How to Achieve a Blurry Background in Your Photos

How to Achieve a Blurry Background in Your Photos

Inside: Want to take photos with a blurry background? These three tips will help you achieve a beautiful blurry background – and two don’t require you to change your camera settings!

 

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!

Years ago I kept a personal family photo blog, before I knew the first thing about photography.

Back then, I didn’t know how to take good photos, but I did seem to recognize when I got lucky on my auto settings.

When I look back I see the photos I loved and shared most had a sharp subject in the foreground and a blurry background.

Those photos garnered lots of attention and compliments from others.  I remember the rush of excitement I felt to share my best photos. I knew they looked good, yet I could never pinpoint why those photos came out so well. 

I had no idea how I’d done it!

blurry background

Now I know how to get consistent results from my camera and how to take photos with a beautiful blurry background.

Why We Love Photos With A Blurry Background 

A good photo mimics the way the human eye sees.

Let me explain with a quick exercise.  Hold your hand one foot in front of your face.  Without taking your eyes off your hand, notice what you see beyond your hand.

It’s blurry, right?

A good photo captures a scene the way your eyes would see it.

I encourage you to pay attention to this the next time you’re talking with someone. Notice how they look sharp and what’s behind them looks blurry.

Which of these photos looks most natural to you (or, which appeals to you most)?

If you stood and looked down at the fern frond, the first image looks more like what your eye would see.  Your eyes would blur the table and doily as you focus on the fern.  The entire scene wouldn’t be in focus like the second image.

On the other hand, if you look at a scene far from you, such as a landscape, notice how most of the scene appears in focus as you gaze over it.

A good landscape photo will have the whole scene in focus because it mirrors how the human eye would see it.

As you learn to take good photos, you can think through the way your eyes would view a scene to evaluate how well you captured it.

The First Key to a Blurry Background

You can increase the blur of your photo’s background with two methods I’ll share below.  These don’t require any change in camera settings.

But one camera setting is crucial to a blurry background – your aperture.

Aperture is one of the legs of the exposure triangle.  Aperture, also known as f/stop, controls how much of your image is in focus.

For a simple to understand explanation of aperture, be sure to check out my EASY TO UNDERSTAND PHOTOGRAPHY CHEAT SHEET FOR BEGINNERS.

The wider the camera’s aperture opens, the lower the f/stop number will be, and the blurrier the background of the photo will be.  

The more the camera’s aperture closes, the higher the f/stop number will be, and the less blurry the background will be.

In the example with the ferns above, the photo with a wide aperture of f.2.8 has a blurry background.  The photo with a narrow aperture of f/13 has a sharp background.

The first key to a blurry background: choose a lower f/stop setting, like f/2.8 or f/3.2.  

This photo, taken at aperture f/2.8, has a beautiful blurry background.

 

 

Here’s Second Key to a Blurry Background:

increase your subject’s distance from the background behind them.

The further the subject’s distance from the background, the blurrier the background will appear.

Check out these two photos.  I took them both at aperture f/6.3 with the same lens, my favorite 35mm.  But notice how much blurrier the background in the second photo looks due to the subject’s increased distance from the background:

How to Take Photos with a Blurry Background on your iPhone

With your camera phone you can’t control your aperture.  The phone chooses the aperture for you.

But you can use your subject’s distance from the background to get a blurrier background.

The next time you’re taking a photo of a person take a moment to move them into a position where the background will be as far behind them as possible.

Another option: use your phone’s portrait mode to generate a blurry background.  The phone uses an algorithm to create the blur.  On closer examination the blur may not look as natural as it would if taken with a DSLR, but overall, it’s a nice option to improve your iPhone photography.

Here’s a great tutorial on iPhone portrait mode.

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And The Third Key to a Blurry Background:

use a lens with a long focal length.

You can achieve a blurry background with a wide angle lens.  In the example below, I used one of my favorite lenses, a wide-angle 35 mm lens:

blurry background

But a longer lens, like an 85 mm, 135 mm, or 200 mm compresses the background.  That is, the focal length lens causes the background to appear closer to the subject and blurrier.

In the photo below I used my 135 mm at aperture f/3.5.  I love the creamy background.  The trees behind her are across the street but it looks like she’s in the middle of the forest.

