PHOTO 101: Blurring the background

josh fassbind | photography 101

For a while, I’ve been pondering whether I should share technical tips on the blog or not and, if so, what kind they should be.

The principal dilemma I had was the type of readers I wanted to target: experimented photographers with highly specialized topics or less experienced photographers (even beginners) with general topics. I’ve finally decided to start general and get into more specific/technical stuff as time moves along — and my technical skills grow too (yeah we’re all constantly learning new things and experimenting!).

In order to spice-up the learning process I will take my lovely girlfriend Anka as a guinea pig (not the best choice of words, sorry). She loves photography, definitively has a good eye for composition but she quickly gets lost when it comes to the technical side of things.

There is a question I am frequently asked by beginner photographers and that is how do you blur the background? So here is my first mini-lesson about just that.

Let’s see what we can do with Anka’s Nikon D5000 and Nikon 18-200 f/3.5-5.6G VRII lens:

  1. First you need to understand the principle of aperture. Very simply put it is the size of the opening in the lens when a picture is taken.
    josh fassbind | photographe | Different Apertures

    Different Apertures

    With a lower f-number (aperture) you will have more light pouring onto the sensor and your depth of field (part of your picture in focus) will be smaller. To the opposite, with a higher f-number, you will have less light coming in but you will have a lot more in focus.

  2. Second element you need to understand are some basic rules of composition (foreground/background). It will be easier to blur the background if your main subject is farther from it. This will create some separation.

That was for the theory. Now let’s dive into the practical side of things.

This effect will be easier achieved with a camera that allows you to choose your modes (manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, program) but you should be able to obtain a bit of the effect with a simple point & shoot set to the portrait mode.

Now grab your camera and set it to aperture priority (A on Nikon, AV on Canon).

josh fassbind | photographer | Nikon Mode Dial

A Nikon camera set to Aperture priority

Set that aperture to the lowest possible f-number. In this case with Anka’s setup it is f/3.5 (note that with professional lenses you can go down as far as f/1.4).

Compose your shot, focus on your subject and press that shutter button.

Now let’s see the results: (note: the “model” is yours truly. Please excuse the long face I was having a bad hair day)

josh fassbind | photographer | Example Shot

Shot taken with aperture set to f/3.5

josh fassbind | photographer | Example Shot

Shot taken with aperture set to f/8.

josh fassbind | photographer | Example Shot

Shot taken with aperture set to f/13.

All the shots are straight out of the camera. They were imported into Adobe Photoshop, aligned and cropped but no other retouching.

Blurring the background seems to be perceived as something of really «pro quality». Sure, you need to have some idea of what you are doing and understand your basic camera functions but there is no other secret than what I have explained here.

However, in my opinion, what you should ask yourself before the shot is what do you want your picture to say to the viewer? If the background is really interesting, why would you want to blur it? Keep this in mind and have fun experimenting blurry backgrounds!

Questions are welcome!

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