Have you ever wondered how photographers get the smooth creamy blurred backgrounds (bokeh) in their portraits?
When shooting portraits, you can get blurry backgrounds by shooting at a wide aperture (aka F-stop) in order for the lens to separate the subject from the background. This is also referred to as the depth of field. Many portrait photographers will shoot at f2.8 or wider depending on the limitations of their lenses. Some will go to f1.2 or more common f1.4 aperture and this allows creates background blur commonly referred to as bokeh.
Table of Contents
- Step 1: Set your cameras lens to its widest aperture or F-stop.
- Step 2: Move your subject away from the background
- Step 3: Focus on the subjects closest eye or entire face and shoot
- What is Bokeh?
- Why do portrait photographers like background blur
- Having problems getting background blur? Keep these tips in mind
- Prime lenses or create the best background blur in my opinion
- Do prime lenses or zooms give you better blur
- Lens Recommendations for Portraits and getting maximum background blur
- Price is always a concern
- Rent first, buy later
How to get blurred backgrounds in portraits
Many beginners getting into portrait photography are looking for ways to get the popular smooth heavy bokeh look when shooting portraits. The background blur creates a sense of separation with the subject and everything around them. Your subject is sharp and everything else just melts away.
In portrait photography many beginners learn that they need lenses with wider apertures in order to achieve blurrier looks. It’s not always the case, but it does make it easier.
I’m a Sony mirrorless camera shooter and I have lenses like the Sony 85mm f1.4 and Sony 55mm f1.8 that give me great depth of field and background blur.
You can also achieve bokeh with a f2.8 and even an f4.0 or higher lens. Just depends on your distance from the subject and the focal length.
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Step 1: Set your cameras lens to its widest aperture or F-stop.
The majority of lenses will be marked with a f-stop number to help photographers know the widest aperture of the lens. Some lenses have aperture rings that will mark the settings on the outside of the lens.
If your lens doesn’t have a manual ring, then you can set the aperture in camera if you are shooting in manual mode.
On my Sony a7riii camera I have one of my front dial wheels set to change the aperture when I need. Other camera manufacturers have similar dials and wheels for turning the f-stop up or down. Once the aperture is set make sure to adjust your ISO and shutter speed as well to get a correct exposure.
If you’re not comfortable with shooting in manual mode yet, put your camera is Aperture Priority (Ap or A). This way you can tell the camera what aperture or f-stop you want and it will adjust other settings like ISO and shutter speed for you.
If you’re not sure how to adjust the aperture, do a quick Youtube search for your camera model and look-up “how to change my aperture on my (insert brand) camera”.
Step 2: Move your subject away from the background
Next, in order to get background blur, you need to have the subject away from the background. An easy way to test and get immediate results is to go outside and take a few pictures on the side walk or street.
Use the street as a background for your composition and have your subject (friend or family member if you need immediate help) stand and pose for you.
Make sure there is nothing behind them or close to them in the background. This will help with getting your desired results.
Step 3: Focus on the subjects closest eye or entire face and shoot
Now that your camera is set to the largest aperture and your other settings are in place for a correct exposure, now it’s time to take a few shots. Practice shooting at different distances in order to get the maximum amount of bokeh.
- 35mm Lens – Stand about 2ft to 3ft away to start
- 50mm Lens – Stand about 3ft to 4ft away to start
- 85mm Lens – Stand about 4ft to 5ft away to start
- 135mm Lens – Stand about 6ft to 8ft away to start
- 200mm Lens – Across the parking lot
These lengths should give you a fairly close up shot. You can always adjust as needed, so keep in mind these are just good starting points. I recommend experimenting so you can see what different lengths away from your subject will do to the background blur.
After each shot, compare the last one few shots to see the difference. I would also adjust the aperture to a larger number to see how it also effects the background blur.
What is Bokeh?
According to wikipedia, “Bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by the lens.” So basically the background blur in your image. Not too technical.
The biggest part is how close you are to your subject and how far away they are from the background. Let’s take this step by step and see if we can’t get the look you want from your lens.
Why do portrait photographers like background blur
I always wondered this. As if it was some unwritten rule of portrait photography. I personally like it because of the separation of my subject and also it makes some busy elements less distracting.
