‘There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept’
~ Ansel Adams
Whenever you take a photo and then show it to someone else, you are communicating through that image. A successful image should require no additional commentary, no explanation. The viewer who may not have been 'there' when the photo was taken, should be able to understand from that photo alone what you want them to see.
So if it's a photo of your child, the viewer's attention should go to them, if it's a detail, our eyes should go to it, if it's a wider scene, we should know what in that wider scene we should be looking at first.
One problem with this is that your camera faithfully records everything. So you may end up with a cluttered photo with lots of things equally sharp.
BUT, when EVERYTHING is sharp, NOTHING really stands out. Your child gets lost in there.
This is where we apply a technique which allows you to make your child stand out against the rest of the scene, simply by blurring the rest. Our eyes go to what’s in focus instinctively and treat the rest as purely context.
So how do you do it? Surely, you need an expensive camera and lots of technical know-how?
If you’re using your camera on an auto function, you probably got lucky and managed to get this outcome some of the time, but not always. Today, we’re explaining how to make it work consistently.
FIRST THE BAD NEWS: the level of blurriness in your photo using a standard lens on a standard camera WILL NOT be quite the same as some of the extremely blurred out backgrounds that you might see on professional photographers’ portfolios – that’s beyond the technical capabilities of regular cameras and lenses. In order to achieve it you need dedicated lenses with wide aperture and most standard lenses which come with your camera just aren't it.
The 'blur friendly' lenses aren't actually very expensive - depending on make or model, they can go for as little as £70 or so. There is a bonus article just after this one which suggests what to buy. But for today, we're making do with what we have.
There are 4 key things to keep in mind when trying to create that blurry background photo
1. Your camera setting:
The best scenario for being able to control how sharp or blurry your background is, is to switch it to manual or semi-manual mode and ensure that the Aperture setting ( expressed as F stop - for instance F4.5 or F2) is at its lowest value.
In our full course, we show you how to control your camera fully, learning how to make the most of all the settings and buttons and dials, and we spend a full week learning how to manage the aperture side of things well.
But as that's not the focus of this mini course, we're just going to ask you to cheat slightly and switch your camera to a PORTRAIT mode or equivalent. Since camera manufacturers expect that you will want this kind of outcome when taking a portrait image, they have pre-set it to give you a chance to achieve it ( at least more consistently than on full Auto).
If you DO know what you're doing with your camera settings, switch over to Aperture Priority and select smallest number aperture value you can find.
2. Your lens:
To put it plainly, you want to use a fairly large zoom, or at least the largest your lens/camera combo will give you. This means you may need to step back a little.
If you’re shooting with a bridge or a point and shoot camera, your zoom may be divided between optical and digital zoom – only ever use the optical zoom. The digital zoom is the equivalent of using your fingers on your phone stretching out the screen. It may make things appear bigger on your screen but won’t change a thing in what we’re trying to do.
If you want to see why the zoom makes such a difference – try this : reduce the zoom all the way down (as in = no zoom at all), stretch out your arm in front of your and hold out your hand. Make your camera focus on it and take the picture – I’m guessing it doesn’t look remotely blurry in the background?
Now zoom in as much as you can ( or as much as your camera will allow you to still focus on your hand – if you have one of the superzoom lenses on a bridge camera, you will not be able to go ALL the way) and again – focus on the hand and take the picture – you should be seeing the hand nice and sharp but the background looking more blurry.
( By the way, my daughter insisted her favourite doll is the star of this tutorial - say hello to Dana!)
3. How close you are to your subject:
The closer your subject is to you, the better for this outcome.
How close is close enough? If you have a camera with a standard kit lens ( that you zoomed in already as per point number 2) you want to aim for an image where your subject will fill at least 50% of the space in the frame.
That means you are FAR MORE likely to get a nice blurry background if you aim for a head and shoulders portrait or focusing on a small detail like your children's little feet or eyelashes, than if you try to capture them hole.
So you need to get close enough to your subject, that with your zoom on, you're able to get to that composition.
4. How close your subject is to the image background
The first three parts of our set up were all about what happens between your camera and your subject. The final piece of the puzzle is about what happens behind them - how close or far your subject is to their background.
You want there to be a bit of a distance between your subject and the background. In fact, the more distance you put between your subject and the background, the better. The more space your camera can see beyond your subject, the more that blur can grow and develop.
One of the common mistakes we see with this is when someone puts their baby down and shoots from above - the distance between your baby's head ( where you focus) and the bed or floor they lay on, is only a couple of inches. You can only create a blurry background there if you have a lens with an ultra wide aperture ( like F1.8, F1.4) which is how photographers are able to get it. But if you don;t have one, you need to help yourself.
So instead of laying your baby down and shooting from above, go for the ant's view and shoot parallel to the floor - that way there is space beyond your point of focus and you're able to actually blur it out.
And instead of standing your child right next to a wall, get them to stand a few feet or meters in front a wall of trees or some other interesting background.
in a nutshell:
HOW TO GET A BLURRY BACKGROUND
Get your camera in Portrait mode or equivalent.
Get close to your subject
Make sure there is space between your subject and the background
Very simple - bring us a blurry background portrait or a picture of a detail, following our prompts from above.
Please don;t worry if the levele of your blurriness does not match that of other people's photos - different cameras and lenses will produce different results. But as long as you see a softer background behind your subject, however mild, it's still a winner!