 

Background Blur Simplified

To achieve a blurry background:

  • choose a wide aperture (low f/stop number)
  • increase your subject’s distance from the background
  • use a long lens

All 3 employed together are a powerful combination for beautiful photos with background blur.  No luck required.

Need all these photography terms simplified? Click on the image below to download a Free Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet for Beginners:

 

How to Toggle your Camera’s Focal Point for Better Photos

How to Toggle your Camera’s Focal Point for Better Photos

Inside: Read my detailed tutorial on how to choose your camera focus points and choose which part of your image you want in focus.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!

Before I learned how to use my DSLR camera I found myself in need of a creative outlet.

A Pinterest search turned up some cute glass tile pendant necklaces and I got excited to try my hand.  I made a few and felt so pleased with my craftiness I wanted to show them off with photos.

I studied the photos on the tutorial’s website.

The pendant in the photo’s foreground looked sharp while the background looked blurry.  Such a nice effect.

I loved how it looked and wanted to figure it out.

What’s the Secret to Choosing the Focal Point?

I laid my pendants out on a white table cloth and arranged them in rows.

I took a few shots with my nice DSLR and checked the back of my camera.

Arghhh…why couldn’t I get the one I wanted in focus?

I tried everything I could think of.

I changed my camera angle and took the photos from the side.

I moved closer in, then further away.

How hard could this be?

But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get my camera to focus where I wanted it to.

One shot would have one pendant in focus, but never the one I wanted.

The next shot would have them all in focus.

And the third would be a shot of the wall behind them!

After 20 minutes of attempts to get my camera to focus where I wanted it to, I gave up.

“What am I missing?” I thought.  “What’s the trick to this?”

Why Its Important to Choose Your Camera Focus Points

A great photo has a clear focal point.  The focal point should be in focus and stand out from the rest of the image.

In Auto Mode, most cameras will choose the focal point for you.

As you look into your camera’s viewfinder you will see an array of focal points.  When you depress your shutter half way you’ll notice how one or more of the camera focus points light up.

camera focus points

If you’re lucky, when you shoot in auto mode, one of the camera focus points will fall on your subject.

But as often as not, when your camera decides for you, you’ll get an unpredictable result.

In the image below I wanted to flower in focus, but the camera chose the leaf instead:

photo of flower demonstrating how to choose your camera focus points

I got the result I wanted when I chose the camera’s focal point.

photo of a flower demonstrating the power of choosing your own camera focal point

Learning how to choose your focal point will take your photos to the next level. 

 

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A Powerful Setting!

Toggling your focal point is powerful.  Here are three reasons why:

First, it’s powerful because you can tell your camera what’s most important in your image.

Here, I placed the focal point on my daughter.  This told my camera I wanted her in focus, not the poles or trees behind her.  When paired with a wide aperture the background blurs while the subject remains sharp.

Second, it’s powerful because if there’s something between you and your subject you can incorporate it into the foreground of the image without confusing your camera as to what you want in focus.

In this shot, I told my camera to focus on my son as the subject of the photo, not my daughter in front of him.  This added nice depth to the photo, and my camera knew what I wanted in focus.

Last, it’s powerful because you can use it to create interesting compositions while shooting.

In this photo I used the rule of thirds to compose my photo with my son in the right third of the frame.

boy playing soccer with focal point overlay to show how photos was composed and shot

 

Confusing Terms

I’ll be the first to admit that photography terms can get confusing.  The words focus, auto, and mode get thrown around a lot and not always in reference to the same camera function.

In this tutorial I’ll use the term single point focus to refer to the camera setting that allows us to choose and toggle our focal point.

But this camera function may be called something different based on the camera model.  On Nikon cameras it’s called the AF area mode.  On Canon cameras it’s called single point AF.

How to Toggle Your Camera’s Focal Point

Step 1 – pull out your camera manual.

Remember that manual that came with your camera?  Time to dig it out!

If you can’t find it, Google can help.  Most camera manufacturers provide copies of their camera manuals online.  You can search for your Nikon camera manual HERE, or your Canon camera manual HERE.

