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Blur me.
April 13, 2011 11:06 PM   Subscribe

How can I achieve these beautiful blurred-background shots on my Nikon D40 camera with lens 18-55?

I have mostly been using the automatic feature in my camera and it is time I learn new tricks and tips. I am very much interested in portraiture and travel photography so any tips and advices, lens I should get, etc will be appreciated. I love the whole blurred effect especially on portraits, and somehow I am not achieving that with my current lens.
posted by LittleMissItneg to Technology (18 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I would use a telephoto lens, get further away from the subject, and use a wide aperture/shallow depth of field. You can search google for "depth of field" and "blur."

There is probably other stuff going on here. These also look like they were shot at dawn/dusk - probably dusk.
posted by carter at 11:13 PM on April 13, 2011

That's depth of field. :) Nifty, no?
posted by patronuscharms at 11:14 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or search for bokeh.
posted by carter at 11:16 PM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get out of automatic mode. Switch to aperture priority mode, and dial the f stop down as low as it will go - this will set the aperture wide open.
posted by Uncle Ira at 11:19 PM on April 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Those were likely shot with longer lenses (70mm+) at an aperture below f4. The best you can do is stop all the way down and keep your lens at no less than 55mm. You could also try to have your subject positioned at the trailing edge of the hyperfocal distance range of acceptable sharpness (that is a thing)...but that is really to hard to control in most casual shooting situations...basically for every aperture and focal length there is a point at which things 1/3rd in front of a subject and 2/3s in back of the subject are in sharp focus. This is the hyperfocal distance. If your subject stands at the back end of the range of acceptable can decrease your DOF.

Really though its more about long lenses and low fstops..
posted by jnnla at 11:54 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if your camera has this, but if you're a beginner and want to make your way into the manual world eventually, one pit-stop you can make is in visiting aperture priority mode, and setting your lens as wide as possible, that is, the lowest possible f-stop.

This will create the shallowest depth of field possible, thus blurring out the background in most situations. And the camera will/should change the shutter speed/ISO for you accordingly. Use autofocus to focus in on the face, particularly the eyes. Sometimes shooting "wide open" will create a depth of field that is *too* shallow. Then you can just step it up.

The Digital Picture has some nice lens reviews. A lens will be described by its focal length and maximum aperture. Cameras with wider apertures will typically cost more money and be of better build quality. Prime lenses (lenses with fixed focal lengths, as opposed to zooms) will also typically have wider possible apertures.

The Nikon 18-55mm looks like it has an f-stop range of 3.5-5.6 which isn't particularly good for portraits with blurred out backgrounds. Assuming you are shooting a portrait at 55mm, that gives you a lowest possible f-stop of 5.6. Canon's best 50mm lens for example has an f-stop as low as 1.2.

My favorite portrait lens right now is a 100mm/2.8. If you're looking for something easy to use I would recommend something in the 50mm-85mm range.
posted by phaedon at 12:03 AM on April 14, 2011

Unfortunately, the 18-55 just can't make those kinds of images. It's a convenient lens, but it doesn't have the physical properties which allow those shots. (Hint: You're looking for a lens with a low aperture/f-stop number -- 2.8 or less)

So, you need some new glass. The 35mm f/1.8 is a pretty good match for the D40, and I'd highly recommend it as your first "real" lens. It's cheap ($200 new), matches the D40's small size/weight, and it is able to throw the background out of focus with its big aperture. And, going by this post, it'll present a similar field-of-view to what The Sartorialist himself was using a few years ago.

For dedicated portrait work, a longer tele lens (60mm+) would be even better… but this is the territory where things go from expensive to ridiculously expensive. If $500 for a lens isn't unreasonable, check out the 85mm f/3.5 VR. It really would be a more ideal portrait lens, with the added bonus of macro (extreme closeup) capabilities.

There's also handful of good old Nikon AI/AF lenses you could find used, but they'll work with varying degrees of joy and/or frustration on the D40. None of them will autofocus, and you may or may not get metering. I'd stay away from them unless you know your way around light meters.
posted by bhayes82 at 12:30 AM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

I agree with bhayes82. You need fast glass.

Get the 35mm f1.8 on your camera, then set your camera to aperture priority at f1.8. If you're looking for something cheaper, I believe Nikon makes a 50mm f1.8 for around $150.
posted by j03 at 12:36 AM on April 14, 2011

The EXIF data of the image you linked to shows that it was shot at 85mm focal length and f2.5 aperture (on a Canon 5D mk II). So what jnnla said above is correct.

The Nikon 50mm f1.4 also has a very shallow depth of field, and has a version that will autofocus. The 50mm f1.8 (no autofocus) and the 35mm f1.8 would make good budget alternatives. There is also the Nikon 85mm f1.8, but it won't autofocus on your Nikon D40.

Choosing a lens with a shorter focal length might be worthwhile because your Nikon D40 has a crop factor of 1.5, whereas the Canon 5Dmk2 is a full-frame camera. If you had a full-frame camera, then the 85mm f1.8 lens could be used to very closely approximate the appearance of the Satorialist image.

Otherwise, much of the advice above is useful. The only thing I would add is that you should make sure that there is a good distance between your subject and the background, so the latter can be properly out of focus.
posted by mattn at 1:12 AM on April 14, 2011

jnnia has it backwards. For the record, "stopping down" a lens means going to a numerically larger but physically smaller aperture, resulting in increased depth of field. Simplfied, this translates into sharper backgrounds, not less sharp backgrounds.

