How To Blur The Background

If there’s possibly one thing that makes a photo stand out as being ‘pro’-like, its the fact that the subject of the photo  – whether this be a person, a dog, a football or whatever – is in focus, whilst the background is a blur. This ‘blurred background’ is probably the major difference between pro-quality photos and most people’s holiday snaps – it really is that effective.

And it’s easy to do!

Blurred post by the sea

It's easy to get a blurred background

It really comes down to the use of aperture, focal length and focus distance – all of which may sound pretty technical if you’re new to photography, but it’s really not complicated. Aperture is simply talking about how much light enters your camera, focal length just means how long your lens is, and focus distance just means how near you are to the object you’re focusing on. I’ll go into more depth on how controlling all of these factors means you can get that blurred background look below – and though this is probably easier to achieve if you have a DSLR camera, if your compact has the ability to manually choose the aperture and focal length, then it will apply to you too.

Aperture

As mentioned above, when we talk about ‘aperture’, we’re meaning how large the opening on your lens can go, and thus how much light can enter your camera at once.  I could go on about how different lenses have different apertures, and the correlation between f numbers and so on, but I want to make this ‘blurring the background’ business as simple as possible so that you can give it a go right now – if you want to learn more about the technical side of aperture, I’ll go into that a bit later in this guide (including how you can imagine aperture to be like icing a cake (!) – or you can visit Wikipedia’s entry on aperture).

So, to get that blurry background look by controlling your aperture, simply:

1. Choose ‘Aperture Priority’ mode on your camera (this is ‘Av’ on Canon cameras, or ‘A’ if you’re using a Nikon)
2. Adjust the aperture so it shows the smallest f-number – this will probably be f3.5 to f5.6, although some lenses go as low as f.1.2 (you use the dial on the top-right of the camera on Canon SLRs to do this)
3. Focus on your subject, and take the photo!

See the below example of how controlling the aperture gets us that lovely blurred background – the photo on the left taken with a low f-number (f/4.5), the photo on the right with a high f-number (f/16):

Large aperture = blurred background

Larger Aperture = Blurrier Background

Small aperture = more of shot in focus

Smaller Aperture = Sharper Background

Aperture: The Technical Stuff As A Cake-Decorating Analogy

By choosing a large aperture you obtain a shallow ‘depth of field’, hence the blurred background. Objects in the foreground – in front of the subject, between the subject and the camera – would also be blurred.

The technical reason why a large aperture results in a shallow depth of field is, well, very technical – but you can think of it this way, with a cake-decorating analogy: When you have a large aperture, it means you have a large lens opening – this is like dumping a load of icing on top of a cake using your hands, just throwing it on. A good amount of icing will fall where you want it to go (the focus on your subject), but a lot will also be scattered and splurged around the rest of the cake (the blurred background/foreground):

Messy icing

Large Aperture = Messy Cake = Blur

On the other hand, choosing a small aperture means you have a small lens opening – this is like using a fine pipette to apply your icing to the cake. All of the icing will be placed exactly where you want it, and look perfect – meaning your entire photo will be in focus, with no blurring of the background/foreground:

Fine icing

Small Aperture = Fine Icing = Sharp

Sounds strange to mix cakes and photography, but it works for me!

Aperture can be doubly confusing, because when we talk about a larger aperture, we actually mean a smaller f-number (such as f/3.5) – and, conversely, a smaller aperture means a larger f-number (like f/16)! So, if you get confused by the f-numbers then an easy way to remember is:

If you want more Focus, you want more F-numbers

Obviously, this guide is about getting a blurry background, so we’ll be wanting low f-numbers please…!


 

Focal Length

Another way to achieve a blurred background is to use a longer focal length – so, to put it simply, using a telephoto lens ‘racked out’ at its maximum length (perhaps 200mm or larger) is going to give you a blurrier background than a normal zoom at its widest length (say, around 18mm). If you’ve just bought your first DSLR, and are still using the kit lens that came with it (that can only probably zoom as far as 55mm), you may want to think about investing in a telephoto zoom just for this reason (I use the Canon EF-S 55mm – 250mm, which I did a review of over here).

