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Blurring the Background of Your Images

Blurring the background of your image is something I get asked about a lot – so here’s a video that explores the topic from the team at FroKnowsPhoto.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • Scott

    Basic stuff but worth a reminder.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4983041704/

  • JesseAdams
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostacrayon/ Adrian

    Blurring the background helps isolate a subject and for me that is good for making different/abstract images. Thanks for sharing the video.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostacrayon/4992410129/

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/jameskarlmerri/5190526117/ James Merrifield

    Interesting..I thought that depth of field was a function of the aperture and what you focus on…

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostacrayon/ Adrian

    Ohh and another one via the use of focus stacking. Makes the subject pop!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostacrayon/4985223809/

  • http://www.os-am.com OsmosisStudios

    No, and I will punt a kitten into the sun for every person that says they use Photoshop or something similar to artificially blur the background of their images. So far that’s 3.

    Learn to use a large aperture prime lens

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostacrayon/ Adrian

    mate if you’ve looked at the exif the above shots were taken at you’d see that they were at large apertures. I used photoshop to as seen above to use multiple photos to get a large focus while keeping a blurred background.
    Thanks for the tip though but i already use large aperture primes =D

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/a1eatoire/ Benji

    Well here my latest photos with blurred background but sharp image..

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/a1eatoire/sets/72157625311782131/

  • http://www.stretchstudio.com Jenny Tuemmler

    Good, albeit long, explanation of selective focus techniques. One gripe tho-“blown out”, in my world, means really really bright. As in “blown out highlights”. A “blown out” background would be a background so bright that detail is obscured and is another good way to isolate a subject. I would have used “blurred” or “softened” instead. Terminology matters when communicating.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/matabum/ matabum

    good old 50mm f1.8 is the greatest choice for separating subjects in the portraits…
    this is one of my latest portraits taken withcthis gem:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/matabum/5159144041/

  • Scott

    @Osmosis, so how are those 3 kittens “punted into the Sun” doing? Is your photography better now?

  • http://www.larissaphotography.com St Louis Photographer

    Couple of things – I’m glad that they didn’t use Photoshop to blur =) 2nd, I wanted to clear up a concept that I think may be not so clear in the video. When you’re talking about focal length of the lens blowing out the background, it’s not the effective focal length of a lens (the focal length after the in-camera crop) that really matters. What matters as far as how blurry the background turns out is the ACTUAL focal length of the lens (ie what you would see in lightroom or looking at your meta data). If you’re still confused, let me know and I’ll explain in further detail why this works like it does.

  • Barbara Sweeney

    Thanks Darren, very informative for newbie DSLR users. I can read but not always comrehend, and this helped alot. Thanks DPS for helping those who need it.

  • Justin

    This video is ok, but really annoying. You said the same thing over and over again. You said the same thing about 40 times. You said background gets blown out and compressed. The background is blown out and compress. If you get closer and zoom in you can compress the background and blow it out.

  • Mikko

    Use a fast lens wide open.And f/2.8 is not fast below focal lengths of 100 mm in my opinion. Fast starts below f/2, preferably above 35 mm.

    St Louis Photographer:
    +1 for not using gaussian blur. People buy very expensive camera bodies with slow (kit) plastic zoom-lenses. Yet, digital rot turns any body into worthless relic in a few years while quality lenses will keep their value. I would always prioritize quality glass over the latest body.

    And +1 for pointing out that crop factor is just crop-factor – it does not affect the DOF. Some may think a 50/1.8 on a typical DSLR with 1.6 crop equals a 80/1.8. It does not. Using a DOF calculator, it roughly equals a 80/2.8 for most situations (OK for bokeh, but not great). To get the same FOV and DOF on a crop DSLR as 50/1.8 on film or full frame, one would need roughly a 30/1.1 lens. To equal a 50/1.4 one would need a 30/0.9…
    The actual focal length and the distance from the subject (focus distance) + the distance from the background is what matters. What does influence real-life shooting is the fact that to frame the same photo (FOV) with the same lens, you need to step back with a crop sensor camera, thus increasing the distance. Use the same lens with a full frame body and a crop frame body with the same settings, from the same location, the bokeh is the same, the other photo is just a cropped version of the other.

    (Well, CoC is another matter, that actually helps most crop sensor bodies a bit by decreasing the DOF slightly, but that has less effect than the actual focal length and the distances…)

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/jameskarlmerri/5190526117/ James Merrifield

    I think the video guy needs to go into rehab…..he’s blown out and needs to be compressed….

