Lesson 4 of 8
In Progress

How to Blur the Background

Today’s tip is all about how to achieve the best bokeh.

Bokeh is a fancy photography word for background blur. It’s a distinctly “pro” look that’s both beautiful and functional. 

The idea is simple: If you have your subject in focus but your background out of focus, it helps isolate (or separate) your subject from the background.  It helps your subject “pop.”

Another benefit, you don’t need to worry about backgrounds as much. Just choose great light, and blur the background. This opens up tons of location possibilities. Even fields of prairie grass and weeds become beautiful…

So how do we achieve the best bokeh?

I’m going to answer this by adapting this great tutorial by Sarah Bednar.

1. Get close to your subject

This one is easy and requires zero fancy photography terms. The closer you position your camera to the subject, the more background blur you’ll get!

This works with any lens (or camera), including your phone.

Here’s a pic at a normal distance from the subject. Notice: not a ton of bokeh.
Same time, place, and camera settings. Only difference: getting close to the subject produces far more bokeh!

2. Use a longer focal length

Using a longer focal length will result in more compression of the foreground and background of your image, creating better bokeh. 

So what is focal length? It’s basically the amount of “zoom.” I mean, that’s an over simplification, but it connects the dots for most every parent.

Translation: the longer your zoom, the better the bokeh. So if you have a kit lens that “zooms” from 18mm-55mm, choose 55mm.  If you have a “big zoom lens” you bought, using that zoomed in all the way will give you the most bokeh. 

In the image below, note how both the foreground and background are beautifully out of focus (bokeh). Also notice how the background doesn’t seem “miniaturized.” That’s because of background compression, which we’ll save for another course.

Photo by Sarah Bednar

3. Use a wide aperture

Using a wider aperture (lower f/stop number) will result in better bokeh than with a more closed aperture. With a wide aperture, only a narrow plane is in focus, leaving the rest of the image out of focus. 

If parts of the above paragraph sounds more like a foreign language, fear ye not. Even if you’ve taken other photo courses or read books on “shooting in manual mode” and still don’t quite fully understand aperture, we make it plain as day in the Photo Fix.

Photo by Sarah Bednar

4. Move the subject away from the background

Moving your kid away from the background can make all the difference in creating better bokeh.  The reason is simple: you’re moving the background further away from the focal plan (and thus more out of focus / blur).

5. What about smartphone cameras?

All of these tips work with your camera phone too!  Sure, these lenses (along with sensor size) are somewhat limited in the amount of genuine bokeh they can create (too long of a story to get into here). But definitely check out “Portrait Mode!”

Portrait mode applies a “bokeh” effect digitally via software (don’t worry, it’s all automatic). It’s not perfect, but it gets better every year!  

Wrap Up!

Okay, that’s good enough for now! But if you want more samples and a bit of a deeper dive, click here. Otherwise, see you in the next tip!