In the two examples below, I used the exact same camera and exposure settings, but with two different focal lengths – the left photo taken with a 55mm focal length, the right with a longer 109mm.

Shorter focal length gives sharper background

Shorter Focal Length = Sharper Background

Longer focal length means blurrier background

Longer Focal Length = Blurrier Background

Focus Distance

The final thing under our control is the physical distance from our camera to the subject – and it’s a simple rule to learn:

The closer the point of focus, the greater the background blur.

I’ve showed this in action with the two photos below. Both shots were taken using the exact same camera, exposure, and focal length settings, but I (and thus, the camera and point of focus) was further away in the top shot, and closer in the second:

Further away = Sharper Background

Far Focus Distance = Sharper Background

Nearer Focus Distance = Blurrier Background

Nearer Focus Distance = Blurrier Background

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little guide, and that it helps you get those lovely blurry backgrounds. If you’re interested, all of these photos were taken with a Canon 500D (known as the T1i in America) which is available from Amazon UK and US.

The beautiful model is my wife, unfortunately not available on Amazon!

Ooh, and seeing as you made it right to the bottom, perhaps you’d like to follow me on twitter or join us on Facebook, too?


74 comments

  1. Thanks Devora! I think my main tips would be to use a long focal length (around 50mm +, even trying some at 200mm). These longer focal lengths achieve a more flattering look for portraits generally, and help blur the background. Use the widest aperture you can too (probably f/5.6 at the longest focal lengths).

  2. sanoj mohan ram /

    well
    informative and funny( comment about ur wife)

  3. sanjeev /

    Nice explanation. Im new to DSLR club, i also have same KIT lenses 55mm. yesterday i tried to take a blurred backgroud but nothing works in that kit lens. but investing in new lens if dream for me. let see. but thanks for your info

  4. Amazing explanation! Now what is the best solution?

    I want to get beautiful portraits with blurry background, I’ve been reading that a Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR is one of the best option for portrait photography with blurry background (I have a Nikon D3100).

    But I just have one opportunity per year to buy a lens. Which one would allow me to do more? [having in mind that I'm kind of a beginner in photography] and thinking that I really desire portrait photography with blurry background, but I don’t want to like get married with lenses that only allow me to do blurry.

    Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED IF AF-S or Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR?

    I know, thanks to this article that I can get a nice blurry background with a longer focal lenght. But I still don’t know what’s best.

    Greetings from Venezuela.

  5. Hi Francisco. If it’s really portraits you want to specialise in with a new lens, then I’d go for the 50mm f/1.8 – the wide aperture will allow you to not only get really blurred backgrounds, but to also take portraits in lowlight (such as indoors) without having to use flash.

  6. Louise /

    Hello,

    I just wanted to say thank you for all the tips you have given namely taking sharp pics in low light; 15 great pics with a cannon 550d and how to get a blurry background. I have just purchased the cannon 550D and was feeling rather intimidated by all the creative shooting modes. I knew in my head what I effect i wanted but rarely get the settings right. This has helped me so much! I have printed out every thing and will be doing some experimenting this week end. You really explain things well, and I now have a better understanding on what type of pictures I get get out of my camera. My cam also came with the longer lens 55mm-250mm so I am really axious to apply your tips to my subjects.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.

    Regards from Sunny South Africa.
    Louise Payne

  7. Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Louise, it really means a lot to hear that you’ve found my writings useful! Feel free to join us on facebook and post some of your shots!

  8. loved this post. I have Nikon D90 and love experimenting with it…look forward to reading more of your posts on photography tips!

