3 ways to get a blurry background, and why you want it.

When you first get a DSLR, one of the first things you might be trying to figure out is how to get a blurry background in your pics. You see the pros always turning out these pics where the eyes are tac sharp, but everything behind the subject is “blurry”… smooth as butta.
This background blur helps the subject stand out. It also means that you don’t have to worry about the background. In time, you might just choose a background because of the color, knowing that it’ll be blurred out but still translate the color.

So here’s the 3 ways to get that background blur.

1. Aperture

This is the one that most people are familiar with. Aperture is simply the term for how big or small your lens opening is. Aperture is to a lens what the iris is to your eye. It adjusts in size to let more or less light in.
We call different aperture sizes f-stops. f-stops were created on opposite day. The lower the f-stop, the bigger the aperture. The higher the f-stop, the smaller the aperture. So f2 is a big lens opening. f22 is a small lens opening.
Translate it just the one step further: f2 is a big aperture. f22 is a small aperture.
If you’ve taken our FREE mini course about understanding exposure, you’ll get to see my 4 year old explain this. She’ll tie it into how it affects exposure as well as depth of field. And with a homemade camera made out of a bandaid box. 🙂
Blurry backgrounds…
Big openings (apertures) produce a shallow depth of field (DOF). Small apertures produce more DOF. Depth of field (DOF), btw, simply means how much space is in focus behind your focal point. And in front of it.
Say you’re taking a pic of your kid. You set your aperture to f2. You focus on the eye…and click. The pic might very well have the eye in focus, and yet the ear is slightly out of focus, merely inches behind the eye. That’s a small DOF.
On the other hand, you might choose f22. And in this case, a tree 200 ft behind your kid is in focus. This is a large DOF.
So naturally, the primary way to get a blurry background is to choose a large aperture. Your kit lens might only have a maximum aperture of f3.5 or even f5.6. This might be a bit frustrating as it won’t produce the dreamy blur of “faster” lenses like this 50mm 1.4. And by fast, we don’t mean that it focuses fast. We mean that it let’s in such a HUGE amount of light at f1.4 that we can have a fast shutter speed. Again, if that’s a little fuzzy, this free mini course is for you.
I have a lens that goes to f2.8. I’ll be using it for this lesson because it also zooms. And that’ll help me illustrate the next two points. Anywho, check out the difference in DOF between f2.8 and f16:
Here’s the first pic at f2.8 (notice the background blur):
Here’s the same spot but now at f16 (notice there’s much less background blur):

2. Focal length

Now that we have #1 out of the way, the next two will come a bit easier.
Focal length is basically just a term for how far your lens reaches. So a 24mm lens is a wide angle lens. It has a wide field of view. A 200mm lens is a telephoto lens. It reaches out far and has a narrow angle of view.
Blurry backgrounds…
With the aperture remaining equal, the more telephoto your lens, the less DOF you’ll get, and thus the more background blur.
Translation. Set your 24mm lens at f4. Set your 200mm lens at f4. Take the same pic from the same spot. Your 200mm lens will give you less depth of field.
Here’s my example with my 70-200 lens. This just means I can zoom from a 70mm focal length to a 200mm focal length. I’ll leave the aperture “wide open” (as big as it gets) at f2.8. I take each pic from the exact same spot. All I’ll do is zoom from 70mm to 200mm
Here’s the pic at 70mm (we can easily make out the backgrounds).
Here’s the pic at 200mm. Obviously it’s a tighter composition. But notice how the back door is less in focus (less DOF).  Actually, notice that Payson is not even in focus.  He’s mere inches behind Kerbi’s eye (the focal plane).  This is a very shallow DOF!

