When I first started photography, my goal was to make my pictures look as professional as possible.
Of course, I failed miserably for several years. They just looked like snapshots, not professional photos.
But learning one thing started to turn my photography around. Today we are going to talk about that one thing: getting blurry backgrounds in my photos.
It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal now, but in the beginning, it was. Having a blurry background and crystal clear subject takes your photos to the next level.
So let’s talk about what it means to have a blurry background and different ways to accomplish this depending on your type of camera.
What is a blurry background called?
Getting a blurry background in your photos is called Bokeh.
Nikon USA defines Bokeh as “the effect of a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject, using a fast lens, at the widest aperture, such as f/2.8 or wider.”
Bokeh is the look you get with of out-of-focus blur in a photograph.
It is also known as creamy bokeh or buttery bokeh.
For other photography definitions, check out this blog post —> 30 Basic Photography Terms for Beginners.
Why should I want a blurry background in my photos?
As mentioned above, using bokeh can elevate your photos from snapshots to professional photos.
Bokeh is used in portraits, still life and macro photography to lead your eye to the subject and make it the center of attention.
It can also help you separate your subject from the background, which can be distracting or uninteresting. It is definitely a trick you want to have up your sleeve as a photographer.
5 ways to get a blurry background on your photos
1. Wide Aperture in Manual Mode
The best way to get a blurry background (or Bokeh) is to use the manual mode in your camera to choose the settings necessary.
Bokeh is created by using a wide aperture, so that only your subject is in focus and everything else gets progressively less in focus as it moves further away (from the subject).
To understand the basics of aperture, check out this blog post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Aperture Basics.
For creamy bokeh, the smaller number the better.
On your DSLR camera, this may be f/5.6 down to f/1.2. It just depends on your lens and it’s capabilities.
The lower the f-stop on your lens, the more expensive your lens will be (most of the time).
But don’t worry. You can still create bokeh with a kit lens, set at f/5.6. It just won’t be as creamy and distinct as the f/2.8 or f/1.2.
2. Aperture Priority Mode
If you aren’t ready to shoot in full manual mode, there is a short cut to help you get bokeh without it. It’s called Aperture Priority Mode and it allows you to choose the aperture for the photo while the camera chooses the other settings for you.
Aperture Priority Mode is a setting on your camera’s dial. It is set as AV mode for Canon and A mode for Nikon.
To use Aperture Priority Mode to create background blur, follow these steps:
- Switch your camera to Aperture Priority Mode
- Choose the lowest aperture setting your lens will allow.
- Focus on your subject. If this is a person’s face, you should focus on the eyes.
- Take the picture and see what you get!
- Test different apertures to see which one completes the vision for your photo the best.
These pictures are taken in Aperture Priority mode. Notice how the background gets blurry and you can’t read the writing as well as you use a wider aperture.
Aperture f/11. ISO 500. Shutter speed 1/25 sec.
Aperture f/8. ISO 500. Shutter speed 1/40 sec.
Aperture f/4. ISO 500. Shutter speed 1/160 sec.
3. Portrait Mode on iPhone
If you don’t have a DSLR camera, don’t fear! You can get this look with your iPhone by using portrait mode.
- Open your camera app on your iPhone and choose the portrait mode at the bottom.
- Use the rules of composition to frame the person you want to take a picture of.
- Then take the picture!
- You will be amazed that the background of the person will be blurred out and look much better than your regular snapshot (or selfie).
Here is a photo of my son (can’t you tell he’s thrilled) with the regular photo mode on my iPhone XR. You can see the background is fairly clear.
Now I switch to portrait mode at the bottom.
Now you can see that the background is blurry. Of course, part of his hair is too. The iPhone is only simulating what the DSLR can do, so it isn’t perfect. But it is much better than it used to be.
4. Move Closer With Your iPhone
If you don’t have the Portrait mode on your iPhone, you can still get bokeh by taking a close up photo.
- Open your camera app on your iPhone and choose the photo mode at the bottom.
- Get close to your subject, such as a flower or snowflake.
- Use your finger to click on the subject you want in focus.
- Take the picture!
- If your background doesn’t blur, get closer to your subject and try again.
- You will know when you have gotten too close if your camera doesn’t focus at all.
Here are the fall flowers on my front porch, taken from a regular distance with the regular photo mode.
If I don’t change the mode, I just get in closer, you can see it starts to blur out the background.
So even if you don’t have a newer iPhone with Portrait mode, if you get in close enough you can get a blurred background. I didn’t know my fake flowers were so dirty!
5. Blur In Editing
If you can’t seem to get the hang of getting creamy bokeh in camera, you can always give it a little boost in Photoshop.
To do this, you need to mask out the subject that you want to keep in focus. Then you use the blur tool to add blur to the background.
Here is a video to show you how to add blur to a background:
As always, it is better to get the bokeh in camera. But this is a quick way to save the photo if you didn’t do it originally.
6 Tips to Get Creamy Bokeh in Your Photos
- Use the lens with the smallest f-stop numbers. This may be a prime lens and will probably be your most expensive lens (but not always).
- Get closer to your subject. The closer you are the more magnified the depth of field becomes, allowing for more bokeh.
- Create distance behind your subject. Instead of having your subject stand against a wall, have them move away from it a little. This will give separation from the background and help create more bokeh.
- Use a long focal length lens. The longer the focal length, the creamier the bokeh because longer lenses compress the image which makes the bokeh more pronounced.
- Be careful of movement. If your subject is moving, you might want to choose a bigger aperture number to make sure that person stays in focus.
- If you are using your iPhone in portrait mode, watch for inconsistencies in your bokeh. Since the iPhone is only simulating a low aperture, sometimes the results can be choppy. Hopefully it will get better in newer iPhone versions. See example below.
In the photo above, you can see that the iPhone portrait mode is trying to simulate a wide aperture, but it kind of missed the mark. The fence is going in and out of focus and it looks a little funny. Just watch out for this in your photos.
***Disclaimer: This post is written in September 2019. I am using a iPhone XR to take these photos. I am sure the technology will advance in the future, but this is what we have right now.
If you are just starting out (which I assume you are), this may all be a little overwhelming. That’s okay! Everyone has to start somewhere.
So pick one of these techniques and give it a try. I know that you will love the results and it will make you want to learn more!
I am here to help and guide you to becoming a better photographer. Click on the other blog posts linked throughout the post for more tips and tricks for better photography. You can do this!
What other questions do you have about Bokeh? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found this post helpful, please share. Thanks!