  • http://http//speedlighter.blogspot.com michael

    this guy shot my buddies wedding. great work. his trademark afro, awesome!

  • http://http//speedlighter.blogspot.com michael

    JUST WATCHED THE WHOLE THING. the wedding shots ARE my friends!!!

  • rickyg

    This has to be one of the worst videos on the subject I have ever seen. The Guy should not make a statement without having the photos to illustrate his point. “If(aperture was this) then the background would blow out”. Bah. Also-ever hear of editing?

  • Mudit

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/40236565@N03/4274695238/' title='Marine Drive' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2804/4274695238_916015b7cb.jpg']

  • http://www.macsteveinnovativeconcepts.com jide olatunbosun

    Picture taking professionally is not just, and calculating, but a lot of experiences and the type of camera used.
    The most important is a forum like this. About blur background, large aperture and focal length determine taking blur background outside post editing.

    My regard to you Darren, you are wonderful.

  • RegularGuy

    Two things are happening in these photos. One is the compression effect of longer, telephoto lenses. The other is shrinking the depth of field by shooting at larger apertures.

    I, too, do NOT like the phrase ‘blown out’ because it seems as though they’re trying to combine the compression and depth of field effects into a single thing. You blur a background by opening your lens, then use some combination of lesser ISO and higher shutter speed.

    Compression using a telephoto lens usually means a faster shutter speed (or higher ISO) to overcome camera shake. The old ‘rule-of-thumb’ was to shoot a telephoto lens by setting your shutter at 1/lens length. A 300mm lens means you shoot at 1/300 or faster handheld.

    As for portraits, I try to stay with an 80-100mm lens. Any shorter and the subject’s nose starts to get too large, and any longer the facial features seem compressed. If you want to isolate the portrait subject, use a large aperture, and if possible, move the subject as far away from the background as you can.

  • Mikko

    Regularguy: very true. 80-100 mm focal is quite nice to frame a portrait on a full frame sensor or film.

    But for a crop factor body it is important to remember, that focal length does not change perspective at all. The distance to the subject does – and to frame an appropriate portrait, one has to move to a certain distance with a given focal length thus changing the perspective. You can test this easily with a zoom: keep *the distance* the same, take two shots at different focal lengths and then crop the photos the same – the perspercitve is exactly the same even though the focal length is different.

    One could think of the focal length as just another crop factor: for an EOS body with crop factor of 1.6, to frame a headshot, a 50 mm lens is quite OK: it is the exact same perspective as the same headshot with a 80 mm lens on a full frame or film body.

    Longer focal lengths are not only compressing the background – focal length does affect bokeh / blur of the background: Depth of field is *very* dependent on the focal length. Depth of field is determined by three factors: the focal length of the lens, the f-number of the lens opening (the aperture), and the camera-to-subject distance. The focal length is quite dominant: http://upload.wikimedia.org/math/7/7/d/77d46a8b41790040f6615b2a62a887ee.png

  • http://naturalportraitsandevents.com Norm Levin

    The technique of “blowing out the backgrounds” in portraiture is good, except as noted above, “softening” or “blurring” are much more apt terms for this technique. Also, Fro raptures on showing baseball stadium shots, which I think is also somewhat off target.
    Here’s my summary of what this video should have said:
    • Longer lenses work better than wide angle.
    • Wider apertures produce softer backgrounds.
    • Getting closer to the subject works better.
    • Using a lower ISO allows for wider apertures.
    • Doing all four is best.

    I’ve been using this technique in my outdoor portraiture (won’t work nearly as well indoors), that allow me to place the subject in a more romantic and/or artistic setting. [eimg url='http://naturalportraitsandevents.com/Portraits/Portraits/3273171_vNPqi#511946614_wPtro' title='3273171_vNPqi#511946614_wPtro']

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/jameskarlmerri/5190526117/ James Merrifield

    Thank you, Mr. Levin,

    You just confirmed what I thought I knew all along.

    When I read “Fro’s” blog I just scratched my head. See my ‘Victoria Crumpet” photo(s) on Flicker.

    Jim M.

  • Shamsul

    I do read about magnification especially in macro shots took part in determine the DOF. Even shoot at f22 also can give the swallow DOF in macro.

Some older comments

  • Shamsul

    December 12, 2010 12:03 am

    I do read about magnification especially in macro shots took part in determine the DOF. Even shoot at f22 also can give the swallow DOF in macro.

