Cool tip #1 for blurring backgrounds in photos

When taking pictures of your children, you'll often want them to stand out from the background. Blurred backgrounds help to remove distractions and help your subject stand out. That's why we love professional portraits of our kids, and most recently, why we love the new portrait feature on the iPhone 7.

Photogs call the blurred effect "bokeh." You'll often hear them say, "I love the bokeh in this shot! It really makes the subject pop." They also refer to "depth of field." When your subject is in focus and the background is blurred, it's because the depth of field is really compressed, making everything in the background blurry. It's how we see the world with our own eyes. That which we focus on is, for lack of a better phrase, in focus. Everything that we're not focusing on is blurred out.

You'll notice, however, that the blurriness of the background is relative to how far your subject is from the background. For instance, if you're reading this on your phone, your plane of focus is close to your face relative to whatever is beyond the phone. Take a mental note of the blurriness of one object behind your phone at, say, 1 foot away, and another object behind your phone at 3 feet away. While keeping your eyes focused on your phone, take notice that the object that is 1 feet away is a little blurry, and the object that is 3 feet away is even blurrier. Now focus your eyes on the object that is 1 foot away. Your phone becomes a little blurry relative to how in-focus it was before, and the object that is 3 feet away is not nearly as blurry as it was before.

The same goes for how your camera sees things. If you want to achieve more bokeh, you have to pay attention to the actual depth of field in your shot. These shots of my daughter were taken with my "photography enthusiast" DSLR with the kit lens. It's my back-up camera, and I take it with me on all my shoots, just in case my main camera (my fancier camera) fails. I wanted to show you how you can achieve more professional looking shots without having to spend a whole lot of money.

For the purposes of illustrating how distance of the background from your subject affects bokeh, I kept all the camera settings of each shot the same. The only thing that changed is the distance of my daughter from the background.

Nikon D7000, 18-105mm kit lens
ISO: 320
Aperture: f/5.6
Shutter speed: 1/200
Focal length: 105mm

If I just lost you with all that gobblety goop information that I just listed, don't fret. I list the information for other photography nerds like myself. As far as blurriness in the background goes, you'll be able to achieve the same effect in one of the automatic or semi-automatic modes. Just stay with me.

With all of the camera settings being consistent, the only thing that changed was the distance of my daughter from the background.

 Standing directly in front of the line of bushes.

Standing directly in front of the line of bushes.

 Standing approximately 5 feet away from the bushes.

Standing approximately 5 feet away from the bushes.

 Standing approximately 10 feet away from the bushes.

Standing approximately 10 feet away from the bushes.

Notice how blurriness of the line of bushes changes the further she gets away from it. And notice how much more in focus she looks in the third picture relative to the first picture. She's in focus in all the pictures, but she stands out more in the third picture.

You can even achieve the same effect with your phone camera, even if it's not the amazing iPhone 7 (which I want, by the way). These were shot with my iPhone 6s, with the built-in camera app. To put an object in focus, tap the screen on the object.

 Shot with an iPhone 6s. See how the words are clear on both objects?

Shot with an iPhone 6s. See how the words are clear on both objects?

 Same iPhone 6s with a little more distance between the objects. I tapped the screen on the bug spray so that the phone would focus on it.

Same iPhone 6s with a little more distance between the objects. I tapped the screen on the bug spray so that the phone would focus on it.

 Same iPhone 6s. With Honest Kids being blurrier because it's further from the phone, the bug spray stands out.

Same iPhone 6s. With Honest Kids being blurrier because it's further from the phone, the bug spray stands out.

Side note about your phone camera. As a general rule, the iPhone does a good job of getting most of the items in the screen in focus. Most of the time, the phone is just guessing at what you want in focus, therefore, everything is in focus (or everything is slightly out of focus, depending on how you look at it) and nothing stands out. That can be a good thing because you may just be trying to capture a moment and don't have time to fuss with all the details of getting something in super sharp focus, especially if you have kids. It's enough to get them to sit still, much less pose for a picture. The drawback to the ease of the phone camera is that the bokeh effect is not as pronounced. If you want something in the screen in better focus, tap the screen on where you want the focus. But even when you do tap the screen, the bokeh may not be to your satisfaction. The reason is that the focal length of the built in lens of your phone is really wide.

Huh? The focal length refers to how wide or how long your zoom is. The iPhone 6 has a focal length of approximately 30mm. Zooming out means getting more environment in your shot. Zooming in means getting tighter into your subject. To get a better bokeh effect, you need a tighter zoom. Notice how my pictures of my daughter are zoomed in to 105mm. There's a reason for that. I'm going to cover that juicy bit of info in my next article. Stay tuned. Until then, practice looking for backgrounds that are far away from your subject before you take the shot.