Every camera’s a little different so you’ll need to find out how to switch to single point focus – or whatever term your camera manufacturer uses – on your camera.

 

Step 2 – Get Out of Auto Mode

You can’t choose your focal point unless you shoot in manual mode, or a semi-manual mode.  If you shoot in Auto mode the camera will choose both your exposure settings and focal point for you.

 

Tutorials

Here are some tutorials to help you switch your camera to single point focus:

Canon Rebel

Nikon D300

Nikon D5000

Canon 5D Mark iii (see page 14)

Step 3 – Practice!

Once you get your camera set to single point focus practice using your camera’s multi-selector wheel to toggle your focal point.

On most cameras, it looks like this:

Look through your camera’s viewfinder. Use the arrows on your multi-selector wheel to toggle your focal point up, down, left and right.

Practice until you get comfortable doing it.

Give it a try!

Get out your camera manual and find out how to toggle your camera’s focal point.  You’ll have a powerful photography tool for whatever you want to shoot – craft projects and kids alike! 

Want to improve your own photos right now?  Sign up for my free e-course:

How to Make a Lightroom Photo Book (Fast and Easy!)

How to Make a Lightroom Photo Book (Fast and Easy!)

Inside: Video tutorial and detailed instructions on how to make a Lightroom Photo Book in minutes!

Disclaimer: This page contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!

How to Make a Lightroom Photo Book

Not to be morbid, but let’s imagine your family 60 or 70 years in the future when you’re gone (or perhaps very old).

“Remember our trips to the beach?” your grown son says to his siblings.  “We built sand castles and played in the tidal pools.  Such great memories…” 

“Mom took some amazing photos.  I remember how much I enjoyed them on her phone.  She loved to take photos – photos of us.  Man, I wish we had them now.

lightroom book templates

Your grown daughter chimes in, “Oh yeah, remember how we used to set off fireworks on the beach at sunset?  Dad would let you boys light them. You begged him to buy fireworks every year.”

lightroom book tutorial

“I know we had some great photos of that.  Mom took such good photos.  She poured her heart into her photography.  Sure wish I could see those photos now,” she sighs. “We should’ve gotten her cloud password before…”

 

Ask yourself this: in the future…

 

Will your kids have your cloud password or the hard drive where all your photos are stored?

What if technology changes? Will your old photo files be unreadable on new technology?

Would your kids think to transfer your photos to their own storage system?

How tragic for our photos to die a digital death on a corrupted or outmoded hard drive, or to be lost with our cloud password.

 

Printed photos are a beautiful memento you can send with your kids into the future, and the best way to ensure all your photographic memories are accessible down the road.

I want to leave my kids with tangible, printed memories of their childhood. 

Here’s the key

In the past, I’ve printed my images as individual 4x6 prints.  But I’ve since switched to albums because when I create extra steps for myself I increase the likelihood it won’t get done.

Ask me how many years of 4x6 images I have stored on my shelf waiting to be put in albums.  Ugh.

When you have kids, you must avoid extra steps.  You need a simple and streamlined process for your photos – from upload to print.

I’ve found a great solution.

Lightroom has a built-in photo book function.  It integrates with a album company called Blurb. Some initial setup is needed before you create your first book, but once you’ve done it, future albums will be super easy.

My photo books aren’t elaborate. I don’t add text and I use the same layout every time. The goal for me is DONE, and fast.

I’ve been so happy with my Blurb books and my kids LOVE to look through them.

Follow my Lightroom Photo Book Tutorial to get started:

 

 Organize Photos with Keywords

I use Lightroom to organize and edit my photos.

After I edit a photo in Lightroom’s Develop Module, I switch over to the Library Module and toggle open the Keywording tab and give my image a keyword.

For the photos I want in my 2018 album, I add the keyword “2018 Album.”

Lightroom photo book

As I add this keyword to images I edit throughout the year the number of images on the keyword list grows.  

When I want to see all the images with a keyword at once, I go down to Keyword List.  I click on the small arrow beside my keyword “2018 album” on the right.  This brings up all the images I want in my album in one click!  Brilliant!

lightroom book tutorial

Next, I click over to the Book Module to lay out my album.

