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How to Take Portraits with Blurred Backgrounds – Beginners Guide

Want to get stunning portraits with blurred backgrounds but not sure how? This post will help you to achieve this. 

In professional portraits you will often notice a blurred out background effect. This allows the subject to stand out more.

We’ll go through the things that you need to consider to get that bokeh-licious look that people love. 

*bokeh is just another name for that blur effect you get from out of focus areas of the image.

What is Shutter Speed ? - Photography Pursuits

What is Shutter Speed ? - Photogra... x
What is Shutter Speed ? - Photography Pursuits

Aperture – Use A Wide Aperture (Low F-stop)

The first thing to know is related to the lens that you use. Using a wider aperture allows for a shallower depth of field and allows more light into the photo.

If you have a shallow depth of field then that means you have less things in focus meaning that if you have your subject in sharp focus, then your background should be out of focus and blurred out.

Since a wider aperture allows you to achieve this, you should go for lenses with wide apertures. 

What is a wide aperture?

The aperture is the opening in the lens which lets light in and is determined by the f-stop/f-number of the lens. In this case the lower the f-number, the wider the aperture. 

For example, you may have lenses that are f1.8, f2.8, f3.5 etc. This number is the maximum widest aperture that they can operate at, and for better blurred backgrounds you want the lowest f-number possible. 

Focal length – Use Longer Focal Lengths

Another thing to consider with the lens is the focal length that you use. For a blurred background effect it is better to go for a longer focal length.

This is not because the longer focal length creates more blur. Instead it is just exaggerating the blur effect due to the perspective that you get from a longer focal length. 

This is due to how the background may appear to look closer if you shot a picture from the same spot with a longer focal length vs a shorter focal length.

In addition, portrait photographers in general like to use longer focal lengths and 85mm is a very popular focal length.

Do keep in mind that on an APS-C / crop sensor camera the focal length you need would be shorter due to crop factor.

So something closer of about 50mm on a crop sensor works well since a lot of APS-C cameras have a crop factor of about 1.5 or 1.6 and this would translate to an equivalent focal length of about 80mm.

You can also go slightly longer in terms of focal length but just be mindful that the longer your focal length, the more zoomed in your image will be, so you will have to be further away from the subject to get the picture.

Clearly in some situations you may be limited, for example if you are indoors you only have a certain amount of space.

Another benefit of using a longer focal length is that they tend to create a more flattering look for facial features compared to shorter wide angle lenses.

Background – Increase Your Distance

Using the background in different ways can also work to enhance the blur in an image.

The first thing to consider is the distance between you, the subject and the background. 

You want to minimise the distance between you and the subject, while maximising the distance between the subject and the background.

In other words if you are standing 10 metres from a wall and your subject is between you and the wall, try to get them as far as possible from the wall while still getting your composition right.

Another tip with backgrounds is that the more busy the background is, the better your blur can be.

What does this mean?

Think of it this way, if the background is just a plain white wall you won’t see much blur since there are not really any outlines of anything to showcase the bokeh blur. 

A busy city scene at night can be perfect especially with all the lights in the background from things like signs and lamposts. The lights will show up as nice balls of blur in the background which can look amazing. 

How To Get A Blurred Background In Aperture Priority Mode

So now that you know how to get the blurred background effect lets discuss how to do it in both aperture priority mode and manual mode. 

In aperture priority mode, your camera automatically decides the settings based off of the f-number that you choose.

For this setting you should find it on your camera dial normally denoted by “Av” or “A”.

So the only thing you need to worry about for your exposure is the f-number.

Now just change your f-number to the lowest number on your lens to start off.

For example, if you have a kit lens then this may be f3.5 or f5.6. You should be able to see your f-number either on the LCD screen if it is active, through your viewfinder, or if you have an additional display showing your settings on your camera.

How To Get A Blurred Background In Manual Mode

Similar to above you just change your f-number to the lowest possible f-number you can manage with your lens.

However since you are in manual mode you will have to change your other settings accordingly such as your ISO and shutter speed to make sure you get the correct exposure.

Which Lens Should I Buy?

As we have discussed a longer focal length and a wide aperture are helpful in achieving the blurred background effect. 

So try to buy a lens with low f-numbers. Keep in mind that the lower the f-number, the wider the maximum aperture and this can lead to significant increases in price. 

This is especially true for zoom lenses where there is a varying focal length. However a good option which is very good and easily available under most brands is a nifty fifty.

Seeing as most beginners will be using a crop sensor camera, the 50mm focal length is perfect for portraits as the equivalent focal length will be more like an 80mm.

Nifty fiftys have 50mm focal length and a very wide maximum aperture of f1.8 or f1.4. This is much better than kit lenses which will tend to have maximum apertures of about f3.5-f5.6. 

They are also very good for the price because they are prime lenses meaning they are quite simple in construction which results in an affordable price. Most brands will have their own version so just go with the one that fits your camera body.

A good example which is perfect for beginners is the Canon 50mm f1.8

Overall, they are extremely good value for money.

For a slightly longer focal length, you can try an 85mm lens like this one from Canon

Summary

To summarise, for a blurred background effect for portraits you should do the following:

  • Use a wide aperture (low f-number e.g. f1.8)
  • Use longer focal lengths (e.g 50mm+)
  • Increase the distance between the subject and background and decrease the distance between you and the subject.
  • Don’t use a completely plain background. 

We hope you found this helpful! As always we appreciate your time for reading this.
– Photography Pursuits Team

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