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. Cherie /

    I am new to my DSLR. When taking portraits with 4 children, the smallest one to the side or low in front is out of focus. My background is blurry, the way i like it, but one of my subjects isn’t as sharp. Is there a reason for that or an easy solution?

  2. Hi Cherie. Thanks for your question. Their are two things you can try to solve this issue: 1. Try focusing on the child who is nearest the camera, as you get more, sharper focus on subjects that are ‘behind’ the point of focus, rather than ‘in front’ of the point of focus. 2. Also try using a smaller aperture (meaning a higehr f-number). For instance, you might be taking the portrait using an aperture of f/1.8, which means a very shallow depth of field. If you increase the aperture to something like f/8, then you get a bigger depth of field, meaning more of your photo will be in focus. Hope that helps!

  3. Hi, ilove this forum and thank you for helping us first timers… I have my d500 for almost a year now, but been only using automatic mode. So, after reading your post, I played with my camera and tried the AV mode but why does my aperture only goes down up to 4 only?

  4. Hi Lyn, thanks for your comment and kind words about the site, I’m glad it’s being a bit useful! Regarding your aperture only going to 4; the number it can go do depends on what lens you are using, and also what focal length your using. This is because some lenses, such as the kit lens that comes with the 500D (the 18mm – 55mm), have what is called a variable aperture, meaning that, at some focal lengths (such as when you use the 18-55 all the way out to 55mm), you can only set the aperture to f/5.6, rather than f/3.5, which you can use when using the lens at 18mm). So, really it all depends on what lens you are using – I’ll do a post on this subject at some time in the future, thanks for letting me know it’s something useful to talk about!

  5. Jennifer /

    Thank you so much for this website!!!! I received a Canon Rebel T1i for Christmas and I feel like reading the manual is somewhat a foreign language ( I am a newbie). I followed your steps on setting the AV setting to achieve a blur background…I am having a problem taking a pic in low light (at night indoors)…seems my camera is slower and takes longer for the pic to take…any suggestions?

  6. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for the kinds words about the site, and for leaving a comment; I’m glad you’re finding the site useful. As for your question, if your camera is still taking too long to take the pic (which I’m taking to mean that your camera is still wanting/needing to use a long/slow shutter speed, probably of around a second or more) then you’ll need to raise the ISO on your camera too – try adjusting it to ISO 1600 or even 3200. This makes your camera more sensitive to light, and thus the shutter speed will be quicker. Hope that helps!

  7. Great site! I followed your instructions for a blurred background using my canon t2i and did not get the blurred effect. Using the 18-55mm kit lens, the aperture automatically changes to 5.6 at 55mm (3.5 at 18mm). Anyway to set it at 3.5 at 55mm?

  8. Hi Hina – thanks for the kinds words about the site, and for leaving a comment. I’m afraid there is no way to get the f/5.6 at the 55mm; that’s just one of the downsides of the kit lens, in that it has a variable aperture. You have to pay a lot more for a constat aperture lens, though. For instance, the EF-S 17 – 55 mm f/2.8, which costs over $1000…

  9. This helped SO much! Thank you.

    Great analogy with the cake. I’m trying to learn my new camera and I cannot say how much easier this has made things for me. 😉

  10. Thanks a lot for your kind words; really glad the article helped!

  11. great article! and the whole blog as well.. i bought my first DSLR (550d with kit lens) about a month ago, and making a blurred background was one of the reasons i did it in the first place..faking it in photoshop was just too damn complicated :)
    thanks to your site (plus some random google searches) I used Full Auto for like 5 photos and then had the guts to switch to some customizable and manual modes.. and the F numbers and focal stuff doesn’t confuse me anymore, so i’ll have more confidence when I’ll be buying a new lens one day :)
    keep up the great work! love the fact that you share what you just learned, it’s much better to read and understand for us beginners than some too detailed and technical article from a pro DSLR forum

  12. Hi Oli, and thanks for your really kind words. It’s really very kind of you to take the time and let me know that this site is helping you in some way – it’s comments like yours that really makes me love to do it all. By the way, you have a great Flickr feed, some fab photos there!

  13. Thanks alot for your guide..easy to understand for beginner like me..keep up good work!!

  14. Hi Hafiizd. I’m glad you found this useful -it;s always nice to get those nice blurry backgrounds; really makes your photos look great. Thanks for leaving a comment.

  15. Diah /

    Hi, very nice guide, thanks for sharing I now understand more!! Does this apply for taking macro photos? I love taking photo of flowers (because they dont move :-)) Thanks again, and your wife is very pretty!

  16. Hi Diah. Glad this has helped! Yes, it does also apply to macro, but with macro photography the effects of aperture are even more pronounced, so you may find you need to use an aperture of f/11 or so to get all of your chosen flower in focus.