  9. Jules /

    Hi,
    I am also very new to dslr photography (yesterday i spent a very large sum of money on the canon 600D and I am feeling very intimidated!! I have been researching the best cameras for my needs for well over a week, and had decided on the Nikon d5100, however when I picked up both cameras I just felt more comfortable with the canon 600d.
    However I am now in turmoil over my choice!! My main reason for purchasing a dslr is because I have a 14 month old baby girl and I want to take some beautiful pics to treasure forever, namely these lovely blurry background shots… Have I made the right choice? And also after reading your extremely useful tips above, I have been trying to get that blurry effect, I think I need to invest in another lense. Could you advise on the best choice of lense for my needs?
    I will also be taking many indoor shots, and mostly of of my daughter…
    I am a beginner however I am hoping to grow into a camera and get those always longed for professional looking shots!
    Any advice will be very gratefully received! Thanks so much
    Julie

  10. Thanks, Priya! :)

  11. Hi Julie. I’d say you’ve definitely made a great choice with a 600D, it’s a great camera, and perfect for taking great, professional quality shot of your baby girl. For indoor shots, and for a really blurry background, I’d recommend getting the Canon 50mm f/1.8. It’s great value (around $150) and has a really large aperture – which means you can easily blur the backgorund, and take photos inside without having to use flash. I did a review of the lens here. Thanks for your comment, and feel free to join us on facebook and post a few pics on our wall!

  12. Arun /

    I always tend to forget the relationship between ‘blurry backgrounds and f-numbers’.
    After reading this one and your punchline ‘If you want more Focus, you want more F-numbers’, I hope, I will not forget these basics, excellent article with great sense of humour, Thanks!!!

  13. Thanks a lot, Arun, really nice of you to say :)

  14. Nel Lawrence /

    I have a Samsung NX11 with a 18-55mm standard zoom lens, where the aperture goes down to f/3.5. I have followed everything on your tutorial (and a few others) and can’t seem to get the blurry effect. Is this impossible to do with my lens? If so, what kind of lens would you recommend?

  15. Hi Nel, thanks for your comment. The trouble is that f/3.5 is not very wide, and I imagine that aperture is only usable at the 18mm end? (I imagine that the widest aperture that lens can go to at 55mm is perhaps f/5.6?). The trouble is that the blurrier background is easier to get with wide apertures, but also with longer focal lengths – but with that lens, the longer the focal length you use, the narrower the aperture you have to use – so it’s kind of hard. Using the lens at the 55m part, using the widest aperture you can, standing as close to your subject as you can, and having as much distance between the subject and the background as possible, will all help, though. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about Samsung lenses, so I can’t recommend. But getting a lens with a wide aperture of f/1.8 or larger is your best bet.

  16. Aniket Ganpule /

    Hello, this series of articles are the most simpler I have came across since my research and actual experience on the SLR. I’m still working on the 18-55 lens and would love to take over to other lenses after learning things mentioned out here…
    Good Work !!!

  17. Thanks, Aniket, really nice of you to say! :)

  18. Ratnesh Mishra /

    Hi All, Its really nice to find something relevant in simple language to understand the complexity of photography. Even novice like me is creating the similar kind of image with Sony Cyber shot DSC-H55. Thanks for such a nice piece of information.

  19. Thanks for your kind words, Ratnesh!

  20. christian /

    Love the post and the website. I have a quick question for you though. I would like to know why all lenses do not have an aperture that goes down to around 1.8? It seems like the lens could just open up more to let in more light since it’s just a physical component of the lens. I would love an explanation. Again thanks for the great posts!

  21. Hi Christian. The simple answer is that it is harder – and more complex (requiring special glass/materials) – to create large aperture lenses, and so they cost a lot more to produce.

  22. Siddharth /

    Hi!

    Just stumbled on your blog. and whoa its just great.

    The best part is that you click like a master and use a language like a learner so its very easy for us novices to understand.

    Good work. will Keep coming back to read more and satisfy my doubts.

    and yes Your wife is beautiful. :)

  23. Ah, thanks a lot, Siddharth, really nice of you to say! :)

  24. Sharon /

    OMG this was so helpful you got this information through my head!!

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