Nadia Ramahi | Tips: Blurry Background, Sharp Subject

Tips: Blurry Background, Sharp Subject

May 17, 2013  •  1 Comment

18mm 9  85mm 1.8

More than any other question, people ask me "how do you get the background to be blurry?" Well, it's easy and possible with any DSLR.
This guide is going to be quite simple. I'll try to just tell you how to do it without being too technical.

If you don't want to read this whole thing, just have a look at the bold, black statements below.


Step 1 

DON'T use Auto. Scary, I know. When I first started learning how to use a camera, I felt so lost when I was told to use Manual. I thought my photos were coming out just fine in Auto Mode! I don't know about you, but hands on learning works best for me.

But don't fret. We're not going into full manual for this guide. Just use Aperture Priority: Av or A on the dial. 


Step 2

Choose the smallest number for the aperture/f-stop/f-number. For kit lenses (the lens that comes with the camera when you first buy it), it is usually f4 or f5.6. Other lenses may go as low as f2.8 or even f1.2. The smaller the number, the greater blur effect you will achieve. 

Step 3

Zoom-in. Step back if you need to.
When you zoom-in, the f-number might change. As long as it's on the lowest number, you're good.


Step 4

Increase the distance between your subject and the background. I always see people taking portraits with the person right up next to the background. I mean, there are times when you want that, I guess. But this article is about blurriness. So get your subject to step away from that background and watch the magic happen.

Some photos examples of what we just talked about. My cat Hermione will model for us.

27mm 4

Look what 100% auto mode did here. Not the worst picture I've taken of this poor cat, but she's not very sharp in the image. Auto is always a gamble. We can do better than that.

ISO 160, 27mm, f/4.0, 1/40sec

18mm 9

This is an example of a sharp background. Nobody wants to see my living room & dining room. Not a good portrait, imo.
This was in Av mode with a large f-number and zoomed out.

ISO 1000, 18mm, f/9.0, 1/50sec


55mm 5.6

Blurry background! There we go. 
In Av mode. Using the smallest f-number with a kit lens. Anybody can do this one.

ISO 400, 55mm, f/5.6, 1/60sec


85mm 5.6

THAT is a nice portrait of her. 
Av mode. Same f-number but a longer lens.

ISO 200, 85mm, f/5.6, 1/20sec


85mm 1.8

Super ultra blurry background
Av mode. Long lens plus a tiny f-number.

ISO 250, 85mm, f/1.8, 1/320sec


That's it! I hope you learned something useful and get some amazing shots. If you want some more tips, read on...


Lenses matter. Some are just more awesome than others. If you like taking landscape shots, you'll probably want a wide angle lens. If your thing is taking pics of animals, a telephoto lens is the way to go. For portraits, and it totally depends on your style, you might be looking for a long-ish lens with an aperture you can open wide up (aka a small number for your f-stop).

My favorite lens for portraits these days is the 85mm f/1.8. I used that lens for the last 2 portraits of Hermione above. It's a prime lens. No zoom. Usually a better price than zoom lenses and I really dig the quality. The small f-number is really something.

One of the most affordable lenses to get amazing bokeh/blurriness in the background, is the $110 50mm f/1.8. It's pretty bamf. Also available: 50mm f/1.4 (~$400) and even 50mm f/1.2 (~$1600)!

Now if you want an all-around zoom lens for daily use that features a smaller-than-usual f-number, it'll cost ya. The 24-70mm f/2.8 is around $1600. It's a fantastic beast of a lens.


Camera Settings - How to take a sharp photo

So you may notice that even though you followed the steps above and now you can make the background blurry, your subject sometimes ends up blurry too! Not what you wanted at all. Well, now we shall delve slightly into the technical end of the pool.

I told you to use Av mode. This only controls one of three major settings on your camera. There is also ISO and shutter speed.
To keep it simple, you want the lowest ISO number that won't let your shutter speed drop below 1/60th of a second. 
So... put your camera in Av mode. Set it to its lowest number. Change your ISO to its lowest. Now meter (press the shutter half way down, like you're focusing) on something you want to shoot  and what is your shutter speed at? If it's above 1/60th, you're good to go. If not, raise your ISO until you can get your shutter speed in the correct range.

You may notice I did not follow those guidelines at ALL on my photos of Hermione. But I'm just doing this article for fun and she wasn't cooperating very much, so I said "screw it". Now... if you were charging someone for photos, you better keep an eye on your settings.

Some other things to check to make sure your subject is sharp:

1. Make sure you are focusing correctly. Make sure your lens isn't set to manual focus if you're trying to autofocus.
2. If you're subject is moving, that can cause motion blur. If you can't control your subject, you need to raise your shutter speed. 
3. Your hands may not be steady at 1/60th of a second, try around 1/100th or 1/200th of a second instead.
4. Not enough light? If your ISO is too high, the graininess can effect the quality of your image. A flash or letting in some window light or something else may be necessary. 
5.  Maybe there is not enough contrast on your subject and the autofocus may not be able to pick it up. This can happen on a plain wall or in extreme darkness. Try focusing on an area of contrast such as the edge of an object.
6. Try taking multiple photos while refocusing in between each shot. I usually do this in just about any circumstance anyway.
7. Still having issues? There are a lot of factors that go into creating a good, sharp image. Maybe you didn't check your settings. Maybe your lens is messed up. Play around, experiment, go get your camera/lens checked if needed.


And... that's all I've got to say about that. Go forth and take beautiful photos full of sharp subjects and blurry backgrounds.

Thanks for reading! Some photos with blurry backgrounds for you to consider...


Wow this really makes thinks simple! I always wanted to be more familiar with the buttons without having to read a huge article. Hope to get more tips on this site!! <3
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