  17. bugus /

    ur site is quite inspiring,i learnt alot wit the 2fs rule thanks notconfusing again

  18. Thanks a lot, glad it’s been helpful!

  19. I’m going to Ft l. wood to watch planes fly night missions.They will be flying through a slot at aprox. 400mph and they will fire their cannons at that time I want to get a pic of the fire out of the front of the a-10 that will light up part of the cockpit. I will be on a platform about 1/4 to 3/8 of a mile away. I know where they will come through every time.My question is.Is this possible?Think it might be like lightning or fireworks but haven’t done any of that either.I have a Canon T2i with a kit lens 18-55 and a 75-300 canon lens.Hope this makes sense this may be too advanced for a dummy like me.Thanks GLL

  20. Hi Gene, sorry for my delay in replying. I’m afraid I couldn’t really advise on your particular question… wish you all the best with it though, does sound pretty hard!

  21. Hi,
    your website is really helpful. I have just bought my 7d and this is my first DSLR and i am still trying to figure out the different settings. I have bought two lenses..18-135mm and 55-250mm. i am using the 18-135mm at the moment. my problem is this when i go to the AV setting and change the aperture to the f5.6 to get the blurry background, iso 100, tv is 8 and i get really bright pic. and sometimes the subject is very blurry as well. not sure what i am doing wrong?? can you please explain what the iso should be when we are changing the av??
    Thanks in advance.

    Amy

  22. Hi Amy. Thanks for your kind words and comment. I have a 7D too; such a great camera. The poblem you are having sounds like you are trying to take photos when it is pretty dark, probably inside? At the 100 ISO you have chosen, it means your camera is not very sensitive to light, so it is having to use a longer exposure (shutter speed/TV of 8) in order to get a properly exposed image – but because it is such a long shutter speed, your image comes out blury. All you need to do is increase the ISO to something like ISO 1600. That will increase your shutter speed, so you should get a sharper shot. Another thing you can do is use your lens at the wider end of 18, where you will then be able to use a wider aperture of f.3.5 – this will mea you’ll get more light coming into the lens at once, which means you’ll have a shorter exposure, and thus a sharper shot. You may need to do this as well as increase your ISO, it depends on how little light there is.

  23. James /

    Absolutely great tutorial

  24. Thanks so much for this website! I am learning so much about my new canont2i in which I just purchased. I have a personal style blog..so capturing the color, textures, etc. of what I am wearing is essential The pictures I have taken thus far have a lot of noise and aren’t smooth and the colors aren’t accurate…do you know what could be causing this? Again, love your site and thanks for the great information.

  25. Thanks for the kinds words, Roni. If you’re getting a lot of noise in your images, that would sound like you’re using a high ISO – perhaps 3200 or 6400? Is that the case? Using a low ISO like 100 or 200 will give you the cleanest, noise-free images.

  26. hi…im new in photography,and i just got my DSLR which is nikon D90,and i love it,have you got any book that i can read for guiding me in making a good pictures with my camera,or you have any web site that i can visit to learn more about photography(especialy with nikon D90)??
    thank you anyway,and your pictures are great..

  27. Cristian /

    Hi there, from Romania. Just wanted to say thanks for the “blurry background” tutorial. I own a Nikon D90 and i try to learn more how to shoot with it then rather keeping it on auto. Thanks again and keep up the good work. When you have other great tips please share it with us newbies :). Thanks again

  28. Hi Regug. http://nikond90blog.blogspot.com/ looks a good site specifically for the D90.

  29. Hi Crisitan – thanks a lot for your kind comment!

  30. Omg. Ive read alot of tuts abt this but this has been the best!!! youve explained a lot more instead of simply saying to use small f numbers. And love the compared shots, it makes more sense with the photos. I love this site!!!!

    One question though, im trying self portrait and im not sure how to make my shots sharp or more focused — not just the face or eyes but i want my whole body sharp / in focus. I tried to use large f-numbers to hv a larger DOF but to no avail. Actually, im not really sure whats causing pretty soft photos. Is it the focus?? Or this?? How can i make it to focus on my body? Im actually selling the clothes im wearing (cant find any model thats why i model it myself) and just use timer. i tried techniques such as using a mannequin to have something to focus on first before i pose in front of the cam. Etc.

    Sorry this has been a long post :/ but i hope you can help me, been researching for days already:( I like the way you write, it’s like you’re writing for starters like us.

    P.s. I using d5100 and the kit lens

  31. Thanks for your kind words, Joan, really appreciated! Regarding your focus problem, you’re right in that larger f-numbers should be giving you more DOF, but that may also mean you’re getting too slow a shutter speed, hence the photos may be a little blurry because of that… are you doing these photos inside or out? It may work best to manually focus your lens on the mannequin first, and then take its place…

  32. Hi,

    Thanks for all your above posts.
    I’m new to DSLR. I just bought a Canon 550D and using the kit lens(18-55mm) only. Unfortunately, I am unable to make the background of my pictures blur. I have tried with f3.5, f5.6 and f11. But can’t find any difference in the background of the three pictures.
    Could you kindly help me in finding out what is going wrong?

