Thursday, May 5, 2011

How To Create A Nice Blurry Background

My newest obsession hobby is photography.  I've been learning a lot about various techniques that improve the overall quality of a picture.  The best part is that these techniques require very little editing in Photoshop. 

So...would you like a little lesson from a complete beginner? Alright, here goes.  If you have any questions after I'm done, go ahead and leave them in the comments. 

You know how so many of those pictures that we seem drawn to have that awesome blurry background? It makes the subject pop while eliminating all distractions in the background.  That blurriness is called Bokeh.  Bokeh is achieved by having a shallow depth of field

How do you achieve a creamy bokeh? It's not too hard if you understand a few basics.  First of all, it's going to be really helpful if you upgrade from a point and shoot camera to a digital SLR.  This is going to allow you to control the shutter speed, aperture opening, and ISO (many point and shoots already let you have control of ISO).

When you get that SLR, it's going to be really tempting to shoot on Auto.  Don't do it! Make yourself learn how to shoot in manual.  If you shoot on Auto with a SLR, you basically just have a heavy and expensive point and shoot. 

Ok, now that we've got that covered, let's talk details.

Most SLRs come with a kit lens.  The lens that comes with Canons are 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6.  What do all those numbers means? You are probably familiar with the first set of numbers.  18-55mm refers to the focal length.  The smaller the number, the wider the shot will be.  Basically, at a focal length of 18mm, you will be able to be closer to the subject and get the entire subject in the frame.  A longer focal length means that you can focus on something farther away.  If you shoot a subject at 18mm and then at 55mm, while standing in the exact same position, 18mm will allow you to get more of the subject in the frame, while 55mm will crop some of the subject if you are too close.  The quick solution for this is to just back up a bit. But the beauty of the longer focal lengths, such as 200-400mm is that you focus on objects further away.

Ok. Back to bokeh. The aperture opening is the main determining factor.  The second set of numbers on that kit lens, f/3.5-5.6 is the maximum amount that the aperture will open.  This may sound counterintuitive at first, but the smaller the number is, the wider the aperture opens.  If the aperture is open all the way, less of the picture will be in focus, resulting in that bokeh that so many photographers use to make their pictures stand out.  

The kit lens only opens to a maximum setting of 3.5.  The more expensive lenses that are available open all the way up to 1.2.  The lens I use is probably one of the more affordable ones. I use a 50mm f/1.8, which is a prime lens (we can talk more about prime lenses later).  

What this means is that I can set my camera's aperture to open up all the way to f/1.8, which gives me that shallow depth of field, resulting in that bokeh that I like.  

Keeping the camera set anywhere between 1.2 and 2.8 should do the trick.  But, it's easy to mess up because the focus has to be perfect.  I delete a lot of pictures because Nate moves at the last minute and the focus gets screwed up in the process. I end up with an in-focus background and a blurry Nate.  If we are in an interesting place, it can be a neat picture.  Most of the time, however, the picture ends up being junk.

While looking through the viewfinder, pick a focal point (the little red dots on the screen) and place it on the area that needs to be in focus.  When shooting a face or a person, you want to place the focal point on the eye closest to the camera.  If you want to be more artistic and have that messy hand or those cute toes as the focal point, then put the red dot there.  This is easy to do when shooting objects or people that will stay still long enough to get all the settings correct.  It isn't so easy when taking pictures of a toddler who wants to run every chance he gets.  

If you made it through all of that, you're awesome!

Here's the overall lesson.  Use a smaller aperture number to create bokeh-that nice blurry background. It's really difficult to do that with a kit lens, so you might need to think about investing in a new lens.  The 50mm f/1.8 is a great starter lens for creating bokeh, shooting in low-light conditions, and is a versatile focal length.

Does that make sense? Any questions? Any concerns? Fire away.


  1. Wow. Thanks for this lesson. I alwys wondered how people got that blurry background. I just need an SLR now. :)

  2. I've seriously got to get off Auto. I'm trying, but I just don't have a lot of time to gain understanding. Thanks for the tutorial - I'll see what I can do with it!!

  3. when i want to blur background i keep my camcorder in portrait mode or manual focus dial it does'nt function how to do it .