  • James Merrifield

    December 10, 2010 09:49 am

    Thank you, Mr. Levin,

    You just confirmed what I thought I knew all along.

    When I read "Fro's" blog I just scratched my head. See my 'Victoria Crumpet" photo(s) on Flicker.

    Jim M.

  • Norm Levin

    December 10, 2010 04:46 am

    The technique of "blowing out the backgrounds" in portraiture is good, except as noted above, "softening" or "blurring" are much more apt terms for this technique. Also, Fro raptures on showing baseball stadium shots, which I think is also somewhat off target.
    Here's my summary of what this video should have said:
    • Longer lenses work better than wide angle.
    • Wider apertures produce softer backgrounds.
    • Getting closer to the subject works better.
    • Using a lower ISO allows for wider apertures.
    • Doing all four is best.

    I've been using this technique in my outdoor portraiture (won't work nearly as well indoors), that allow me to place the subject in a more romantic and/or artistic setting. [eimg url='http://naturalportraitsandevents.com/Portraits/Portraits/3273171_vNPqi#511946614_wPtro' title='3273171_vNPqi#511946614_wPtro']

  • Mikko

    December 4, 2010 09:05 am

    Regularguy: very true. 80-100 mm focal is quite nice to frame a portrait on a full frame sensor or film.

    But for a crop factor body it is important to remember, that focal length does not change perspective at all. The distance to the subject does - and to frame an appropriate portrait, one has to move to a certain distance with a given focal length thus changing the perspective. You can test this easily with a zoom: keep *the distance* the same, take two shots at different focal lengths and then crop the photos the same - the perspercitve is exactly the same even though the focal length is different.

    One could think of the focal length as just another crop factor: for an EOS body with crop factor of 1.6, to frame a headshot, a 50 mm lens is quite OK: it is the exact same perspective as the same headshot with a 80 mm lens on a full frame or film body.

    Longer focal lengths are not only compressing the background - focal length does affect bokeh / blur of the background: Depth of field is *very* dependent on the focal length. Depth of field is determined by three factors: the focal length of the lens, the f-number of the lens opening (the aperture), and the camera-to-subject distance. The focal length is quite dominant: http://upload.wikimedia.org/math/7/7/d/77d46a8b41790040f6615b2a62a887ee.png

  • RegularGuy

    December 3, 2010 03:54 pm

    Two things are happening in these photos. One is the compression effect of longer, telephoto lenses. The other is shrinking the depth of field by shooting at larger apertures.

    I, too, do NOT like the phrase 'blown out' because it seems as though they're trying to combine the compression and depth of field effects into a single thing. You blur a background by opening your lens, then use some combination of lesser ISO and higher shutter speed.

    Compression using a telephoto lens usually means a faster shutter speed (or higher ISO) to overcome camera shake. The old 'rule-of-thumb' was to shoot a telephoto lens by setting your shutter at 1/lens length. A 300mm lens means you shoot at 1/300 or faster handheld.

    As for portraits, I try to stay with an 80-100mm lens. Any shorter and the subject's nose starts to get too large, and any longer the facial features seem compressed. If you want to isolate the portrait subject, use a large aperture, and if possible, move the subject as far away from the background as you can.

  • jide olatunbosun

    December 1, 2010 02:23 am

    Picture taking professionally is not just, and calculating, but a lot of experiences and the type of camera used.
    The most important is a forum like this. About blur background, large aperture and focal length determine taking blur background outside post editing.

    My regard to you Darren, you are wonderful.

  • Mudit

    November 29, 2010 09:39 pm

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/40236565@N03/4274695238/' title='Marine Drive' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2804/4274695238_916015b7cb.jpg']

  • rickyg

    November 26, 2010 04:16 am

    This has to be one of the worst videos on the subject I have ever seen. The Guy should not make a statement without having the photos to illustrate his point. "If(aperture was this) then the background would blow out". Bah. Also-ever hear of editing?

  • michael

    November 24, 2010 09:42 am

    JUST WATCHED THE WHOLE THING. the wedding shots ARE my friends!!!

  • michael

    November 24, 2010 09:28 am

    this guy shot my buddies wedding. great work. his trademark afro, awesome!

  • James Merrifield

    November 23, 2010 08:06 am

    I think the video guy needs to go into rehab.....he's blown out and needs to be compressed....

  • Mikko

    November 22, 2010 10:44 pm

    Use a fast lens wide open.And f/2.8 is not fast below focal lengths of 100 mm in my opinion. Fast starts below f/2, preferably above 35 mm.

