How to Get that Cool, Blurry Background in Your Photos

by Valerie Johnston | March 11, 2013

Have you ever looked at those cool photos where the background is blurry, points of light look like orbs, and the subject truly stands out? Have you wished you could do the same thing? You actually can, but there are a few things you will need to learn first. With some practice and a little knowledge, you can start taking pictures with that blurry background anytime you would like.

shallow depth of field, field of flowers, yellow wildflowers

 

What Is It?

It actually has a name. The name of that background you like is "bokeh" or that is the name for the effect to be more specific. The word is from a Japanese root word that basically translates into English as "blurry". It can be a little confusing when you have always been taught to avoid anything blurry in images. However, bokeh is essentially an artistic effect. It is not required, but when used properly, it turns a mediocre image into something amazing. A few instances when you can use the bokeh effect include:

  • Taking portraits of people with the background blurred.
  • Images of Christmas lights or any type of lights and orbs.
  • Pictures of flowers or plants with blurred, filtered light in the background.

Bokeh is another of those trial and error things like so much of digital photography. You can try it in a number of situations, but it may not always work out to a pleasing image. Just remember to keep trying different things and you never know when you may get that breathtaking image.

close up of hibiscus, hibiscus flower, depth of field example

Needed Equipment

Of course, you will need an SLR (single lens reflex) digital photography camera. You need more control over the digital photography than you would get with a point and shoot model camera. In addition to the camera, you will need the right lens. The best lens will allow you to use a very large aperture for the image. Some of the better options include wide angle lenses. Zoom is not important when you are trying to create bokeh in an image.

How to Make it Happen

The way that bokeh happens in digital photography has to do with depth of field. When you have a large depth of field (and a small aperture like f22), you are telling the camera to focus on everything in the viewfinder. This will create an allover clear image and you will not get bokeh. By shortening the depth of field, and focusing just on the closest subject, you are telling the camera to blur everything else. This is essential to quality bokeh. Here are some tips on how to use your camera to its utmost for the best in bokeh.

  • Put your camera in manual or aperture priority mode.
  • Keep the aperture as low as possible. The closer you can get to f/1.8, the better.
  • Keep the shutter speed fast. If your shutter speed is too slow, the bokeh in the background will not be discernible.
  • Some fantastic bokeh happens when the background has lights in it. Any type of lights will do, but a dark background will just be dark.
  • Consider playing with manual focus so that you can get better bokeh.
  • The subject should be much closer to you than the background for the best effects.

example of bokeh, lens bokeh, shallow depth of field

So much of digital photography looks harder than it actually is, and you may be thinking you are not capable of taking the amazing, blurry background images. However, with practice, you can. The cardinal rule of bokeh is short depth of field. The less focused the camera is on the background, the better the results will be. Choose the right lens too. Some lenses do not give you much control over depth of field, and this will not result in the best bokeh. One of the best lenses to start with that will give you this effect is a 50mm f1.8 lens. Two great things about this lens are that it is extremely versatile (landscapes and portraits), plus...it is cheap. You can usually pick one up for less than $200. In the photo world that is a great deal.

portrait photography, children portait, portrait of little girl in hat, depth of field example

 

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Tips-n-Tricks #302

Photo project idea: Try photographing an event (birthday party, basketball game, wedding you are attending, etc) with only a camera app like Instagram, Snapseed, or Hipstamatic. This can be a great creative challenge. If you don't want to post bomb everyone on Instagram, set your camera to airplane mode so your photos will still process but won't post to your Instagram feed.


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