use your aperture priority to blur backgrounds

You have found an amazing subject drenched in great light .. so your picture is made... or almost....except that  no matter how hard you hunt you simply cannot find a good clear background. Sound familiar?   So often I am taking photos in cluttered places with messy backgrounds I have really honed my skills for making the most of a poor background. One  simple technique that almost always works  is to blur the background so it does not have chance to distract the eye away from the subject in the foreground. This is the perfect solution for  portraits of people like the one really puts you their in the moment with your subjects and it is a technique used so much by wedding and portrait photographers. 

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It is also great in shots of flowers or any photo where you want to emphasise detail - in this case the fine line structure at the front of the petals.

flower image showing shallow depth of field to blur a distracting background

This is not something that your camera can do in Auto mode! You need to take control of your camera and flip it out of the mode with 'Auto' on the dial  (often in green). People who learn to blur backgrounds definitely go "wow!" when they see how well it concentrates the viewer on their subject. It makes your photo so much simpler.

“Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.” – Plato

Once you get a feel for how much stronger a shot can be with a blurred background you will suddenly start to use this technique again and again to make pictures in situations where you previously would not stand a chance. Below is an example of how much we can improve a photo with the simple technique I'm about to talk about:

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Ok , so above is the first shot. I love the big bold colour of these dahlias exploding like fireworks at the start of Autumn. However, it is a crowded flower patch in the village of Lacock and their is simply no angle where I can get a clean green background. I could snip a flower off and put it in a vase but this destroys the real feel and  it is cheating somewhat!

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So, what has happened in the second shot, how is the image different ? 

The distracting background flowers are now blurred and this really sends the viewers eye to the subject- to the foreground bloom. 

The first shot has a large depth of field and the second short has a small depth field. Imagine holding a tape measure at the camera lens extending perpendicular into the scene. The depth of field is the distance between the nearest and furthest objects which are sharp. In this case the distance between the bee and the back red flower petal. 

For a shallow depth of field you must set your aperture wide open - f5.6 in this case.

For a large depth of field you need to set a small aperture - f22 in this case.

The size of the lens aperture/hole controls the depth of field.

Here is a summary in diagram form.....

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So how do you control the aperture on a digital camera? You need to set your camera to Aperture Priority. Change your camera mode to A (or Av on Canon Cameras). Now vary the back thumbwheel on the top of your camera then vary the front thumbwheel. One of the thumbwheels will change the f number in your viewfinder or camera back. Remember which thumbwheel controls your f- number. Use the thumbwheel to set your aperture and your camera will set the shutter speed for you.

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So what do you do now if you have your lens set on its widest aperture and your background is still not blurry as in the portrait below Do not despair... there are some more things you can do.

55mm portrait with distracting background

The first thing to do is to zoom in. Increasing the focal length of your lens reduces depth of field. The first image is taken at 55mm and the second at 135mm. Increasing the focal length has helped blur the background. There is more we can do though, and so many people forget about the next step...

moving the subject further from the background helps

Moving your subject further away from the background is a simple way to further blur your background.So simple that most people forget to do it! Anyway below is the final photo - with a nice fuzzy feel to the background . The photos were taken by attendees on my photography course at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire. Thankyou to Tess Wooster for posing and Jenny Enstone for taking the pictures!

further away from the background (still at 55mm)

OK so lets summarise should we?

For a shallow depth of field:

Choose a wide open aperture e.g.f5.6

Choose a telephoto lens e.g.

Move the subject a long way from the background.

Most people forget the 2nd two points. Hopefully you can use all three points to get some lovely creamy blurred backgrounds that put the focus on your subject and really take your photography to the next level...

Click here to  look at using depth of field to capture landscapes in super sharp splendour.....

Don't forget to leave your comments or questions below...

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