This is the question we get from the new photographers the most.
We all want that soft, dreamy quality which helps the main subject stand out in the picture and which, especially when it uses a colourful background, creates a soft wall of colour behind them. If you’re using your camera on an auto function, you probably got lucky and managed to get this outcome some of the time, but not always. Today, we’re explaining how to make it work consistently.
FIRST THE BAD NEWS: the level of blurriness in your photo using a standard lens on a standard camera may not be quite the same as some of the extremely blurred out backgrounds that you might see on professional photographers’ portfolios – that’s a little beyond the technical capabilities of regular cameras and lenses. But have a look at the examples below – if you’re happy with getting what you see here, that’s very much achievable. In fact, the examples below are all taken by our students – Mums and Dads just like you, using entry level DSLRs and bridge cameras.
There are 4 elements which you need to get right in order to give yourself the best chance of success:
1. Your camera setting:
- AUTOMATIC SETTINGS:
If you’re not comfortable with your camera’s manual modes ( or as they are sometimes called – creative modes), switch your camera to a PORTRAIT mode or equivalent. Because camera manufacturers expect that you will want this kind of outcome when taking a portrait image, they have pre set it to give you a chance to achieve it ( at least more consistently than on full Auto).
- MANUAL SETTINGS
If you are more comfortable with your camera manual modes, switch to A or AV setting ( that stands for Aperture priority). Now, you’ll be able to manipulate a setting called Aperture which regulates the flow of light into the camera, but also how much in the photograph will remain in sharp focus and how much of it will be blurry. Once you’re in this mode, you want that Aperture number to be as small as your camera will let you – you may see it in your camera with a letter F next to it – perhaps displayed as F3.5 or F8. The smaller the number, the better. In most DSLRs you move between the numbers by using the scroller wheel located either at the back of your camera ( under your thumb) or at the front ( under your index finger). For most standard DSLR cameras with standard lenses, that smallest number will be between F3.5 and F5.6. For bridge cameras, the number may be smaller – sometimes going down to F2 (though in terms of outcomes it will be equivalent to higher numbers you’d get on the DSLr). If you’re lucky, you may already have a lens whose aperture goes down to F1.8 of f1.4 – you’ll find that information either on the rim of the lens or simply by testing it on your camera and seeing how low your numbers will go. You will also notice that when you zoom in, your smallest available Aperture number may change. It’s OK and perfectly normal. Just go with whatever the smallest available number is.
Compare the images below. One was taken on the widest ( = smallest aperture value) the lens allowed, the other on the narrowest ( = biggest aperture value)
2. Your lens:
To put it plainly, you want to use a fairly large zoom, or at least the largest your lens/camera combo will give you. If you’re shooting with a bridge or a point and shoot camera, your zoom may be divided between optical and digital zoom – only ever use the optical zoom. The digital zoom is the equivalent of using your fingers on your phone and stretching out the screen. It won’t change a thing in what we’re trying to do.
It’s really important that you zoom in on your subject at least a bit. If you want to see why the zoom makes such a difference – try this : reduce the zoom all the way down, stretch out your arm in front of your and hold out your hand. Make your camera focus on it and take the picture – I’m guessing it doesn’t look remotely blurry in the background.
Now zoom in as much as you can ( or as much as your camera will allow you to still focus on your hand – if you have one of the superzoom lenses on a bridge camera, you might not be able to go ALL the way) and again – focus on the hand and take the picture – you should be seeing the hand nice and sharp but the background looking pleasingly blurry.
Ok, we’re half way there!
3. How close your subject is to you:
The closer your subject is to you, the better the outcome. If were aiming for a lovely head and shoulder’s portrait, you want to be close enough so that when you’re using your largest zoom, the person’s face and shoulders fills at least 30 – 50% of the visible frame. With better lenses ( you may be lucky enough to have a wide aperture prime lens as an add on to your camera kit) you can make that ratio smaller and include more of the background, but if we’re talking standard camera, with a standard kit lens, this is your safest bet. Again, if you want to test it, focus on your hand in front and notice the way the background looks. Now remove your hand and focus on something further away ( no other changes – don’t zoom in more, don’t change your camera setting, just move where you’re focusing). I’m willing to bet that as your point of focus moved away, your background lost some of the blurry quality.
Once you’ve tried this ratio, play around with the relative sizes of objects in the frame and notice how the background changes accordingly.
4. The image background
The whole point of this exercise, isn’t it? You want your background to be at a bit of a distance from your subject and you want it to form a pleasing wall of colour behind your subject. A wall of trees is great, even a tall hedge might work. The key is to not have your subject standing right next to it – in fact, the more distance you put between them, the better. Make sure you check how much of the background is visible when looking through your zoomed in lens – it might not look the same as when looking at it with a naked eye.
1. Camera setting on Portrait ( when in auto) or A / AV mode with the smallest aperture number ( when in manual)
2. Zoom in as much as you can
3. Fill at least 30 – 50% of the frame with your subject
4. Put some distance between your subject and the background