Getting a blurry background in your photo

Don’t you just love those soft blurry backgrounds.  A blurry background really draws the viewer’s eye to the subject of your photo.


When to use a blurry background (bokeh)

A blurry background helps your subject standout.  In the photography world a blurry background is called bokeh.  The use of bokeh is a tried and true technique utilized by many photographers to help the viewer focus on the subject of the image.  It is particularly useful in portrait photography where you want the person to be the subject of the image.  This technique isolates the subject of a picture from a busy, cluttered background.

Photography Tips and Techniques - blurry backgrounds - bokeh

Here is an example of just that.  This peregrine falcon was surrounded by people in bright colored clothes.  Our eyes like to go to bright colors, so the subject, the peregrine falcon, could have easily gotten lost in this image.  By using a shallow depth of field to blur the background the peregrine falcon really stands out in this photo. The bokeh in this photograph really helps you see the bird is the subject of this image.


This cattail is another example where using a shallow depth of field really helps you see the subject of the image.  In this photograph I wanted to highlight the texture of the cattail and how the light was hitting one side.  By using a shallow depth of field the cattail is isolated from all the other water plants and is clearly the subject of this photo.

How to create a blurry background (bokeh)

The way to create a blurry background depends on the type of camera you have.  Let’s look at each type.

Bokeh with a DSLR or any camera where you can set the aperture

If you have a DSLR, mirrorless or compact camera where you can set a specific shooting mode, set your camera to either manual or aperture priority.

You have this type of camera if there is a dial on the camera with an A as one of the options.  Selecting A on the dial puts the camera into aperture priority.  Read the manual for your specific camera to learn how to set aperture priority on your specific camera.  They are all a bit different.  With most cameras you simply turn the dial so A is near the selection arrow.

Aperture priority means that you set the f-stop you want to use and your camera will automatically determine the shutter speed needed for the correct exposure given the ISO you have chosen.  If you are new to this, then start out in aperture priority rather than manual.  With manual you have to determine both the aperture and shutter speed, so it’s easier to use aperture priority.

The last step is to select a small f-stop like f2.8 or f4.  More on selecting the right f-stop for the situation later.  The smaller the number the more blur you will get.  To set the f-stop you will need to look at the manual for your camera.  I have several different cameras and all have a different way to select the f-stop.

Bokeh with a point and shoot camera

If you have a point and shoot camera you might be able to achieve a bokeh effect.  For point and shoot cameras it depends on the settings available to you.  Most cameras have the portrait option set to emulate a small f-stop, so I’d experiment with that setting first.  Another option to experiment with is close up or macro option.  This should work well for subjects you are close to.

Focus Point – the critical factor

What gives you that wonderful bokeh is you have set your camera so that only a small distance is in focus.  The depth that will be in focus is referred to as depth of field.  When the depth of field is small it is called a shallow depth of field.  Okay enough of the camera lingo for now!

The most critical part of using a shallow depth of field is getting the focus point right.  I just can’t stress this enough.  Before you snap that shutter, decide on the most critical area to be in focus and set your focus point to that place.

When taking images of people or animals the eye is the most important part to get in clear focus, so place your focus point right on the eye.  My cameras allow me to choose auto focus in a variety of ways.  When using a shallow depth of field, I always use a single focus point and place that point on the subject’s eye.

For non-mammal subjects like the cattail, decide what is important about that image and put the focus point right on that area.

Distance and Bokeh – they are related

There are lots of tables you can find on the internet that relate distance to subject and what the depth of field is at various f-stops.  Depth of field means how much of our photo will be in focus – how deep will the focus be.  If you want to get really technical take a look at those tables and consider downloading an app to your phone that will help you on the go.  Here are the general things I like to keep in mind when selecting an f-stop.

  • The closer you are the larger the f-stop needs to be
    The closer you are to your subject, the larger the f-stop needs to be for your subject to be in focus.

Photography Tips and Techniques - blurry backgrounds - bokeh
If I’m a few feet from my subject, then f4 or f5.6 will give me a blurry background and provide enough depth of field to keep the subject in focus.  When I took the photo of the peregrine falcon, I was about 4 feet or so from the bird, so f5.6 was used.  It gave me enough depth of field to keep the whole bird in focus, but shallow enough to blur the people standing in the background.  If I had used f2.8 for example, the bird’s eye would have been in focus, but his wing and beak would have been blurry.  If f8 or f11 were used, then the people in the background would have been in focus too.




For this cattail I was about a foot or two away, so I selected f6.3.  If you look closely you’ll see that only a small portion of the cattail is in focus.  If I wanted the entire cattail to be in focus I would need to use f8.

From these 2 examples you can see how distance plays a part in selecting your f-stop.  So many folks think, I want a really blurry background, so I’ll use f2.8, then wonder why their subject is not in focus.  They forget that distance plays a big roll.  Be sure to select a large enough f-stop to keep your subject in focus and small enough to blur the background.  Remember the closer you are to your subject, the bigger your f-stop needs to be.

  • The farther your subject is from the background the more bokeh
    The more distance between your subject and the background the more bokeh you’ll have.

Photography Tips and Techniques - blurry background - bokeh



In this example the people in the background were only a few feet away from the bird, so while they are out of focus their shapes are still distinguishable.

There were no highlights in the background, so you don’t see any of the circles or hexagons associated with bokeh.

Photography Tips and Techniques - blurry background - bokeh



In this example, the background was several yards away, so it is much softer.  Increased distance from the subject to the background increases the blur – the amount of bokeh.

There are some highlights in the water which create the specular highlights so often associated with bokeh.  Specular highlights are circles or hexagons which appear in your photo.  The highlights in the background take on the shape of the lens’s aperture.  I just love the dreamy quality specular highlights give a photo.

Favorite Photograph Tools and Resources

You can find a list of my favorite photography tools and resources here.

Hope you give creating blurry backgrounds a try.  Happy Scrapping!