3 Fast Hacks for Beautifully Blurred Backgrounds - Herdmark Media

3 Fast Hacks for Beautifully Blurred Backgrounds

3 Fast Hacks for Beautifully Blurred Backgrounds

Never did I dream I'd be doing a live streaming video with a stuffed pig, but if you tuned in the other night, it certainly happened. Here's the promised blog post from that Facebook Live session.  All images below were taken in Aperture Priority mode on the Nikon D610 using auto for all other settings. The images have been cropped and resized for web use.  B.J.



Especially in portraiture, those beautiful blurry backgrounds can really make your subject pop, drawing the viewer’s eyes to the most important part of the image, while eliminating distractions. Here’s how you can get better bokeh with any zoom lens.

Hack #1: Aperture

The aperture is the opening in the lens which lets light through the lens so it can then travel through the camera body when the shutter opens to land on the sensor. The wider the aperture opening, the thinner the plane of focus, the more blurry the out of focus portion of your image will be.

To control the aperture, shoot in Aperture Mode (Nikon A, Canon Av) or in full Manual mode. Once your camera is in Aperture Mode, dial the aperture wide open by seeking the smallest aperture number on your digital readout. (This will be somewhere around f3.5 for most kit lenses. High-end zoom lenses will open to f2.8 or more and prime lenses will open further still.)  

One important thing to note about aperture; in the quest for the ultimate blurry background we seek the widest aperture opening, but this narrows the plane of focus meaningless of your image will be in focus. The wider you open the aperture, the more likely it is portions of your subject may become blurry as well. It will take some time to learn your limits.

Aperture set to f5.6, 35mm
Aperture set to f3.5, 35mm

Hack #2: Zoom

Most beginning photographers are shooting what we call kit lenses, or the cheap lenses that come with your camera when you buy it. Unless you’ve got an excessive amount of extra cash laying around, don’t freak out buying lots of lenses when you’re getting started. As with any gear, learn how to make the most out of what you have, then move up when you’ve grown beyond the capacity of your equipment.

Kit lenses are typically zooms, one short, something like 18-55mm, and another longer lens, possibly 55-200mm or similar. Given the space you have available in which to work and the size you’d like the subject to appear in the image, choose the appropriate lens, then zoom as far as you can before you frame the subject.

There’s some fancy math I can’t explain which will tell you why this works, but here’s the skinny; the more you zoom in on your subject, the larger the background elements will appear in the image and the blurrier they become. Over the years, I’ve found this to be especially helpful when shooting kit lenses with variable apertures. Even though you might be shooting a maximum aperture of f5.6 at 200mm, the subject stays sharp and the backgrounds look beautifully smooth. The smaller your subject is (think flower vs. cow) the more easily you’ll be able to see the effect of this trick.

Just as with opening the aperture, the farther you are from the subject (the further you’ve zoomed in) the thinner the plane of focus will feel. You may need to select a slightly higher f-number in order to keep the entire subject in focus. Try some tests. You’ll get the feel for it quickly.

18mm, f3.5
35mm, f3.5
70mm f3.5 (Note how thin the plane of focus has become. The pig's nose is sharp, but it's eyes are no longer in focus. When I focused on the eyes, the nose was not if focus.)


Hack #3: Proximity

This one is simple. The further the subject is from the background, the blurrier the background of the image will appear. When you take a photograph of someone standing next to a wall, the wall is very close to the plane of focus, meaning you will still be able to see a lot of the details in the background. The further you move the subject away from the wall, the less these background details will remain sharp.

Subject close to background, 70mm, f3.5
Subject moved away from the background, 70mm, f3.5
Subject moved far from background, 70mm, f3.5

There you have it! Three quick hacks that can help you get beautifully blurred backgrounds. If you’d like to get into the details, we’d love to talk about it! Shoutout on social media or leave a comment below!

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