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Tips on getting a blurred background?

John E , May 08, 2011; 07:09 p.m.

I"m trying to take portraits and get the blurred background effect.
I'm looking to buy a lens that is fast enough so I can blur the backgrounds. Will the 85mm 1.8 do the job? I'll be shooting up close like waist up or head and shoulders, but I'd also like to shoot full. Is there any other way to trick the camer to blur the background? I've tried photoshoping but it doesn't look as good as naturally blurred. I'm using a nikon D70. I don't have thousands of dollars to spend on a lens but is it worth the extra money to get a 1.4 instead of 1.8 lens?


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Starvy Goodfellows , May 08, 2011; 07:11 p.m.

Hi John,
Even the cheaper 50mm 1.8 would do nice bokeh. The trick is to ensure that you place sufficient distance from the subject to the backdrop. Then choose a shallow depth of field. F1.8 lens around one stop closed down should give you nice bokeh.

John Tonai , May 08, 2011; 07:15 p.m.

50mm 1.8 would do nice bokeh

The Nikon 50 1.8 is known to have a very harsh (bad) bokeh. However it does have a shallow depth of field wide open.

Howard M , May 08, 2011; 07:16 p.m.

the 1.8 is fine. you can end up w/ a situation w/ the 1.4 where one eye is in focus and the other is out and that is something to be avoided. Dont forget that it's also a function of background separation and something called hyperfocal distance (so you could short focus and appear to have a more out of focus background)

Hector Javkin , May 08, 2011; 07:29 p.m.

I've owned the 85mm f/1.8, which I liked very much, but I finally decided to move to the 85mm f/1.4D (not the most recent one, which is a G lens.) There is a good discussion of the out of focus properties of the two lenses, as well as some others, in this thread. Whether you want to pay about three times more for the characteristics of the 85mm f/1.4D, or even more the 85mm f/1.4G, is up to you.

Howard's concern that the f/1.4 will have depth of field which only allows one eye to be in focus can be dealt with by stopping the lens down. You don't have to shoot it wide open.

Howard M , May 08, 2011; 07:55 p.m.

I was simply pointing out that 1.4 wasn't needed ($$) and many times not even wanted (besides the fact that you'd most often stop down a bit anyway)

Elliot Bernstein , May 08, 2011; 08:54 p.m.

" Is there any other way to trick the camera to blur the background?" Blurring the background is not a 'trick' The more distance there is between the subject and background, the more blurry the background will be. Longer lenses and faster aperture lenses need less distance between the subject and the background than wider, slower aperture lenses.

What lenses do you have now and what exactly is your budget? And how much room do you have to work with where you are shooting? On a limited budget with a reasonable working area, both the 85mm f1.8 or perhaps the 105mm f2.8 (non VR version used) would be good choices, cost about $400 and likely do a great job for you.

"The Nikon 50 1.8 is known to have a very harsh (bad) bokeh" Not what I have heard.

Matt Laur , May 08, 2011; 09:39 p.m.

Not what I have heard.

Alas, it's pretty easy to demonstrate. It's true. But then, if you can choose your background content to minimize the presence of high contrast items, spectral reflections or light sources, it eases things quite a bit.

Joseph Wisniewski , May 08, 2011; 09:45 p.m.

Hey John.

The thread is getting confusing. People are tossing out the term "bokeh". There are two aspects to background blur, how much you have, and how "natural" it looks. That second aspect is the "bokeh", the "quality" of the blur, as opposed to the quantity. Any f2.0 or faster lens will give you a large enough "quantity" of blur with most backgrounds, even if your subject is only 60cm (2 ft) in front of the background. For most "real world" shooting, when you can get your subject a meter (around 3ft) from the background, even f2.8 works. The big question is how does that blurred background look. It could be full of sharp edges, double lines, and other things that make it look "harsh", "busy", or "distracting".

The 50mm f1.8 can deliver the quantity, but personally, I'm not all that fond its bokeh, and do find it quite harsh, as is typical of pretty much all lenses of similar design (Nikon, Zeiss, etc. 50mm f1.8 or f1.4). But that's not the real problem...

You've stated a need, pleasing blurred backgrounds on a D70 with head and shoulders or full length shots. That means you need 2 lenses, and there's pretty much no getting around that.

Head and shoulders is 60cm (24 inches tall) and is usually an 8x10 aspect. On a D70, working at 2 meters (touch over 6ft) that's a 64mm lens. Working at 3 meters (10 feet), it's a 96mm lens. That makes 80mm the "perfect" lens, and 85mm "dang close".

  • If you need autofocus, the Nikon 85mm f1.8 is a good $300 (if memory serves) lens with a lot better bokeh than a 50mm f1.8.
  • If (and this is a big "if") you are comfortable with manual focus, the Samyang (aka "Polaris" or "Vivitar") 85mm f1.4 has great bokeh, in the same class as the Nikon 85mm f1.4, but the Samyang only costs $350, instead of $1,500.
  • Another manual focus lens to look at is the Voigtlander 58mm f1.4. It's a tad short, you'll be on the inside edge of 2m from your subject, or frame just a touch more "open" and back up to 2m.
  • If you're not in a hurry, Voigtander announced a 75mm f1.8 that should be a killer portrait lens. Give it another month or two, and $400.
  • If you're comfortable at a bit of a distance, say 3.3m (11ft), the old manual focus Nikon 105mm f2.5 Ai-S has exceptional bokeh. It can be had for about $150, and you need to have a "dandelion chip" installed to get it to meter on a D70, which is about another $60. Still, for a touch over $200, you get world class results, right up there with $1500 monsters like the 85mm f1.4.

Can we do it with a 50mm? I'd call a 50mm way short for a head and shoulders. That will have you at 1.56cm (5ft), and you get rather unnatural proportions, nose too big in relation to ears, etc. You're also a bit closer than most subjects are comfortable with, so you get uncomfortable expressions. Really, you want to be between 2m and 3m.

OK, how about full length. You're framing 2m (subject and a little headroom) at that sale 2-3m, and you're probably keeping the whole 2:3 frame of the D70. That's a 24mm lens at 2m, and a 36mm lens at 3m. So, 30mm is the "perfect" lens. It's hard to get a lot of blur at that focal length, and even harder to get good bokeh.

  • Nikons 35mm f1.8 is worth looking at, but it's, at best, "medium" bokeh.
  • There's a "killer" lens right in the middle of the range you want to look at, the Sigma 30mm f1.4. It's autofocus, and pretty high quality, but Sigma construction tends to be hit and miss. My own Sigma 30mm f1.4 needed to go in to repair. But it's the best looking full length lens you can get for an APS Nikon.
  • I'm rather fond of the manual focus 40mm f2.0 Voigtlander Ultron.

Again, the 50mm is going to feel awkward, you'll be at least 4m (13ft) from your subject.

Consider a decent f2.8 "full frame normal zoom", a 24-70mm f2.8 or thereabouts. The Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 is quite respectable in this range, has "neutral" bokeh, and is relatively cheap, especially if you go for a used one. Aside from that, the best solution is two primes, one around 30mm, the other around 80mm.

wizfaq portrait lens

Brad - , May 08, 2011; 10:13 p.m.

I shoot tons of street portraits with a 35mm f/1.4 on a full-frame. It's perfect for me. No need to yada yada any more than that - it gives me a lot of flexibility...

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