    St Louis Photographer:
    +1 for not using gaussian blur. People buy very expensive camera bodies with slow (kit) plastic zoom-lenses. Yet, digital rot turns any body into worthless relic in a few years while quality lenses will keep their value. I would always prioritize quality glass over the latest body.

    And +1 for pointing out that crop factor is just crop-factor - it does not affect the DOF. Some may think a 50/1.8 on a typical DSLR with 1.6 crop equals a 80/1.8. It does not. Using a DOF calculator, it roughly equals a 80/2.8 for most situations (OK for bokeh, but not great). To get the same FOV and DOF on a crop DSLR as 50/1.8 on film or full frame, one would need roughly a 30/1.1 lens. To equal a 50/1.4 one would need a 30/0.9...
    The actual focal length and the distance from the subject (focus distance) + the distance from the background is what matters. What does influence real-life shooting is the fact that to frame the same photo (FOV) with the same lens, you need to step back with a crop sensor camera, thus increasing the distance. Use the same lens with a full frame body and a crop frame body with the same settings, from the same location, the bokeh is the same, the other photo is just a cropped version of the other.

    (Well, CoC is another matter, that actually helps most crop sensor bodies a bit by decreasing the DOF slightly, but that has less effect than the actual focal length and the distances...)

  • Justin

    November 22, 2010 09:48 am

    This video is ok, but really annoying. You said the same thing over and over again. You said the same thing about 40 times. You said background gets blown out and compressed. The background is blown out and compress. If you get closer and zoom in you can compress the background and blow it out.

  • Barbara Sweeney

    November 22, 2010 09:33 am

    Thanks Darren, very informative for newbie DSLR users. I can read but not always comrehend, and this helped alot. Thanks DPS for helping those who need it.

  • St Louis Photographer

    November 22, 2010 05:21 am

    Couple of things - I'm glad that they didn't use Photoshop to blur =) 2nd, I wanted to clear up a concept that I think may be not so clear in the video. When you're talking about focal length of the lens blowing out the background, it's not the effective focal length of a lens (the focal length after the in-camera crop) that really matters. What matters as far as how blurry the background turns out is the ACTUAL focal length of the lens (ie what you would see in lightroom or looking at your meta data). If you're still confused, let me know and I'll explain in further detail why this works like it does.

  • Scott

    November 22, 2010 03:38 am

    @Osmosis, so how are those 3 kittens "punted into the Sun" doing? Is your photography better now?

  • matabum

    November 22, 2010 12:54 am

    good old 50mm f1.8 is the greatest choice for separating subjects in the portraits...
    this is one of my latest portraits taken withcthis gem:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/matabum/5159144041/

  • Jenny Tuemmler

    November 22, 2010 12:28 am

    Good, albeit long, explanation of selective focus techniques. One gripe tho-"blown out", in my world, means really really bright. As in "blown out highlights". A "blown out" background would be a background so bright that detail is obscured and is another good way to isolate a subject. I would have used "blurred" or "softened" instead. Terminology matters when communicating.

  • Benji

    November 22, 2010 12:12 am

    Well here my latest photos with blurred background but sharp image..

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/a1eatoire/sets/72157625311782131/

  • Adrian

    November 21, 2010 04:09 pm

    mate if you've looked at the exif the above shots were taken at you'd see that they were at large apertures. I used photoshop to as seen above to use multiple photos to get a large focus while keeping a blurred background.
    Thanks for the tip though but i already use large aperture primes =D

  • OsmosisStudios

    November 21, 2010 03:55 pm

    No, and I will punt a kitten into the sun for every person that says they use Photoshop or something similar to artificially blur the background of their images. So far that's 3.

    Learn to use a large aperture prime lens

  • Adrian

    November 21, 2010 03:15 pm

    Ohh and another one via the use of focus stacking. Makes the subject pop!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostacrayon/4985223809/

  • James Merrifield

    November 21, 2010 10:40 am

    Interesting..I thought that depth of field was a function of the aperture and what you focus on...

  • Adrian

    November 21, 2010 09:59 am

    Blurring the background helps isolate a subject and for me that is good for making different/abstract images. Thanks for sharing the video.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostacrayon/4992410129/

  • JesseAdams

    November 21, 2010 07:55 am

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/26431673@N04/4631513060/

  • Scott

    November 21, 2010 06:10 am

    Basic stuff but worth a reminder.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4983041704/

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