Manual Settings Cheatsheets
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Using a kit lens to create background blur in our photos is one of the biggest differences between a snapshot and a professional photo. It’s also one of the most effective ways to isolate our subject, and add depth to our photos.
“How do I make the background blurry? or “How do you blur a lens” are among the questions I am being asked often by those that are new to photography.
To put it simply, it’s all controlled by your aperture and your lens focal length. But, you do need to be in manual mode in order to control your aperture.
So if you’re ready to take that step, read this first.
Related: Getting out of Auto
You might have read that you need an expensive lens to create a blurred background.
Or maybe this has happened to you…
You’re ready to shoot a close up portrait with your kit lens. You choose the widest aperture your lens allows you to go (f/3.5) because you understand the small numbers are responsible for those blurred backgrounds in photos.
You zoom the lens in to your longest focal length because you want to get in really close.
Your aperture is going up…and up and up! It’s now f/5.6! No no no! You want to shoot at f/3.5!
Cue frustration and confusion! Is it broken?
It’s not broken. I’ll tell you what’s going on… and how you can use your kit lenses to achieve the blurred background you’re after!
Aperture is the element of manual shooting that creates a blur bokeh and blurred backgrounds. So in order to explain why your kit lens is limiting your creative control, and how to get around it, we need to talk about aperture. I’ll keep it short and jargon free!
Aperture is the opening of your shutter, and it can open a little bit, or a lot. The degree to which it opens up is measured in something called f stops.
In the early days, I always found the terminology used to describe apertures really confusing. It’s no wonder, because it goes against the natural order of numbers, that being a small number indicating something is small and a big number indicating something is big.
But not in photography. So when I’d read related articles about aperture, I scratched my head a lot! I’d read a sentence over and over and wonder if it was a print error!
But it wasn’t an error. And to be perfectly honest, you don’t need to understand the scientific reasoning behind the concept. You only need to know this:
Aperture affects your depth of field, which is the area of acceptable focus in front of and behind the point you focus on. In turn, depth of field controls your blurry backgrounds:
Ok so now we have an understanding of what aperture is, how it’s measured, and the effect it has on our photos.
The reason your kit lens is not allowing you to shoot at f/3.5 and thus create a blur background when you’re zoomed all the way in, is because it’s a variable aperture lens.
What does that mean exactly?
All lenses have either a fixed aperture or variable aperture.
Fixed aperture is a feature of mid range type and professional grade lenses.
An example of a fixed aperture lens is a 24-70mm f/2.8.
This means you can use the lens at f/2.8 regardless of what focal lengths you’re shooting at.
Most entry level and cheaper lenses have a variable aperture.
An example of a variable aperture lens is a 18-55mm f/3.5 – f/5.6.
This means you shoot at f/3.5 at the widest focal length (18mm) but as you zoom in, the aperture starts to close down incrementally until it gets to f/5.6.
Focal length also plays a big part in creating a blurred background. The longer your focal length, the more it compresses your background, and that adds to the blurry effect. It’s that simple.
And therein lies the limitation of your kit lens…
Ideally you’d want to shoot at its longest focal length (55mm) and its widest aperture (f/3.5). But you can’t, so what do you do? Buy an expensive fixed aperture kit lens just to create a blur background?
Well by all means, if you have the budget and the inclination, why would say no to shiny new gear?!
But you don’t need to.
Before you pick fruit from your money tree (don’t we all have one of those?!) and drop a whole bunch of cherries on a gorgeous fixed aperture lens, there is a way you can get the blur background look you’re after, by making one simple consideration.
If you shoot your portrait at 18mm to take advantage of the wide aperture of f/3.5, 18mm will distort facial features. Your subject will look cartoonish. The wide angle effect can be lots of fun, but not great for the portraits you’re probably trying to capture.
Related: What Lenses do to Faces
Related: Wide Angle Fun
If you are looking for how to make background blurry, there is a third element that affects background blur – the distance between subject and background.
Think about it. Even when you’re not looking through the viewfinder of a camera, the further away from the background things are, the blurrier you will see them!
So make sure you place your subject at a shallower depth of field with at least 5 metres space behind them, zoom in to 55mm and shoot your portrait at f/5.6. The longer focal length will be more flattering to your subject, and the space behind them will add to the background blur.
That’s the secret to turning a background blur with a kit lens…
Now you’ve finished reading you’re probably wondering why you bothered buying your camera in a kit at all. Or why do they even make kit lenses?!
If you’re ready to upgrade your kit lenses, check out our lens buying guide.
But if you’re new to photography, there’s a couple of very sound reasons why a kit lens is a great option especially when you want to be the author of special effects like blurring the background of your images.
It’s true kit lenses have their limitations. But mid range and professional grade lenses are expensive.
When you’re new to photography, you probably won’t know if you’re going to love it enough to keep at it.
So the last thing you may want to do is fork out at least quadruple the price of a kit lens for a higher quality lens, only to discover in a few months that photography is not for you.
Conversely, maybe you’ll fall in love with photography, but different lenses do different things. You probably won’t know from day one which genre of photography is ultimately going to capture your heart, so it makes more sense to start out with a good lens that is versatile, and suits many genres.
Kit lenses are versatile because their focal range allows us to cut our teeth on all manner of photography genres and styles.
So for those reasons, kit lenses are a great starting point because they’re an inexpensive way to discover:
These types of lens are also light, easy to carry and you CAN have loads of fun with them when creating beautiful blur background imagery… it’s just knowing how to get the most from them!