A good starting point for the poster would be to set the camera on aperture priority mode, and make sure you're shooting at the kit lens's largest (smallest numerically) aperture. This will get you as close as possible to the look of the images in the links you provided.

Ideally, as others have pointed out, you'd best consider a faster telephoto lens, like a Nikon 85/1.8, shooting close to wide open or something longer.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:45 AM on April 14, 2011

You need a new lens.
posted by fire&wings at 3:51 AM on April 14, 2011

I'll second the 35mm f/1.8 - the bonus here it's great with low light.

Thanks to the laws of physics (but PLEASE don't ask me to explain), the closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field will be. In other words, there's a smaller sliver of what will be in focus. It's worth playing with, but remember that if you get too close, the camera won't focus at all.
posted by chrisinseoul at 5:22 AM on April 14, 2011

In order to throw the background out of focus, you have to keep in mind three variables:
1. Aperture (in other words, f-stop),
2. Focal Length (35mm, 50mm, etc), and
3. Camera-to-subject distance.
The lower your Aperture value, the shallower the DOF (which is to say, more blurry). The longer the Focal Length, the shallower the DOF (70mm is longer than 35mm). The closer you are to the subject (while still keeping them in focus) the shallower the DOF.

Putting all of this together, if I really want to blow a background out of focus I take my 200mm lens, I set it at 2.8 and I get as close to the subject as I can while still keeping focus. Often, the DOF is so shallow that only a part of the face is in focus (usually the eye closer to me since that is what I am usually setting my auto-focusing on).

Selecting a 35mm 1.8 lens isn't a bad idea, but it isn't the best lens for portraiture. First of all, your focal length is working against you for DOF (see #2 above). Second, at 35mm, you will tend to distort the shape of your subject at the edges of the frame. To frame that same Sartorialist shot using a 35mm would make him look a bit weird.

The "standard" portrait lens's complicated. Suffice it to say, portrait lens focal lengths have...uh...fanboys. Some people argue that the real portrait lens in 105mm. Others are prepared to fight for (and die for) their 85mm. Obviously, the 105mm will get you a shallower DOF than the 85mm (Aperture values being equal). The 85mm is probably more versatile.

My suggestion is the Nikon 50mm 1.8D. There have been MeFi posts written about this focal length. It is considered to be the same "focal length" as the human eye (so it "sees" the way you and I do). It can cost less than the 35mm. It is long enough not to distort your subjects. Its long enough to really throw the background (or your subject, if that's what you want) out of focus. It is more versatile for travel photography than longer lenses. Its what the Sartorialist has attached to his camera in the site bhayes82 linked to (sort of...he has a 50mm f1.4 but no worries, the 1/2 stop of aperture isn't that big of a deal at this point).
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:53 AM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just to flag up a potential issue: if you are going to be shooting at f1.8 on a camera for which the minimum ISO setting* is 200, you might find that in very bright conditions the shutter speed of your camera is simply not fast enough to produce a picture which is not over-exposed. This would be a particularly acute problem if you were using the flash, since they require a much slower shutter speed to synchronise properly.

Fortunately this problem can be solved with the purchase of a neutral density filter.

* ISO = the light sensitivity of the image sensor
posted by mattn at 8:07 AM on April 14, 2011

The 50mm f/1.8D is indeed a fantastic lens, but it will not autofocus on the D40. The D40 (and most of the newer Dxxxx-series) have omitted the mechanical drive for old AF lenses. Sorry. :(

Being that the D40 has a "cropped" APS-C sensor, the 35mm have a similar field of view to a 50mm on a full-frame body. Technical details as mentioned above: No, it's not exactly the same, and you'll get a bit of distortion -- close-up head shots, for example, will often make the subject's nose look a bit large. Photoshop and Lightroom have built-in lens correction presets that will take care of the issue, however.

For what it's worth, I do have a 35mm f/1.8 that's almost permanently attached to my D90. It's a great, compact, all-around lens -- and it can be great for portraits with the mentioned caveats. There's better glass out there, yes -- but you'll unfortunately need to buy a different body to take advantage of it.
posted by bhayes82 at 8:21 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

The 35mm 1.8 is my favorite lens on my D5000. I highly recommend it.

But, it's simply NOT true that your 18-55 is not capable of blurry backgrounds. As Uncle Ira suggests, go into aperture priority mode, choose the lowest aperture number you can and give it a try. Zooming closer to the 55mm end will help.

Here's an example, taken with your exact lens, at about 50mm. I've cropped a lot of the background out, but you can see the blurry background in the lower left. And that's a wall just about 10 or 15 feet behind the subject.

Have fun!
posted by The Deej at 9:45 AM on April 14, 2011

Seconding some others here -- you CAN get decent blurred-background photos with your D40+18-55mm setup. See this example. The site Pixel-peeper is a great place to find pictures based on various parameters -- because the images have embedded metadata, you can learn a lot just from that.

But, if you want more bokeh and more flexibility, a "fast" lens like the 35mm f/1.8 DX is a great starting point.
posted by thewildgreen at 12:03 PM on April 14, 2011

Nikon has just published details of a fast 50 which can autofocus on entry-level Nikon DSLRs, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G. You do not really need AF for portrait pictures though.

If you would prefer a fast 85mm for even less DOF, there is a cheap ($300) alternative in the Samyang (aka Vivitar, Walimex, ...) 85mm f/1.4. You loose AF but it's a "decent performer".
posted by Akeem at 1:36 AM on April 15, 2011

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