3. Distance to subject

Last one. With aperture being equal AND focal length being equal, you’ll get less DOF the closer you are to your subject. You’ll get more DOF the further away you are from your subject.
Said another way: When I take a pic of my kid at 200mm f2.8 from 5 feet away, I’ll have much less DOF than when I take the the pic with the same settings but from 50 feet away.
Let me show ya.
My lens is set to 200mm and f2.8. Here’s a pic from 5 ft away. Notice how the background is completely out of focus. Just smooth creamy colors.  There could be a green monster back there as the background and we wouldn’t know it.  Even here ears are out of focus.  There’s only a couple inches of DOF here.
Now I move back to yard…about 30ft away. I still focus on Kerbi. I’m still at 200mm.  I’m still at f2.8.  Everything is the same.  But since I’m further away (distance to subject), I have more depth of field.

So, here’s how to get the most background blur out of your crappy kit lens.

Kit lenses are often 18-55mm f3.5-5.6. This means it zooms from 18mm to 55mm. At 18mm the max aperture is f3.5. At 55mm the max aperture is f5.6.
So do we choose f3.5 at 18mm, or f5.6 at 55mm? Well, that’d be a good experiment for you to try. 🙂
Spoiler: Reach as far as you can as wide as you can. And then get as close as you can. Then you’ll have the most background blur possible.
Speaking of more zoom…today’s the last day to enter to win (FREE!) an olloclip telephoto:
olloclip Telephoto (for iPhone) Giveaway

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  1. Question about your picture taken @ 200mm/f2.8 (where you son is out of focus while he sits next to your daughter). Two questions: Would you decrease the aperture to get your son in focus and where would you focus point be in order to get to subjects in focus AND have the blurry background. Thanks!!!

    1. Hey Lisa! Great question. Yes, in shots with more than one person it’s a better better to stop down a bit (and not shoot wide open). f4.5 is probably in order (at least) when I’m zoomed all the way to 200mm. But probably f5.6 is a safer bet. At 200mm and 5.6, there would still be a nice blur, especially if my working distance is minimized. The other thing is to try to ensure that both faces are on the same focal plane. In other words, side by side. Hope this helps…great question!

        1. Thanks a million! Love your work! If you could only have one lens in your bag and it was between a 70-200mm 2.8 and a 24-70mm 2.8, which would you choose? Thanks again!

  2. Thanks so much! This was helpful info and pretty easy to grasp. Looking forward to learning more about photography.

  3. This is great, I’m so excited to learn. The way you explain all, is easy to understand as a first time DSLR . God bless you.

  4. You are awesome! I can’t tell you how many tutorials I have read and watched that I WISHED they took the time to explain and demonstrate the outcome of the settings to show what the functionality of the camera actually is. Instead, so many just throw out the terminology and it is difficult to envision what the changes would be on the photo. You do such a fantastic job, and leave nothing to be desired- you covered it all! Thanks for your passion!!

      1. That is exactly what I was thinking! Imagine People who are interested in photography are visual learners….. Okay, not everyone. But I am. This creeping on your site (I have teenagers) has been great.

  5. Hi, Thanks for all the info … here is my dilemma. I always want to shoot in manual mode, but I always feel like I have “missed the shot” when I am trying to capture moments in my kids life. So I always resort back to “auto” (GRRR) to get pics of the kids playing or wat not. I also noticed in the pic of your daughter, that the pumpkins are in focus and even her toes are in focus .. but her face is not entirely focused. I know that this is suppose to be a greater DOF … but her face is just inches behind the pumpkins and yet the background is still defined. Am I just lost?

    1. Hey Jenny! Just making sure…when we refer to shooting in manual, we mean shooting in manual exposure mode, not manual focus mode. I always shoot in automatic focus mode! Manual focus mode is way too slow and terribly inaccurate! 😉

      1. I did not realize that’s what was meant when manual mode was mentioned in something I previously read. That makes so much more sense! I was having serious trouble trying to shoot pictures in manual focus mode and didn’t understand why, haha. Is manual exposure mode just when we turn the dial on the top of the DSLR to manual and choose the aperture, etc. ourselves then?

  6. I have a Canon Rebel T2i …I’m a newbie. When you are asking us to “Set your 24mm lens at f4. Set your 200mm lens at f4” what mode am I supposed to have my camera in? I have the lens set to AF like you mentioned to PP^.

