Special Effects: Blur in Photos

Have you ever wondered why some photos really attract your attention, and others don’t?
And what is it that makes you focus on a specific element in a photo?

Today I want to analyse some photos to demonstrate a very powerful visual technique - blur.
Don’t worry, there won’t be any super technical terms. I want you to understand what it’s about and then be able to apply it to your own photos.
This is a blueprint - it’s just a way to inspire you and to encourage you to play around with your camera (which is why I won’t go into every detail here).
You don’t have to get it perfect straight away.
As long as you’ve heard of shutter speed, aperture and ISO before it’s all good. If not, just google, there are 2 million posts on that out there already.

I picked some photos from spring this year which I haven’t shared before - a little reminder that summer isn’t quite over yet. Don’t forget to enjoy the last sunshine, winter will be long enough.

There are 3 types of blur according to my definition. You will very likely find other people who say other things - but that’s what I think anyway.
For now we’ll look at 2 of those techniques. (The third one is a bit more complicated, and requires some extra time.)
Background Blur - shallow depth-of-field

Aperture: F 1.8
Shutter speed: 1/640 s
ISO: 200

See how the flowers in the background are blurry? That’s because my aperture is really wide open (small F-number=wide aperture), which causes a shallow depth-of-field.
The point of focus is on the flowers in the front, that’s why they’re sharp.
Everything else (in front + behind) is out of focus, and therefore blurry. That’s basically what depth-of-field means.

Subject Blur - slow shutter speed + moving subject

Aperture: F 1.8
Shutter speed: 1/800 s (could be a lot slower)
ISO: 200

Okay, honestly this isn’t really the best example I could give you.
This type of blur relates to the shutter speed, and can be achieved by using a slow shutter speed (e.g. 1/60 s, 1/30 s, or even slower - depends on how much light there is around you). My shutter speed in this photo isn’t slow at all, though. It’s actually faster than in the photos before, so that’s not the best example to demonstrate subject blur.
The photo is blurry anyway, because the wind makes the branch of the tree move.
(Don’t get confused. If you do leave a comment, or email me and I’ll explain further.)

So usually you get a photo where the subject is blurry when the subject is moving, and your shutter speed isn’t fast enough.
Let’s think of a dancer. In order to freeze things up your shutter speed needs to be fast enough. If it’s not the person dancing will simply end up blurry - because the camera took a while to capture the dancer, and so the dancer had enough time to move around while the shutter of the camera was open.
Your camera will capture everything that happens while the shutter is open. So if the shutter is open for a long time (1/30s e.g., and everything slower than that), it will capture all the movement that happens during that time.

This type of blur emphasizes movement (like I said, a dancer is a good example). It leaves the mind with uncertainty about the parts that aren’t sharp - and therefore gives it a chance to fill in all the ‘missing parts’ itself. Exciting.

Now go ahead and give those techniques a go (after you've looked at a few more nice & blossoming spring flowers, and wished it was spring all over again). It will make your photos look more interesting, and you can really play around with it, achieving different effects.

As I said before - please leave a comment if you need a bit more help on that or have any questions.

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  1. Thanks for breaking it down. I'm trying to build up the guts to get off the P setting. Can't wait to try this on my next walk, hopefully with fall leaves. These are gorgeous by the way!

    1. Thanks, Brianna! I'm glad I could help, and hopefully you'll be able to put it to good use.
      More tips to come soon. :)

  2. This was really helpful! I was wondering about some limitations my camera has though--the lowest aperture setting is f/3.1. Is there any way to simulate a shallow depth of field, or is this going to be impossible with my current camera?

    1. Hey Kate, thanks for the comment.
      Unfortunately there isn't a way to simulate a shallow depth-of-field with your camera (but it is possible in Photoshop!). Your aperture depends on the lens you have. (I've never actually heard of a lens before with the lowest aperture of F3.1, I only know F3.5.)
      What lens are you using?
      If you want a more shallow depth-of-field you'd have to use a different lens. There are great ones out there with apertures of F1.2 for example - but you do have to pay for that! ;)
      Otherwise you can use Photoshop - let me know if you'd be interested in reading more on how to do that.
      Anyway, F3.1 isn't so bad! Give it a go, and you'll see that the background will be blurry. :)
      Hope that helps!

    2. Awesome--thanks! I don't have an SLR, just a Canon digital point-and-shoot--I was surprised by the limitations on the lens, actually, considering the camera has a 14x optical zoom. I'm not well-versed in photoshop so it would be great to know how to apply those sorts of effects, as well.

    3. Oh okay, sorry I didn't think about that.
      I'll keep the Photoshop thing in mind as inspiration for a new post. Thanks :)

  3. Hi Helena,

    Wow these photos are beautiful. Thank you for sharing the tips on shutter speed - i agree with you, having blur makes photos so interesting! I'm so excited I found your blog through Breanna's blog. Definitely following you now! Xx

  4. Thank you so much for this post!! I have been searching for this information for years and I finally found everything I was looking for right here. Your blog is amazing, so happy to have found it :)

    1. Aww thank you, Alana - that's really nice of you. :) Thanks for letting me know, I'm glad I can help!

  5. Hi Helena,
    Do you have any suggestion for creating a low depth of field for close-up indoors? I am trying to submit photos of my crafts on craftgawker but need some help. I have a canon Rebel Tsi and I think I need a new lens with smaller fstop than 3.5. Any other suggestions?

    1. Hi Rae, you're totally right - a different lens/larger aperture would help! You could have a look at this one. It's a fixed lens, so you won't be able to zoom in and out, and your largest aperture is f1.4, which is really good! You can read some reviews on it here. Also play around with what distance you're photographing from. I hope this helps. :)