 Create Your Album Layout

Inside the Book Module you’ll see all your photos at the bottom, ready to be put into your album.

Lightroom photo book tutorial

Book Module Settings

The book module will auto-fill your book with the photos you’ve selected.  If you don’t want it to do this, go to your computer’s menu in Lightroom and choose Book – Book Preferences.  Uncheck “Start new books by autofilling.”

Now we will do a little setup. This will save you so much time down the road.  

Your future photo printing self will thank you for this.

Here are the steps:

1.  Click on the Book Module

2.  Under Book Settings, choose “Blurb Photo Book”  I recommend the Standard Landscape book with a hardcover for durability.  If the price worries you, you can choose a soft cover, or join Blurb’s e-mail list.  I order when they run a 40% off sale.  Check out Blurb’s paper, cover and format options.

Lightroom book tutorial

3.  Under Auto Layout, click Clear Layout

4.  Click on the dropdown menu beside Preset and click on Edit Auto Layout Preset

Lightroom photo book tutorial

5.  Here’s where we get choose the album layout. You have multiple options.

I always go for simple. I’ve created a layout preset with one large photo on the left and 2 smaller photos on the right.  

I like the aesthetic of the two photo option because it’s large enough to showcase the photos and they’re horizontal, which is how I shoot most of my images.

But if I had a ton of photos, I would choose 4 per page to keep costs down.  

Blurb requires a minimum of 20 pages, so if I didn’t have many photos I would choose a one photo per page layout.

Choose the layout you like best, but whatever you choose, keep it simple. 

Remember, DONE is better than PERFECT. I recommend the settings below:  

Lightroom photo book templates

Give your layout preset a name before you click DONE.

Fill Your Album and Make Adjustments

Select the preset you made from the drop-down menu, and click on Auto Layout.  Your album will fill in seconds!

Lightroom photo book tutorial
Lightroom photo book template

If you want to make any adjustments to your album you can.

If you want to switch out any photos, it’s easy. Drag up a different photo from the filmstrip and drop it where you want it.  

Click on individual photos to adjust the zoom or crop.

Click on the circled options on the bottom left (see above screenshot).  This will allow you to see the whole album, one spread, or one page at a time.

    And You’re Done!

    Lightroom will sharpen and optimize your images for your album.  What a tremendous time saver!

    You can save the photo book and wait to print it later (in case you want to wait for a sale) or go ahead and upload it to Blurb.

    Overheard 60 Years in the Future…

    Your grown daughter sighs with happiness as she flips through an album from 2018. “These photos take me back to the beach.  The sand, the wind – the LOUD fireworks.  Mom loved us so and she loved to capture our childhood.  It means so much now.  I treasure this album.” 

    Be the mom who leaves her kids tangible memories of their childhood.

    Video Tutorial

    Watch this video to see how fast and easy it is to create a Lightroom photo book.   

    Free Course!

    This post is one of the modules in my FREE ONLINE COURSE, Love Your Organized Photos.  If your hard drive’s a HOT MESS and you need help with photo organization let me show you how.

    Did I mention it’s FREE?

    Do You Make This Photography Mistake?

    Do You Make This Photography Mistake?

    Inside: New photographers often struggle to figure out what aperture to use.  This post gives you two questions to help you decide.  Read on to learn from my photography mistake!

     

     

    Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!

     

    At six weeks old my third baby had begun to smile in earnest and I knew I HAD to capture it.

    I settled the baby in her bouncer with a pretty blanket draped over the seat to create a nice background and enlisted my husband to help me coax out a baby smile.

    My camera settings were ready and I felt my heart beat faster as my husband chatted with the baby in sing-song tones.

    The moment came – her daddy’s voice made her face light up with the sweetest grin and I snapped away.

    I reviewed my images on the back of my camera and saw a beautiful photo of my baby’s smile.

    Success!  A keeper!

    what aperture to use

    …or so I thought.

    Later when I downloaded my photos to my computer I admired my capture.

    The exposure looked perfect and her grin made me giddy.

    I imagined how much everyone would love this photo on her birth announcement.

    I zoomed in…

    what aperture should I use

    Wait, the eyes.

    My heart sank.

    Her left eye looked blurry.

