So I’m really excited about this post! I LOVE being able to help other photographers learn, and also wish this was written when I was starting. Towards the beginning of learning photography, one thing I really wanted was a blurry background. I thought it looked nice, and guess what? I still do!
Different photographers use different styles, and for mine I prefer a blurry background. For me it adds a dreamy quality to the photo, makes it look professional, I think the beads of light in the background (bokeh) are beautiful, and it makes what’s in focus more prominent. I just like the look. I only use Lightroom on my images, no Photo-shop as of now, and I don’t do any editing to make the background any more blurry. I think nailing technique and style in-camera is the best way to do it, rather than spending extensive amounts of time editing each image.
Thankfully you don’t have to understand how the camera works to know how to set it, but let me define a few things before I jump in. Bokeh is the round beads in the background. See how the tree looks like it’s made of a bunch of little balls? Those balls are bokeh.
Then there’s aperture. Aperture controls how much is in focus (so how blurry the background will be). Aperture is a number and always has an “f” before it because they measure it in “f-stops”. I’m going to try to explain this as simple as possible. Basically, the smaller your aperture number, the blurrier the background will be. But for some strange reason, a small aperture number is referred to as a higher aperture. I’m not trying to throw to much at you at once, but you’ll be confused if you look it up else where and don’t understand this.
Here’s some steps to achieving a blurry background:
1. Use a high aperture. When someone says to use a “high aperture”, they mean a small number. For a high aperture (small number), less is in focus, or you could sound technical and say you have a “shallow depth of field”. If you shoot manual you’re probably used to setting aperture, but if not there’s a simple way to pick your aperture if you’re using auto. See the dial on the top left of your camera turned to the camera with the word “auto”? If you push that dial over to the “A” (for Nikon) or “Av” (Canon), you can pick your aperture and the camera sets everything else. (If you don’t understand this, I cover all this in my workshop and I’ll hopefully be having one this summer!)
Aperture is on the side of your lens. Your zoom lens may have something like 1:3.5-5.6. This means the smallest your aperture number can go to is 3.5 or 5.6 (it changes as you zoom). When I used a zoom with this range, I’d just leave it on the highest aperture (smallest number) it would go to for portraits. Recap: Little number means blurrier background for aperture.
2. Zoom in. When I used a zoom I would take an extra step back to zoom in more. The more zoomed in you are, the blurrier the background. Here’s an example. I use prime lenses which are fixed focal lengths that don’t zoom. I was using my 85mm, and even though I could have used my 50mm which would have zoomed out more so I wouldn’t have to back up as much, I used the 85mm and took a few extra steps back which gave me a blurrier background because I was so zoomed in.
Here’s another example. The first image was with my 50mm (at 1.4). The second was my 85mm (at 1.8). See how much blurrier the background was with my 85mm? The more zoomed, the blurrier the background.
3. Close-ups. This overlaps with number 2. If you already took that step back and are zoomed in, or use a prime (primes can’t zoom), getting a close up of your subject will make a blurrier background. A headshot will have a blurrier background than a full body. Don’t have every shot be a close-up because clients will want full body too, but the closer up you are to your subject, the blurrier background. On the image below, I used the same lens so the same focal length and settings (50mm) for both shots, but moved myself closer to her on the right. See how much blurrier the right is just by getting close?
And more examples of zooming in close.
This one: same lens (85mm), focal length, and aperture. I just moved in closer on the left one.
4. Have the subject step away from the background. Whether it’s trees, bricks, or whatever you want out of focus behind your subject. If the subject is leaning their back on a tree, don’t expect the tree to be blurry. It would be blurry if your subject took a few feet away from the tree. Here’s an example. The barn is farther away so it’s blurry. It wouldn’t be as out-of-focus if she was leaning against it.
And another example. I LOVED those beautiful blossoms, but if you see the trunk of the tree, you can tell they aren’t standing right under it, but several steps away.
And here’s another. I had a lot of space between the couple, and where the brush started.
I hope this is helpful! If you are considering getting better equipment to get a blurrier background, aperture is in the lens not the camera (look at lenses not cameras). If you’re thinking about getting another lens now, I’d strongly encourage you to first go with what you have, and figure out how you can get the best results with your equipment you have now. You may not even like blurry backgrounds! Shooting style is different for everyone.
I started out using a zoom, but have since switched to primes. That doesn’t mean everyone should, and I know some AMAZING photographers who shoot with zooms. I knew a photographer who shot with both for portraits. It’s just preference. But if you’re thinking about getting a prime, I started with and loved the 50mm 1.8 for my first prime. You can get a 1.8d for around $100, and it’s a great little portrait lens. If you are in tight spaces a lot, I’d consider something else since 50mm is about what your eye sees and you can’t zoom out. The shots above were either with a 50mm 1.4g (I upgraded from the 1.8d, but still keep it for my second shooter because it’s such a good lens!), and the 85mm 1.8g. Yes, you have to move your body around with primes since they can’t zoom, but I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve shot many family sessions before without changing my 50mm.
But before you even consider an upgrade please remember that a great photograph is from the photographer, not the equipment. You can get a blurry background and a great photograph with either a zoom or a prime. Again, go with what you have and try the above steps first! Contact me at any time for any questions! 🙂 Have a great rest of your week!
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get the guide