-stop of 7.1, while the one on the right was shot at 2.8. The 2.8 aperture gave a more blurred background than the first picture with the 7.1 aperture.
- To use this first method for getting a blurred background, you will need to use Aperture Priority Mode (AV on Canon, A on Nikon) or Manual Mode. If you don’t want to have to adjust all of the settings, Aperture Priority will be more simple than Manual, as it’s a semi-automatic mode.
(If you’ve only been using Auto, don’t be nervous about switching to Aperture Priority mode on your DSLR. You will only have to choose the aperture (f-stop); the camera will choose the shutter speed for you. You may want to set your camera to Auto-ISO, if you don’t want to have to change it, as changing the f-stop will affect exposure.)
- Now, change your f-stop to a low number. For example, try 2.8, if your lens goes that low. If not, just go to the lowest f-stop your lens allows. Play around with different f-stop numbers, to see the results you can get. There is a fine line here, in that you want to make sure you’re getting enough of the main part of your subject in focus. If your aperture is too wide (too low number), too much of your photo may be blurry, depending on many factors. So, play around with the f-stop until you get the look you want. If you see you are getting too much of the photo out of focus, use a higher number f-stop, say 3.2 or 4, etc. The amount of background blur you’ll get will depend on several factors, as you’ll see later in the article. (If you’re unsure how to change your f-stop (aperture), check your manual, or just look online. It is typically done by moving a thumbwheel or dial on your camera.)
- Next, keep your subject closer to you than to the background, focus on your subject, and shoot. (Focus is important here. You’ll need to place that focus rectangle right on your subject, to get the effect. I have my autofocus set to single point focus for that reason.)
My DSLR skills were still new when I took this picture in 2008. The lens was my 50mm 1.8, and I had the f-stop(aperture) set to 2.8.
Another one with f-stop set to 2.8. This also was back when my DSLR skills were new. The focus wasn’t perfect, and Lucy wasn’t looking at me, but we still love this old picture of my daughter with our Lucy kitty. As you can see, you don’t have to be experienced to get that background blur.
Another way to get a blurred background is by letting distance work for you. The amount of distance between the camera, subject, and background will all affect the amount of blur you get in the background.
- The closer your subject is to the camera, the more blurred the background will be. Also, the farther you keep your subject away from the background, the more blurred the background will be. These points are true, regardless of the aperture (f-stop.)
This shot of Sunny has a blurred background, even though the aperture (f-stop) was 5.6, and not more wide open like 1.8 or 2.8. The background is blurred simply because I was seated so close to her. (I was even a little too close, as not all of Sunny is even in focus!)
Zooming In/Focal Length
Another way to get a blurred background is with a zoom lens.
- Here’s how to get background blur with a zoom lens: Still using a low f-stop number, (the lowest your lens will go), zoom in all the way with your zoom lens, and then back up until you have your subject framed the way you want. Fill the frame as much as possible (get close) with your subject, focus on your subject, and shoot. (And, make sure your subject is positioned away from the background. Remember, the farther away from the background the subject is, the more the background will go out of focus.)
I’ve done this a lot with my kit lens, and it works great, especially outdoors. This even works with a point and shoot camera that zooms.
Focal length: A note here about focal length. Lenses with longer focal lengths will always produce more background blur. (That is why a zoom lens that is zoomed in all the way to its longest focal length will produce more blur than when it is not zoomed.) Likewise, prime lenses of a longer focal length will always produce more background blur than those with a shorter focal length. So, for instance, a 50mm lens has a longer focal length than a 24mm lens, which means you’ll get more background blur with the 50mm, and so on.
But, remember, even if you only have one lens, your kit lens, you can still use the tips above to blur the background. There is almost always a way to make the equipment you already have work for you.
Depth of field can be tricky sometimes, with multiple subjects, etc. For instance, if you are using a very low f-stop number, you might get frustrated at the very narrow depth of field that causes more of the image to be out of focus than you had planned, etc.
But, it doesn’t need to be complicated; just practice with inanimate objects like a toys or flowers, and you will get the idea.
- One popular lens is the 50mm 1.8 lens as a good, “won’t break the bank” lens to get those blurred backgrounds. It has a 1.8 maximum aperture, so it’s great in low light. It’s a very lightweight, somewhat “plasticky” lens, but for the money, it is a very good lens. Here’s the Canon version, and here’s the Nikon.
- If you can spend a little more, the 40mm 2.8 is also a wonderful wide aperture lens that I actually often prefer to the 50mm 1.8. My Nikon 40mm is a bit sharper than my 50mm 1.8, plus it allows me to get closer and get some great close-up shots. I have my 40mm 2.8 lens on my camera almost all of the time (unless I am in extremely low light settings.) Here’s the Canon, and here’s the Nikon.
Either of these lenses would be great choices.