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Tips For Achieving Blurry Backgrounds When You Don’t Have a Fast Lens

Using a shallow depth of field to get blurry backgrounds in your photos is a powerful and popular tool for photographers. Blurring your background in this way makes it easy to obscure details in your scene that don’t add anything to your photographs. This helps to ensure that the focus of your images is your subject, and only your subject.

Using fast lenses with maximum apertures such as f/1.8 or f/2.8 is the easiest way to achieve this blurry background effect.

Getting blurry backgrounds with a fast lens
Using a fast aperture (f/1.8 here) is a surefire way to ensure blurry backgrounds in your images, but what do you do if you don’t have access to a fast lens?
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 | 85mm | 1/1600s | f/1.8 | ISO 100

However, what do you do if you don’t have a fast lens? And what do you do in situations where you are unable to use your lens wide open?

Controlling aperture is only one way to alter the appearance of DOF when trying for blurry backgrounds.
Here, you can see the difference the aperture has on the background. On the left, the aperture is f/8, while on the right, it is f/1.8.

Fortunately, manipulating the aperture settings in-camera is only one way to control how depth of field appears in your images.

This article will show you two ways to help you achieve more background blur when you don’t have access to a fast lens and when you can’t shoot wide open.

1. Get closer to your subject

An easy way to obtain a shallower depth of field for blurry backgrounds is to simply get closer to your subject.

Achieve blurry backgrounds by getting closer to your subject.
Simply moving your position so that you are closer to the subject is a great way to manipulate depth of field. The closer you get, the shallower the depth of field gets.


Depth of field is determined by multiple factors. Aperture is one, but another important factor is how close the camera is to your subject. 

By moving your camera closer to your subject, you will increase the amount of background blur that appears behind your subject. 

(Conversely, if you want more depth of field in your image, move farther away from your subject.) 

Putting it into practice

With techniques like this, it can be a good idea to do a few exercises so you can see exactly what is going on.

To see this technique in action, find yourself a subject and position them in front of a background. Choose a background that’s a little bit busy (like foliage) so you can see the full effect. 

Getting blurry backgrounds without a fast lens
In the leftmost image, I was 12 feet away from the subject. You can see almost all of the details in the background. I slowly moved closer, 2 feet at a time; you should be able to see as the background gets blurrier. The last image was from 4 feet away. (Images are cropped for comparison.)

If you’ve chosen a portrait subject, start from between eight and ten feet away. If you’ve chosen something smaller, decrease that distance as much as you need to have a somewhat reasonable composition.

No matter what lens you have, you should be able to choose an aperture of f/5.6. Dial that in and adjust the other settings until you have a decent exposure. Take a shot. 

Step forward a foot and take another. Then move a foot closer again and take a third shot. Do this until you have reached your minimum focusing distance or you are too close to your subject to frame a photo. 

Then you can review the images in order. Watch for how the depth of field becomes shallower the closer you are to your subject. 

If you use multiple lenses, I encourage you to do this with all of them. 

The reverse

Of course, if what you want is more depth of field (i.e., less blurry backgrounds) in your frame, you can always move further away from your subject. 

In more depth

If you are technically minded and want to learn more about why and how this works, note that depth of field is governed by the inverse square law, just like many other aspects of photography. These other aspects include light intensity (which governs your exposure) and light fall-off (which governs the shape of the light). 

With an in-depth knowledge of the inverse square law and how it works, you would actually be able to calculate exactly where you need to be with a certain focal length and aperture to get an exact result. You will probably never find yourself in a situation where you would need to do this, but it is still possible! 

2. Bring your subject farther from the background

The other main way to achieve a shallower depth of field is to put more distance between your subject and the background.

Getting blurry backgrounds without a fast lens
Another easy way to manipulate depth of field for blurry backgrounds is to move your subject away from the background. Both images above were shot at f/8, but the lefthand image was taken 2 feet away from the background. The righthand image was taken 12 feet from the background.

This works the same way as the previous technique, but in this case, you will be moving your subject rather than the camera. If your subject is close to the background, more background detail will be present. To get more blur, simply move your subject forward. 

Practice

To see this concept in use, position your subject almost touching a background of your choice; this can be a studio background, some trees, or a wall. 

moving your subject away from the background is essential
To practice this, have your subject move away from the background in set increments. Make sure you move the same distance back, as well. Here (from top-left to bottom-right), the subject started 2 feet away from the background and ended 12 feet away from the background.

Start at an aperture of f/5.6 and get a decent exposure with your other settings. Take a shot. Now move your subject a foot away from the background. Note that it’s important that you move the same distance backward. If you don’t, then you will have two factors affecting the depth of field in the frame, and it will be impossible to accurately see what is blurring the background. 

Take another shot. Move yourself and your subject another foot back and shoot again. Repeat as many times as you want. In practice, how far away you move your subject is dependent on how much blur you want to achieve.

Do you want to retain some detail so that your viewers can recognize the background? Or would you rather obliterate any background details altogether, ensuring that your subject is the only thing for your viewers to focus on?

Real-world use

Now that you have put all of this into practice and you have your sequences of images, you should have a good idea of how the depth of field changes with your distance from the subject and the subject’s distance from the background. 

Getting blurry backgrounds is still possible at small apertures.
At the end of the day, you do not need a fast lens to achieve blurry backgrounds in your portraits. You are still able to achieve a shallow depth of field with smaller apertures.
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L | 1/200s | f/8 | ISO 800

Not only will you be able to use this knowledge to help you get a shallower depth of field when you can’t shoot wide open, but it will also help you design any desired photos long before you pick up the camera.

For example, you might want an image where your subject is in focus from front to back, but you want the background to be as obscured as possible. Having gone through these exercises, you should be able to approximate what aperture you need to use, how close to the subject you need to be, and how far away the background needs to be. And you should be able to do it in a fairly short amount of time, too!

Achieving blurry backgrounds: final words

Manipulating depth of field to get blurry backgrounds may be a basic technique, but understanding fundamentals like these helps give you a well-rounded set of camera skills that will serve you well in your photography. 

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.