I Had No Clue What I Was Doing
I remember it like it was yesterday. I started taking photos on my cheap point and shoot camera. I didn’t really understand how to get blurry backgrounds in my photographs. So with that lack of experience I was the 15 year old kid trying to photoshop a blurry background into an image. Boy do I feel dumb now.
First off, we need to discuss what this is actually referred to as. Getting a blurry background in your photographs is referenced as “bokeh” or a “shallow depth of field”. Bokeh is typically the more bold circular blurs in a photograph. A shallow depth of field is the more useful & common reference. This refers to an image that is out of focus in the background but sharp in the foreground.
What is a Focal Plane?
To get blurry backgrounds in your photographs, safely, you need to understand focal planes. This is a common concept that people usually skip over and neglect. A focal plane is the area in which your image is the sharpest.
The easiest way to understand a focal plane is best put by Pye Jersa from SLR Lounge. He describes nailing a focal plane ,when posing multiple people for example, as making sure that all the faces are in line with one another. This means that one person shouldn’t be further back or “deeper” than the others.
Making sure faces have the same depth better ensures that everybody is on the same focal plane. This solves the age old question of “how are photographers nailing focus at F/1.4 with multiple people in the shot?”. When posing a single person shot, the best practice is to focus on the eye that is closest to you, as this will yield the sharpest image.
What is Depth of Field:
Depth of field, simply and unscientifically put, is the amount of your image that is sharp and in “in focus”. That being said, a shallow depth of field would mean that very little of your image is in focus, just the important stuff. A larger depth of field is important when posing multiple people, ensuring everyone is in focus. Unless you get really good at understanding focal planes, I would bump your Aperture up to around F/3.5-5.6. If you’re not entirely sure what that means, keep reading, we will discuss it further down the article.
What Affects Depth of Field
Isn’t depth of field just a setting on my camera? We’ll, not exactly. Depth of field is affected by three things. Aperture, distance, and focal length. All of these can have a dramatic impact on your image. So, it would be wise to really get to understand these three things as they are how to get blurry backgrounds in your photographs.
Ah. Aperture. The “F Stop”. This is the one that everyone gets hung up on. Though one of the most important, it’s not the absolute “most important” necessarily. Aperture does more than affect the depth of field. It actually let’s more light into your camera’s sensor, allowing you to drop your ISO or raise your shutter speed. But that’s not what we’re going to focus on here in this article. You may need to raise your shutter speed to assist with focus when using this technique. Learn more about shutter speed by checking out this article.
In this regard, aperture is going to allow us to get a blurry background. Dropping your ISO to a setting such as F/1.8 will give you a much more shallow depth of field than say, F/3 or F/6. It’s the only factor, but is vital for you to understand this. Just be careful when shooting at F1.8 or around there. The effect of setting for a “higher” aperture (lower number) is going to affect your focusing. You will typically have less sharpness in your images if you don’t understand this concept.
This one get’s thrown to the curb sometimes. Instead of opting for a faster lens, if you simply move closer to your subject, it will compress the background, making it more blurry. If I’m 400ft from my subject, more of my image will likely be “sharper” or “more visible”. Despite F Stop (Aperture). Though distance away doesn’t actually mean a sharper image, it is worth knowing that moving closer to the subject will blur the background more, especially when combining this with the previous tip about shooting at around F1.8 or lower.
Focal length is the secret sauce. When I learned about focal length and it’s relationship to getting a blurry background in my photographs, my mind was blown. For example, some photographers like Dani Diamond & Dylan Patrick have made a career out of photographing headshots in the most unlikely. This is possible because of their massive understanding of how image compression and depth of field are relation.
The way this works is easy to understand. Dani Diamond is a fashion photographer that prefers an 85mm lens, most always at F1.8. He always has some of the sharpest images around. Simply because he crops from the shoulder’s up most times. Aiming for a 3/4 length composition. View Dani’s work here. He’s one of my biggest influences (even though you probably don’t see that in my photographs).
Dylan Patrick is another master of focal length. Taking a more aggressive approach, Dylan shoots with a 70-200mm F/2.8 lens. Most always zoomed all the way in to 200mm at F/2.8. He’s relatively close to his subject, aiming for a headshot. The results are other worldly. A lot of people misunderstand the shots as being a backdrop in a studio location, but it’s quite the opposite. Dylan uses two speedlights and the lens mentioned above to achieve these results in parking lots, parking garages, rooftops, and random parks. View Dylan’s work here. He is also one of the largest influences for me.
How To Get Blurry Backgrounds in Your Photographs
Practice. Practice makes almost-perfect. All of this may be a good bit to understand if you’re new to photography but practice each of these steps one at a time. As you get good at one, move on to the next. Eventually, you’ll be a master at getting your images tack sharp, while maintaining a shallow depth of field.
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