  33. Hi Pooja. Try using the lens at its longest focal length of 55mm, with the widest aperture it will go to at that length, which i think is f/5.6 for that lens. Make sure there’s space behind your subject, too. Let me know if that works!

  34. I have a question here . If we try to take a similar potrait with a blurred background on a bright sunny day will the photos be over exposed ? If it does is there a way we can over come this problem ?

  35. Hi Viju. If you’re shooting in aperture pririty mode, the camera will compensate for the bright light and large aperture by choosing a fast shutter speed, say around 1/2000 or 1/4000 of a second. Some cameras can have a fastest shutter speed of even 1/8000 sec, like the Canon 7D. These fast shutter speeds will mean the shot will be exposed correctly. If your shutter speed is not quick enough, and your shot is thus over-exposed, you can either use a small aperture (larger f-number), or/and reduce your ISO to make the camera less sensitive to light (such as ISO 100 or even lower if your camera allows it).

  36. Love how you explained everything in this tutorial and the pics to compare makes it even more understandable! I have the nikon d90 with the kit lense (18-105mm) I’ve been trying all day to get a good pic with the blurry background while in aperture priority mode..the problem i’m having is that when I take the pic, the shutter speed is extremely slow..i hit the button and it clicks then pauses for like 8 seconds it seems then the pic looks really white, this happens when i’m inside. The other problem is when i’m outside..the shutter is a little faster however the color of the pic comes out bright and the whole picture is blurry. I was very frustrated with this! I found that putting the camera in shutter priority and adjusting the shutter speed then i was able to take a better picture. But i want to know how i can improve and properly use the aperture mode so I can take great portrait shots of my baby and other kids.

  37. Hi Eve, thanks for your comment. If you’re inside and have chosen the widest aperture you can (which is f/3.5 for that lens, and probably only when using it at its widest setting of 18mm – if you zoom the lens to its longest (105 mm) then the widest aperture you can use is f/5.6, which isn’t anywhere near as wide as you’ll probably need for indoor shots) and the shutter is taking ages (like the 8 seconds you mention), it’s because you need to up your ISO to something like ISO 1600, 3200 or even 6400. This makes your camera more sensitive to light, so the shutter will be quicker. Unfortunately, that lens’ widest aperture of f/3.5 is really not very wide – so it will mean you’ll either have to raise the ISO to something like ISO 6400, or you’ll just need a lot more light in your shot. When you’re outside, if the pic is far too bright and blurry, it can mean the opposite – that you have too high an ISO, so you should reduce it to ISO 100 or 200. Hope that helps, let me know if not! If you want to take more shots indoors with a blurry background, I’d definitely recommend getting a lens with a wide aperture of around f/1.8. Try a 50mm f/1.8, they’re great value for around $120.

  38. Ankit Gupta /

    Can you point the problem? I am standing just below the tube light in the room with enough brightness. Now I set my camera to Text(Macro) mode and I try to focus on the image. After some time I am able to obtain a correct focus but as soon as I click the taken picture turns out to be completely blurry. aaaaaah..

  39. It sounds like your ‘Text/Macro’ mode is trying to use too slow a shutter speed; either use a flash, raise your ISO to something ike ISO 3200, or take the shot outside in daylight.

  40. Melanie /

    Thank you so much for your guide=) I just got a canon t3i and still learning how to use the manual modes etc. Your guide was VERY helpful!

  41. Jennifer R. /

    Thanks for the site- good instructions for newbies! I appreciate all your hard work that goes into the site 😉

  42. Hi Jennifer, thanks a lot for your kind comment; really appreciated! :)

  43. …and thanks for your kind words, Melanie! Enjoy your t3i; it’s a great camera!

  44. Hi, this forum was brilliant for me and my new Canon 1100d, just wondering, i want to take a photo of my car with a good background behind it, will it be the same process as in this article or not? because my car is obviously larger than a cake etc.. Thanks :) p.s keep up the good advice for newbies like me

  45. Rebecca /

    I just got my first DSLR camera two days ago and I have SO MUCH to learn! I’ve been looking all over for some great reading and I think I found it here! I have the standard 18mm-55mm lenses on the T3i and I was trying to take a photo of a bulb on the Christmas tree, with the rest of the tree blurred out. I think I don’t have the right lense? I tried all of your options with these lenses and was unable to achieve it. Any suggestions – or just got buy lenses with a longer focal length?

    Thanks! I just started following you on Facebook and I’m SO excited! :)

  46. Hi Josh, thanks for your comment. Yep, the theory is just the same for the photo of your car; good luck with it, and feel free to post a shot on our Facebook page too if you want! (www.facebook.com/learningthelight)

  47. Hi Rebecca. Congrats on your first DSLR – the T3i is a great choice. Regarding getting a blurry background for your Christmas tree bulb; if you use the lens at its longest focal length of 55mm, then the widest aperture you can use will be f/5.6 – so it won’t produce a massive background blur… You’ll need to either get a longer lens, as you say, or a lens with a wider aperture, such as the Canon 50mm f/1.8 (really great value at around $100). Have a great Christmas!

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