Portrait Photography: How to achieve Blurry Backgrounds
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
If you are just starting out in photography, or trying to exit the “Point and Shoot” zone, creating a blurry background is an easy way to achieve skill that can really make the subject of your portraits stand out. It is such a popular portrait technique, that many of the recent smart phone releases have included features that achieve this effect such as "Portrait Mode" with the iPhone X and 'Live Focus" on the Samsung Galaxy S10. But for the DSLR Photographers, armed with the right technical knowledge, understanding how the effect is achieved can help level up your portrait game!
The basic steps to blur your background are:
1. Uses a very small f-stop, opening your lens to its most open setting
2. Focus on your subject, and ensure that your entire subject is in focus
3. Use the abstract background results to complement and frame your subject
Quick Note on Smart Phones. Smart phones are starting to overtake many of the lower and mid-range DSLR cameras. However, for advanced photography I still recommend using full frame large sensor cameras (such as my preferred Nikon which you can purchase here) in order to enable the non-destructive editing and enlargements allowed by the larger formats and file sizes. Smart phones are giving DSLRs a run for their money for sure, but for serious work…you still need a DSLR. Stay tuned, I will be posting a blog on this subject soon.
Why this technique works
Most all portrait photographs have blurred out backgrounds. By why does this make a better portrait? In terms of composition, blurred backgrounds serve many purposes. The main reason you want a nice burry (or as some in the industry say, “blown out”) background is to set off your subject.
Nothing dulls a portrait faster than a busy distracting background that engulfs your subject. When you take a portrait, you want to highlight your subject, make your subject jump off the print and stand out. The viewer should not have to hunt for the subject in an image cluttered with a busy background.
The other, slightly less obvious, use for blurry backgrounds is to allow greater flexibility on shoot locations. You might have an old building that you have to shoot in front of that might not look very fancy, but when you blur out the background the building becomes more of an abstract element that becomes he backdrop behind your subject.
This can really expand your list of shoot locations as a portrait photographer, and in many cases you can take amazing photographs in some of the most boring locations.
How do you do this?
There are a few very basic techniques that you should know in order to really understand what is happening when you blur the background. The photography key element that is used for this is depth of field.
Step 1: Using the smallest aperture f stop possible on your lens (Recall this means the largest Aperture Opening).
This allows you to achieve a shallow depth of field. This refers to the amount of space in front of and behind the subject you are focused on that is in focus. Your depth of field is controlled by your aperture, or the opening of the lenses when the photo is taken.
Many get confused by this number because the numbers run a little backwards. A large aperture of f22 is actually the smallest opening and the aperture f1.8 is the largest opening (At least on my lens).
F22 -> Small Opening -> Deep Depth of Field
F1.5 -> Large Opening -> Shallow Depth of Field
Point and Shoots?
While my blogs are intended for the DSLR shooters, this option is also available in many point and shoot cameras. Most point and shoot cameras have a setting for portrait mode, sometimes it is an icon of a head. However, you will be limited by the ISO range of your camera and lighting conditions.
What equipment do I need:
For the serious DSLR photographer, I cannot recommend enough the need to obtain a fix 50mm fast lens, fast meaning that is has a low aperture setting - below f4. Because this is a fixed lens, the price is very low, and you can find them that stop down to f1.2 aperture, which is such a narrow depth of field that you can actually take a picture of someone’s nose, and begin to soft focus the subjects face in the background. This is nearly impossible with any kit lens that comes with your cameras.
Below are Amazon Affiliate links to the Nikon and Canon version of the lens I use. Click here to visit my full Amazon Affiliate Store.
One thing I really enjoy about blowing out a background is the idea of having an abstract background that allows you to complement the skin tones or clothing of your subject, as well as fine ways to frame your subject using some of the natural tones and patterns that emerge when the background is blown out. I'll update this blog soon to show some better examples of that. Remember that skin tones tend to be in the Orange range on the color wheel, which means that blues and greens are good complementary colors for backgrounds.
This was just a short quick blog entry on how to use your lens aperture to blur out the backgrounds of your portraits and make your subject really stand out. If you have more questions about this topic or if you have comments about this blog entry please sign up and comment. Also remember to like my facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/snapturephoto/ and follow me on Instagram @genesizemore