Also, if you are hard-pressed to shoot in an ugly location, you can always shoot wide open and blur out the ugly backgrounds as an option. Just saying this has saved my butt a few times when doing model test shoots.
Having problems getting background blur? Keep these tips in mind
- Double check the aperture or f-stop of the lens you are shooting with. Start with the widest the lens will go and work your way down to larger numbers from there.
- Make sure the background is not too close to the subject. Move your subject around and experiment with different backgrounds and locations for best results.
- Your standing too far away – Yes this is possible. For example if you are using a 35mm lens and you are 6ft to 8ft away from your subject, you will not be getting much background blur. Again experiment with distance to get it right.
Prime lenses or create the best background blur in my opinion
If you ask different portrait photographers about which lenses create the best background blur or bokeh, you will most likely get different answers. After shooting for the last few years, I think telephoto prime lenses do the best in my opinion.
For example the Sony 85mm f1.4 GMaster lens and my Sony 55mm F1.8 FE Lens both create great smooth blur, but you can really notice the difference if you put them side by side.
The 85mm just looks great and has a more zoomed in look. I even recommend shooting portraits with a 70-200 f2.8 lens if you don’t have a prime lens and only zoom.
Either way, I just prefer the look of primes and the amount of bokeh I can get from an image. Just my personal opinion.
Do prime lenses or zooms give you better blur
There is always a big debate about prime lenses giving better bokeh and background blur over zoom lenses. In my opinion I can get great bokeh with both.
For example, I can get great bokeh shooting with a prime Sony 85mm f1.4 and also get awesome background blur from a Sony 70-200mm f2.8 Gmaster Lens zoomed in around 135 or more.
Prime lenses tend to have wider apertures of f1.8, f1.4 and even wider at f1.2. This gives you a shallower depth of field in your portraits.
Zoom lenses for Sony tend to max out around f2.8 but the compression you get with your subject and depth of field really is determined on your distance from the subject.
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Lens Recommendations for Portraits and getting maximum background blur
If you’re open to a few recommendations for your full-frame Sony camera, check out these prime lenses for some great bokeh.
- Sony Zeiss 55mm F1.8 FE Lens
- Sony 85mm f1.8 FE Lens
- Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8 Lens
- Sony 100mm f2.8 GMaster Lens
- Sony 135mm f1.8 GMaster Lens
If you’re more of a zoom lens shooter, you can check out these lenses to get maximum bokeh in your portraits
- Sony 24-70mm F2.8 GMaster Lens
- Sony 70-200mm f2.8 GMaster Lens
- Tamron 28-75 f2.8 Sony e mount Lens
- Tamron 70-180 f2.8 Sony e mount Lens
If you’re an APSC camera shooter, here are a few recommendations for you as well.
- Sony 16-55mm f2.8 G APS-C Zoom Lens
- Sony 35mm f1.8 APS-C Lens
- Sony 50mm f1.8 APS-C Lens
- Sigma 56mm 1.4 Sony e mount
- Sigma 30mm 1.4 Sony e mount
Price is always a concern
You will start to notice that the wider a lens goes, the pricier it may get. Thankfully many camera manufactures have budget friendly lenses to choose from that have wide apertures like f1.4 or f1.8. If not, you might want to consider third-party lenses that might fit your budget.
Rent first, buy later
If you’re not ready to make a purchase just yet, to don’t know what lens to get next, you can always rent gear and try it out first. Many local camera stores offer rentals on lenses. If you don’t have one close, then you might consider renting online. lensrentals.com is a great resource for having rentals shipped directly to your door.
This will give you a chance to practice and see what lens works best for your style. Get creative and try out a few different priced lenses, then come back to your computer and compare the results. You might just be surprised.
If you want to learn to shoot portraits with background blur, then you need to learn about lens apertures and depth of field or focus distance from a subject. Keep in mind that subjects needs to be separated form the background in order to get the desired effect.
Make sure to also adjust your other camera settings in manual mode after you have set your f-stop. Even in setting your camera in automatic mode or aperture priority/portrait mode will help you get on the path to the results you want.
Author - Jason The Creative
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