    1. Hey Amy, you’ll need to control your aperture (f-stop) with your camera body and not your lens. I’d suggest shooting in Aperture Priority mode, which will allow you to manually adjust the aperture and the camera will take care of the rest. If all that is a little greek still, then don’t fear. Perhaps sign up for the shoot in manual mini course (on homepage). Of course the flagship program goes through this and much more step-by-step 😉

  7. Thank you so much for sharing these tips/this course….especially in lay man’s terms!!!!!!! You’re a new photographer’s blessing!!!!

  8. OK… I think I am understanding, but lets say you at this moment in your life cannot afford a fancy camera and have a cannon powershot elph 340hs… is there any way to start to get that blur on a camera like this?

    1. Same idea Angela in that you’ll need to zoom it all the way and get close to your subject!

  9. This course has changed my photography life! Thanks so much. I really enjoy how you incorporate your cute kiddos too. My 14 month old doesn’t sit long enough for many pictures but we’re working on it. Thanks again!

  10. I was totally stoked because I understand everything you’ve taught so far! That is not a small task, photography is like learning Latin for me. But then I read these comments and you differentiated between manual focus and manual exposure modes. Had no idea there were two different manual modes. If there’s a simple explanation for this please share. Thanks so much for the great info. I can finally do something out of auto mode on my camera!

    1. Hey Beverly, thanks for the kind words. So, yes, when people refer to shooting in manual mode, they actually mean shooting in manual exposure mode. This means they are going to manually control how bright or dark the picture is going to be. They’ll do this by manually setting the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. That said, over the past year or so as we’ve grown to 50k+ subscribers, I’ve noticed a handful write in and say “I thought manual mode had to do with focus??” And to answer that, on fancy cameras such as DSLR’s, you CAN in fact set your lens to manually focus instead of automatic focus, but I’d highly recommend you stay with autofocus. At the end of the day, I think I’m going to turn this into a short blog post. 🙂

  11. I’m so glad to have found your photo school course, I’ve been learning photography for 5 to 6 years now, through the internet and other amateur photographers and have come to learn… with photography, you never stop learning. Thanks for putting things in a way to comprehend a bit easier. Looking forward to more tips and of course learning more of what I love to do.

  12. Wow. You really explained that well and I just tested it out and feel like a pro. Can’t wait to read more posts. Thank you!

  13. So helpful! I took a class and learned nothing compared to what I learned from you! Thanks so much – Mom of 3 hard to photograph little kids!

  14. I take group pictures with 24 people in the picture. It is taken outdoors. What settings would you use so everyone is in focus?

    1. Getting everyone in focus is mostly a job for aperture. With 24 people it’s going to depend on how many rows of people you have. I think I would get them as far away from the background as I could (to allow you some bokeh even at a smaller aperture (larger f number)) and then choose f11 or f14. Another thing you’ll want to watch is shutter speed – at least 1/250 if possible.

  15. I have the Nikon D5500 with lens 18-55mm. My daughter is a gymnast and realized this lens won’t cut it. Which lens would you recommend for these events?
    Also what is the lens I have (which came with my camera) good for?
    I have already learned some great tips from you in just 2 days. Can’t wait to learn more!
    Thank You!

    1. Thanks Joanne! We’re releasing a new Sports Photography Mini Course for parents…you’ll see it soon! 🙂 As for the lens, I’d suggest the 70-200 2.8. It’s expensive, but it will get the job done! You’ll find a link in our Ultimate Photography Buying Guide. Thanks!

  16. Under the section “Focal Length”, you mention “With the aperture remaining equal” and under “Distance to subject”, you mention “With aperture being equal AND focal length being equal”. Could you explain “equal to what”. Thanks.

    1. I’m very new to this, but after reading this several times, I get it now. Thanks.

    2. With aperture being equal to aperture. Meaning, if you’re shooting at f2.8 in one shot from 15 ft away from the subject, and then at f2.8 (equal/same aperture as before) at 3 ft away from the subject, then you’ll get less depth of field (blurrier background) 3 ft away.