How to get background blur with your iPhone.

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One of the main advantages of “real” cameras over your iPhone (or other camera phone) is the ability to get a shallow depth of field….that look where your subject is in focus but the background is blurry.  But even if it’s harder to get background blur with your iPhone, is it still possible?  Let’s see.

File Feb 26, 10 54 21 AM

There’s primary 3 strategies to get the background blurry:

  1. Aperture
  2. Lens focal length (layman’s terms = how long your lens “zooms”)
  3. How close you are to your subject.

With your fancy camera, you can change your aperture to help you get that shallow depth of field.  You can also use different lenses.  In particular, lenses with a large max aperture and a longer focal length.  We talk about both of those here.

We’re out of luck changing #1 and #2 on the iPhone.  But we can try the 3rd tip.  And here’s what we need to remember:

The closer you are to your subject, the more background blur you’ll get (all things else being equal).

If you want the background blurry with your kid in focus, well, you’re going to need to get right up in your kid’s kitchen.

Even at that, there’s some practical limitations.  Here’s what I mean.

Here’s just a boring ole pic I took of Payson this morning before preschool.  This first pic is from about 5 ft away.  I can get his entire body in as the iPhone lens has a focal length equivalent to 29mm.

SAWEET bedhead dude!

IMG_6712

So next, I move closer, but still try and compose for a typical waist up deal.  So now I’m just a couple feet away:

IMG_6713

I don’t know about you, but I’m still not seeing very much background blur.  Darn it!

BUT…just to prove to you that I’m not making this stuff up, I had Payson hold out his hand.  I then got mere inches away and fired, and you can see that more of the background is finally blurring:

IMG_6714

When I pull these up in Lightroom, the EXIF info reads f2.2.  If you’ve been around here for any time, I know what you’re thinking: “well, that seems like a big aperture!”  Some of you would kill to get a lens with a max aperture of f2.2 in DSLR world!

Well, I don’t want to get all nerdy on you.  But remember that aperture is a fractional number that has to do with the length of the lens over the diameter of the lens.  Here’s really all that matters: the physical size of the lens matters.  These short lenses just don’t give much DOF.

If the previous 2 paragraphs don’t make sense, just ignore it bro/sis.  Ain’t no big deal.

You might be wondering what a DSLR would look like compared to the iPhone.  I wondered too…but not until after Payson left for preschool.  So I got him back up there after preschool and fired a few shots.

Here’s the basic comparison.  You’ll notice two things quickly:

  1. More barrel distortion is evident on Payson’s head-shape from iPhone at this close of a distance.
  2. Much more background blur from the DSLR with 35mm f1.4 lens.

iPhonevsDSLRblur2

The next question that usually comes up: Can we add blur in the editing process?  Well, you can.  But it won’t look anything like the real thing, unless you go all out in Photoshop.  Even at that, the trained eye will be able to tell.

Lastly, I’ll point one thing out.  There’s many who claim that gear doesn’t matter at all.  That you can get great shots with any camera.

I agree with that latter statement. But precisely because great photographers wouldn’t dare try to capture close up, shallow depth-of-field portraits with an iPhone.  Sure, I’ve seen TONS of absolutely AMAZING images taken with an iPhone.  Tons I tell ya.  But all of those images stay within what the iPhone is capable of capturing.  They stay within the sweet spot of the iPhone.  Namely landscapes and environments (even if there’s a person in the frame).

Gear is just a tool.  DSLR’s just give you more tools for different looks.  And for the record, a 35mm prime isn’t the best candidate for a close up portrait with a blurry background either.  You’d want to choose a longer focal length for a more pleasing face shape (less barrel distortion).  I only used it above to keep the focal lengths between the iPhone and DSLR similar.

Until next time…pipe up with questions below.

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8 thoughts on “How to get background blur with your iPhone.”

  1. In your opinion, what IS the best lens for a portrait? I know you recommend the 50mm prime frequently. I have a cropped sensor, so does that alter your answer? In addition, what ISO setting should I strive for? THANKS! Love all of your courses!!!

    1. Hey Kristen! Great question. The best… hmmm… I can only choose one? Hahaha. Let me get to what I think you’re mostly after, because if I only tell you 85mm 1.2 and then you see that this lens is 2k, I haven’t really given you much help. First, I often recommend the 50mm lens because it’s SUCH a great value for the $$$. It gets you a lot of the look of pro glass for just a couple hundred bucks. That said, I personally prefer longer focal lengths for portraits. Background compression is greater, DOF is less, and you’ll get more pleasing face shapes even while close to the subject (less barrel distortion). We’re talking at least 85mm, but more like 135mm or even 200mm. If I could only keep one lens, I’d keep my 70-200 2.8 IS. Easy decision. That said, I love the 135mm 2.0 for portraits as well. Lastly, you need to check out this post ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hi! This is exactly the kind of tip I was looking for ๐Ÿ™‚ My question is this: I upgraded from a Galaxy s3 to an s4 and really haven’t played around with settings much. I am noticing that if I get too close, everything is blurring. Instead of that green square in the middle, I am always getting red. Is there some type of setting I can change to fix this? I know you use the iphone instead of a galaxy but I am hoping you might still have some pointers. I didn’t seem to have this trouble with my old phone. Thanks in advance and I love your tips ๐Ÿ™‚

    Megan

    1. When it turns red instead of green, it probably means you’re too close / under the minimum focusing distance. Unfortunately, no way to really change that. The option is to back up inch by inch until you get back over the minimum focal distance. Hope this helps!!

  3. My husband and I have started a YouTube food channel and have a question on lenses. We are shooting a Sony A-6000. Mainly video but many stills as well. Lots of overhead food shots. We are really interested in sharp focused food photos. Suggestions?

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