So you’ve just gotten your new DSLR and you’re excited to start taking amazing, professional-looking portraits. Where do you start?
If you’re shooting with your camera on Auto mode, you’re basically using that fancy DSLR as a point-and-shoot. I did that for a year or so. Actually, my original reason for purchasing a DSLR was to get no shutter-lag. I wanted to be able to press the button and take a photo instantly so I didn’t miss my daughters’ adorable momentary expressions. I had no desire to learn digital photography. I was perfectly content to use my DSLR as a fancy point-and-shoot. So there’s no shame in that.
Then one day, I wanted to do even better. Most specifically, I wanted to get blurry backgrounds. I also wanted to be able to avoid using flash in lower light settings.
If you are just starting out in photography and you want more professional looking snapshots, those two aspects of photography are probably the most important thing to master for you too.
How to get blurry backgrounds
Without getting too technical, the amount of an image that is in focus is called depth of field. Depth of field is the depth (distance from the camera) of the field of vision that is in focus. This doesn’t mean how far the subject is from the camera, but how much of the subject is in focus.
If I want only a pencil to be in focus, I would need a depth of field of about 1/2 an inch. If I wanted a child in focus, I would need a depth of field (DOF) of about a foot. And if I wanted a car in focus, I would need a depth of field of about 15 feet (or however long that car is).
It doesn’t matter if the pencil, child, or car is 2 feet from me or 20 feet from me. We are only talking about how much of the field of vision is in focus.
In this illustration, the orange line represents a shallow depth of field while the blue line represents a deep depth of field. (The sides of the rectangle don’t matter, the focal plane would extend out indefinitely.)
Notice in the blue (wide) DOF, the background bushes (aren’t they lovely) are in focus; they are included in the DOF.
In the orange (narrow) DOF, the lovely bushes are NOT in focus. That means they will be a blurry, green backdrop for our stunning subject who is clearly in focus as she is standing within the DOF boundaries. Got it?
Bet you’re wondering how we control that DOF, aren’t you?
Use Aperture to Control Depth of Field
You can use the aperture settings on your camera to control the DOF of your photo. First, switch your camera to aperture-priority mode. For Nikons, that’s the A on the dial. For Cannon, it’s Av. Then you can use the dial near the shutter button to adjust the f-stop. Play around with your camera or check the manual and figure out what works for your specific camera model. The number you are wanting to change will be anything from f1.2 to f22. Most entry level cameras have a lens that can only go down to about f3.5.
On a kit lens, choose the LOWEST number possible for your f-stop.
That lower number means you’re getting a bigger hole to allow light in to your camera!
Ta-Dah! Problem number two solved!
Using a lower f-stop (wider aperture), means you get a smaller depth of field=blurry backgrounds AND you can let more light in to your camera, often avoiding flash.
There’s just one catch.
Now that you understand the magic of wide apertures, you’re going to want a lens that can really showcase this aspect.
The lens that comes with most cameras doesn’t have a very wide aperture.
To get a nice wide aperture without breaking the bank, you’ll need to get a fixed lens. That just means there’s no zoom. You’ll have to physically move closer or further from you subject.
I’ve been using fixed lenses for about six or seven years and I don’t have any trouble.
For Nikon users, this was my first lens purchase and one I still use frequently. It’s not a premium quality lens, but it does get great blurry backgrounds (called bokeh) and let’s in loads of light. And for less than $200 it can dramatically improve your ability to capture blurry backgrounds, low light, and fast-moving kiddos. $200 may not sound like a “budget” item, but shop around lenses for a while and you’ll find it’s incredible!
I also recommend the 50mm version of this which gets you just a little closer to your subject.
To wrap it up:
Lower f-stops=wider apertures.
Wider Apertures=creamy, blurry backgrounds + more light in the camera=ability to use faster shutter speeds + ability to shoot without using flash
It’s basically a win-win-win situation for portrait photographers.
Now, there are a few times when you wouldn’t want lower f-stops, when you want a large depth of field, for example. A photo of the Grand Canyon shot with only the foreground rocks in focus might not be what you had in mind. (Or it could be really, cool, who am I to say!?)
Also, be wary of using too low of f-stop and getting too shallow of a DOF. You run the risk of having some people in focus but others not. Or one of your subject’s eyes in focus and the other not!
I’ve done that more times than I can count! And it ruins a photo. 🙁
Aperture is not the only thing that affects DOF, but I think that’s enough for today!
I promised my go-to settings for beginning photographers: It’s A or Av (aperture-priority mode) and the lowest f-stop your kit lens will allow OR 2.0 a single subject and 4.0 for more than one subject. Larger groups generally need larger DOF/f-stops.
Please let me know if you are enjoying the series on photography. I am trying to decide whether to continue it. If my readers aren’t interested, I don’t want to waste time on it.