When you first get a DSLR, you spend quite a bit of time learning the exposure triangle. You figure out how to take well exposed photos. You learn how to take photos that aren't out of focus. It might take a bit of time to get there, but it feels good when you do. It's likely that you spent a lot of time learning by reading, or following tutorials on Youtube or soaking up lots of info in Facebook groups. During all that learning, you've probably seen some things that you really want to achieve, but you're not quite sure how, but now that you've mastered the basics, you really want to step up your game.
One of my favorite things to do as a South Kingstown RI children's photographer (besides when I'm taking photos!) is teach other newer photographers in my area, and beyond. One of the elements I use often in my own shooting is background blur. I really like how it separates subjects from the background, it usually looks really pretty, and it can totally transform a distracting background into something totally different. A frequent question I receive is, "how can I get that blurry background? I really love it!" There are a few ways to do it, so take a few minutes to hang out with me (and my faithful furry model, Lionel) to learn how you can get a blurry background. All the photos in this blog are SOOC (straight out of camera), meaning they are not edited or retouched in any way, including no added blur. I wanted to make sure to be completely transparent on how much blur each method creates. All of the photos were taken with an entry-level Canon Rebel XT. Ready? Here we go!
First, let's start with the kit lens. Most often, entry level cameras are sold in kits with one or more relatively inexpensive lenses. The most popular is the 18-55 lens. Kit lenses have a nice range and are really good for learning on. They do have some downsides, though. They don't have super wide apertures, and their aperture gets smaller (larger number) the more you zoom. This means a few things: first, you're letting in less light the more you zoom, meaning you'll have to raise your ISO. That could lead to more noise (grain). Also, a narrower aperture (larger number) will mean less background blur. The above photo of Lionel was taken with the kit lens at 55mm. Sure, there is some blur in the background! But it's not that really nice blur that we're often after. This was shot at f5.6, which is the widest aperture I could get to at 55mm. I was at 1/160 for a shutter speed, which is pretty slow for a fast moving kitty, and my ISO was at 800. The photo is not terribly noisy, but 800 is pushing the limits of some entry level cameras as far as ISO goes. Put simply, I had to make a lot of compromises with this photo. It's OK, but I'd like better.
Enter the 50mm 1.8.
This is many photographers' first foray into a lens beyond the kit lens. Often referred to as the "nifty fifty", these lenses are inexpensive, small, and light yet offer images that are a step above your kit lens. They let in over three stops more light than your kit lens at 55mm (which means that you can drop your ISO quite a bit, or raise your shutter speed a good amount, or a combo of both). The wider aperture will also allow you to have a much blurrier background, really separating your subject, blurring distractions, and creating that "bokeh" that many photographers are after. You can see a blog post I wrote all about the 50mm 1.8 here.
Want to kick it up a notch? Try an 85.
The 50mm 1.8 is a fantastic value. For a little over $100, you can upgrade your game significantly. If you're someone who is serious about portraits (and also wants to upgrade your blur game), you might want to consider an 85mm 1.8 lens. Longer lenses are more flattering for portraits. They also have more of something called lens compression. It's a phenomenon that makes the background appear closer to the subject, and also makes background blur appear smoother and greater. An 85mm 1.8 lens will run you more than the affordable 50, but they are still an incredible value for what they provide, especially for the portrait photographer.
This is something you can do with a lens you might already have. A lot of camera kits come with several lenses: the 18-55 and a longer zoom lens, like a 55-250 or a 75-300. If you have one of those lenses, or another longer focal length zoom lens, you're in luck! Remember how I mentioned above that longer focal lengths enhance blur, because of that thing called lens compression? Well, you can get some pretty nice background blur even with narrower apertures if you have a longer zoom lens and a background that is a bit of a distance from your subject. The above photo was taken at 165mm, and f5.6. That's not a super wide aperture, and is much different from the f1.8 aperture of the photos above from the 50 and 85mm lenses, which were taken at f1.. In fact, this photo was taken at the very same aperture as the first photo in this article, the one taken with the 18-55 kit lens at f5.6. See how much difference focal length makes? Keep in mind that you'll still need to raise your ISO to get a decent shutter speed when you have a narrower aperture, but if you can't afford another lens just yet but do have a longer zoom kit lens, this can be a great way to achieve background blur in your photos.
Now that you've got lots of options on how to add blur to your background, make sure to go out and practice! Depth of field can be a little confusing once you start dealing with lenses that have wider apertures, so if you need a refresher, check out my blog all about depth of field. Happy shooting!