How to get a Blurry Background Effect in your Photos

One of my favorite photography tricks is to shoot photos with a blurry background effect, also known technically as bokeh. It really draws attention to the subject you are focusing on in your photo while still giving the viewer an idea of the overall context in which it was taken.

Examples of Blurry Background Effect

What kind of situations might a blurry background effect be useful?A photo of a bride and groom on their wedding day might be much more powerful and interesting if they are sharply in focus, with a church blurred in the background. The church adds a sense of location and context but doesn’t detract from the bride and groom.

A photo of a bride and groom on their wedding day might be much more powerful and interesting if they are sharply in focus, with a church blurred in the background. The church adds a sense of location and context but doesn’t detract from the bride and groom.

Or take this photo I shot a few days ago in Vancouver. I wanted to isolate the cherry blossoms from the background so that you could see every intricate detail. It would have been a much less interesting photo if the buildings in the background had been in focus as well.

Cherry blossom with blurry background effect

Nikon D750 @ 50mm, ISO 200, 1/400. f/1.8

Blurry background effect Camera Settings

The trick to achieving a blurry background effect in your photos is to use a shallow depth of field. Depth of field is a photography term that refers to the amount of the photograph that’s in focus, and by shallow, we mean little. In our case we want only the subject in focus and nothing else…. shallow!

Depth of field is controlled on DSLR cameras by a parameter called aperture, which refers to the size of the opening in the lens that allows light into the camera. There’s some physics involved, but it turns out that when this lens opening is really big, the depth of field becomes very shallow — exactly what we want!

First, you’ll want to use a lens that allows for a big aperture. What you’re looking for is a lens capable of a low f-stop, represented for example by f/1.8 or f/2.8. Confusingly enough, low f-stops correspond to large apertures and vice versa. Install a lens capable of the lowest f-stop you have available. I use an f-stop of f/1.8 for most of my photos where I want I blurry background.

Next, you’ll want to set the camera to aperture priority mode. On Nikon cameras this is the A-mode, and on Canon cameras this is the Av-mode. Aperture priority mode lets you choose the aperture that you want while the camera chooses the shutter speed for you.

aperture priority mode

Choosing Aperture Priority mode on a Nikon camera

Next, go ahead and set the camera to use a large aperture by choosing a low f-stop. In the photo below you can see that I’ve set my camera to an f-stop of f/1.8. Your lens may not be able to go that low. In that case just set it as low as you can and see how it works.

Nikon camera set to an aperture of f/1.8

Nikon camera set to an aperture of f/1.8

That’s really all there is to it. You’re ready to take the shot!

Taking the shot

When setting up for your shot, ensure that your autofocus is turned on and your subject is at least some distance away from the background. The further away the background is, the more pronounced the blurry effect will be.

Go ahead and take a few shots. With any luck at all, your subject should be perfect focus and the background nice and blurry.

A common problem is that the rear part of your subject is out of focus too. The worst case of this is having someone’s nose in focus and the rest of their face blurry! This might happen if your depth of field is too shallow. If that’s the case, bump up your aperture by a notch or two and try again. That should solve the problem.

Was this article helpful? What are some of your favorite uses of a blurry background effect? Let me know in the comments!

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