One of the things you may notice consistently about great portrait photographs is that they often have blurred backgrounds. This allows the viewer to focus more on the subject, the model, without any distractions. It’s also an aesthetically pleasing effect which makes the image seem almost dreamy in some cases.
It’s all about replicating what we see with the eye, as far as possible – take a moment to use your peripheral vision and look around the device you’re reading this on. You’ll notice that while your device and these words are in sharp focus, elements behind it aren’t so clear.
So, how do we reproduce this effect in our photography? Here are some tips and tricks to help you get the same result.
Put your background further away
Especially if you are setting up a studio backdrop, this is easy to achieve. Just move your subject closer to yourself than to the background! If you are close to them and focused tightly in, the background will easily be blurred out.
Use a low f-stop
Your f-stop determines your depth of field. This can be wider – meaning more things in the image are in focus – or narrower, which means you have fewer points in focus. Imagine a grid stretching away from your lens across the world in front of you. Your depth of field determines how many lines of that grid will be sharp.
Using a lower f-stop and then securing the focus on your subject will guarantee a soft-focus background. Just make sure that you keep an eye on the effect on the face – for example, that you aren’t losing focus on the mouth or nose if you don’t want to.
Lengthen your focal length
If you have a long lens, this could be a great way to use it. A shorter focal length gives you a wider angle of view, meaning both foreground and background are in focus. A longer focal length – in other words, standing back and then zooming in – will give you less of the image in focus. So, stand far away from your model with a long lens and snap that portrait – perfect for social distancing!
It’s important to note that a longer focal length can sometimes be less flattering to the model, so keep an eye on that. If they look better in person than they do in the images, you might want to try a different technique.
Cameras with larger sensors can achieve longer focal lengths, so if you are using a starter DSLR which doesn’t have a big sensor then you may want to upgrade if this is a style you want to pursue.
Use your camera settings
You can also trick your camera into giving you background blur by using settings that are designed for something else. Most DSLRs will have a macro mode, usually indicated by the icon of a tulip or another flower. Switch into this mode and then turn off the flash, and get close to your subject before zooming in.
It’s important to hold your camera very still, so consider using a tripod if you don’t have built-in image stabilisation. This will give a result that works best when you really are focusing on something small, but it can also work with portraits if you are very careful.
Switching your camera to aperture priority mode can also help you to get a better result for the low f-stop technique that we covered earlier. It will work out the right ISO and shutter speed for you so that you can concentrate on the aperture, though again this may be best used alongside a tripod for stability.
This is a bit of a bonus technique – it won’t help you to make background blur, but it will definitely enhance it!
Any lights that are present in the background of your image will create bokeh – shapes such as circles, squares, triangles, or so on based on the shape of the original light, caused when your camera’s poor focus makes the light itself blur out. These are often very pretty effects, so try experimenting with lights in the background of your shot – Christmas is a great time to try this with fairy lights everywhere! You can also add fake bokeh in post. Speaking of…
Do it in post
Alright, so maybe it’s cheating – but we all know that when something isn’t working how you want it in camera, you can solve the situation by doing it in post!
There are a number of ways you can do this now – you can even add blur to the whole background of your image by using an app. Instagram has a blur function, as do most popular photo editing apps, and most of them can automatically detect the subject of your image to give you the right area effect. In fact, many smartphones can even take pictures with a blur effect artificially added right onto the lens – although that won’t help when you’re shooting with a DSLR.
In Photoshop, the solution is really simple. Start by selecting your subject – you can do this with the magic wand tool, free-drawing around it with the selection tool, or using paths for a much more precise solution. Remember to feather your edges if you’re not being completely precise so that you can hide the places where the edge doesn’t quite meet up to the image! Invert the selection so that the whole of your background is selected instead. Then, using the blur tool set to a suitable level and size, simply rub it all over the image to blur out the background only.
If you don’t want to draw it on, you could also use the same selection and then apply the gaussian blur filter, or a number of other filters that are designed to add blur. And hey presto – it’s just like you did it in camera!
It can be fairly simple to add background blur, but even if you don’t manage in in-camera, you can still make it work in post. Now you know how, get out and go practice today!