A nicely blurred background can do a lot of good for your images. Blurry backgrounds are a hallmark of portraits because they help the background melt away and give more emphasis to the portrait subject. It’s a technique that has been used by photographers for decades and one that will continue to be popular for decades to come.
Traditionally, blurred backgrounds have gorgeous bokeh, which is a Japanese word that refers to the quality of an out-of-focus area of an image. And while bokeh in and of itself is a topic worthy of a lengthy post, we’ll focus instead on basic tips to help you get good bokeh.
If you want to create a gorgeous, blurry background in your images, it’s much easier than you might think. With these four quick and easy tips, you’ll be creating bokeh-filled backgrounds like the pros in no time!
Widen Your Aperture
Aperture is another lengthy and detailed subject on its own, so if you aren’t completely comfortable with your understanding of aperture, just know that a wide aperture is best for creating blurry backgrounds. A wide aperture is indicated by a small number, meaning f/2.8 is a larger aperture than f/11.
If you wish to have a nice, blurry background, use one of the smaller f-numbers available with your lens. Lenses have differing apertures, so be sure to check the end of the lens to determine what your maximum aperture is. Usually, the aperture value of a lens is noted as 1:2.8, 1:4, and so on for a prime lens (one that does not zoom) and 1:3.5-5.6, 1:70-200, and so on for a zoom lens.
To maximize your ability to get blurry background goodness, put your camera in aperture priority mode (usually indicated as A or AV on your camera’s dial) and use your camera’s menu to select an aperture value that’s as close to zero as possible. Then, all you need to do is find a subject and practice creating images with nice bokeh, like in the image above.
Get Up Close
Another factor that helps you create beautiful bokeh is the distance between you and your subject. The nearer you are to your subject, the better the blur will be in the background, so an image taken of a person from three feet away will have a background that’s more blurred than one taken from 10 feet away. So, if you want to create the kind of bokeh you see in the image above, minimize the distance between you and your subject. You need not treat it like a close-up or macro shot - just get in close and frame the shot to your liking, then take a few test shots to determine what distance works the best.
Put Some Distance Between Your Subject and the Background
While minimizing the distance between you and your subject improves bokeh, maximizing the distance between your subject and the background will also help. If your subject is moveable, like a person, simply position them such that the nearest background object is a good distance away. If it’s an immovable subject, maneuver yourself around it until you find an angle that maximizes the distance between the subject and the background. There is no set distance that you need to strive for here - just take a few test shots, examine the results, and determine what distance gets you the best bokeh.
Use a Longer Lens
Because of the manner in which lenses collect light, it’s easier to get a bokeh-filled background with a longer lens. So, if you’re mostly shooting with a wide-angle prime or your kit zoom lens, think about borrowing or renting a longer lens, like an 85mm or 200mm telephoto, to see how the change in focal length changes your ability to get a nicely blurred background. Then, utilize the other three tips shared above - a wide aperture, get close to your subject, and maximize the distance between your subject and the background - and you have a recipe for the type of bokeh you see in shots from the pros!
Sure, there are a lot of technical details as it pertains to how bokeh appears, particularly with regard to aperture and focal length, but, you don’t necessarily need to be an expert in those things to get nice bokeh. Use these quick and easy tips to practice your bokeh skills, being sure to inspect your shots to see how changes in each of the factors noted above changes the appearance of bokeh. With a little practice, making these changes will become second nature and you will become a master of bokeh!