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How Do You Get That Blurry Background?

boy assembling project circuit board

It’s a question people ask me about my photos sometimes:

“How do you get the background to be blurry like that?”  The photographic term for this blur is “bokeh,” which is derived from a Japanese word meaning “blur,” and it specifically means the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus area of an image.

Without going into a complete technical dissertation, it’s time to talk about aperture and depth-of-field (DOF.)  The aperture is the technical name for the opening in your camera lens that lets the light through.  The wider the aperture is open, the more light that is let in.  The depth-of-field (DOF)  is the term for the area of your picture that is in acceptable focus.  Below is what is known as a “shallow” DOF.

DOF-ShallowDepthofField

This effect, having the background look blurry, is one that is often pointed out as making pictures look more pleasing.

So, how do YOU get a blurry background with your camera?  There are two basic paths to this result: the hardware method and the software method.  If you have a camera that has aperture (aka f-stop) settings and manual focus, we can experiment with change those settings.  If you’re using a fixed-focus camera or a fixed-aperture camera, we can focus on the sotware method.

The Hardware Method:

Get as close to your subject as possible, and use the smallest f-stop number your camera allows.  Experiment!  The closer you can get, the better, so if your camera has a “macro” setting, try using it.  Aperture priority (usually indicated by a letter “A” on the selection wheel) is also a good thing to use, since that’s where you set the f-stop.  The lower the number, the wider the aperture, and the more chance of blurry backgrounds!  For example:

800px-Jonquil_flowers_at_f5Jonquil_flowers_at_f32

The first image was shot at f/5, the second at f/32.

The Software Method:

Import your photo into Photoshop.  Select the subject and then select inverse.  Use the Gaussian Blur filter to blur your background.  Try feathering your selection first.  Use small amounts of blur!  If you use too much, it can make real photos look fake.  This is called the faux-tilt-shift.  I”ll cover that in an upcoming blog, as well a bit more of the science behind WHY the blur acts how it does between different cameras.

gaussian

Above:  what could happen if you use too much blur!

I encourage you to read up about aperture, DOF, and f-stops.  If you have access to a film camera, shoot some film.  It’s a completely different experience than digital, and you could learn some things.

Happy snapping!