    My excitement shifted to deep disappointment.

    What happened? Where did I go wrong?

    I had no idea.

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    What Aperture To Use

    As a new photographer I’d read the rule of thumb:

    choose your aperture based on the number of subjects in your photo.

    That was easy enough to remember.

    So I’d chosen an aperture of f/1.8 because I had one person in my photo. Shouldn’t that have worked?  Why didn’t it work?  

    How do you know what aperture to use?

    The fact is

    IT DEPENDS.

    It’s true.  The aperture you should use depends on how many people or subjects are in your photo.

    But other factors also need to be considered when you decide what aperture to use.

    photography cheat sheet

    Aperture, also known as f/stop, is one of the legs of the exposure triangle.  Aperture helps photographers create the beautiful, blurry backgrounds most people want when they are learning how to use their DSLR.

     what aperture to use

    photo with blurry background taken at f/2.5

    Lower f/stop = Shallow Depth of Field

    A photo taken at a lower f/stop setting has a “shallow depth of field.”  A small “slice” of your image is in focus.

    Think of it like a pane of glass running on a vertical plane through your image.  A lower f/stop setting will create a “thin” pane of glass through your subject.

    This imaginary window pane, or in-focus “sliver” of the photo is called the “depth of field.” 

    Remember, a photo taken at a lower f/stop setting, like f/2 has a “shallow depth of field.”  A photo taken at a higher f/stop, like f/11 has a “wide depth of field.’   

     

    I Made One Simple Change

     

    Scroll through the photos below and see if you can spot what I changed from the first to the second photo.

    Hint: It wasn’t my aperture setting.

    In the first photo notice only the toes are in focus.

    In the second image notice how all of both feet and part of the legs are in focus, even though I didn’t change the aperture.

    Do you know what changed from the first photo to the second?  Click on the photo to see a larger version:

     

    In the example with my daughter’s photo taken at f/1.8 the shallow depth of field could not encompass both eyes.

    How to Fix It

    To fix the problem I could’ve closed down my aperture to f/2.8 or f/3.2 to capture both of her eyes in focus.

    or

    I could’ve taken the photo from further away to get both eyes in focus without adjusting my f/stop setting.

    In the example above I took a few steps back but didn’t change my settings. 

    I cropped in closer on the second image (in Lightroom) to show the increased depth of field created when I moved further from my subject.

    But you can see here how far back I was compared to the first photo, which was not cropped.

    I learned three important lessons from my photography mistake:

    • Mistakes are good!  I learn something important from every mistake I make.  I’ve learned to embrace them because they always teach me a lesson I’ll remember.
    • When I’m close to my subject a wider aperture won’t be the best choice because I want to get both eyes and most of the facial features in focus.  A higher f/stop number such as f/3.2 or f/4.0 may be a better choice.
    • Zoom in on the camera’s LCD to check focus!  If I’d zoomed in on those photos of my daughter I’d have realized I needed to adjust my aperture setting or back up a bit to get both eyes in focus.

    How Do I Know What Aperture To Use?

    The next time you need to decide what aperture to use ask yourself two questions:

    1.  How many people are in my photo? 

    Use one aperture stop for every person in the photo.  For 5 people, for example, use at least f/5.  And if they are on different planes, such as in rows, you may need to raise your f/stop number even more to get everyone in focus.

    2.  How close am I to my subject(s)?

    If you’re close to your subject for a portrait, use a higher f/stop to increase your depth of field and get all the important parts of the subject’s face in focus.

    NOTE:  your lens and the type of camera you have also impact a photo’s depth of field.  Check out this helpful article to better understand how these other factors affect the depth of field in a photo.

    Practice with different lenses if you have more than one. Different lenses will affect your depth of field based on their focal length.

    If you’re new to photography I recommend a lens like THIS or THIS.  It’s a great lens for beginners!

    Learn From My Mistake

    Learn from my photography mistake and take your distance from your subject into account when you choose what aperture to use.  You’ll avoid download disappointment and increase your keepers.

     

    Need all these photography terms simplified? Click on the image below to download a Free Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet for Beginners:

    Free Download – Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet

    Free Download – Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet

    Inside: New to photography?  Start here!  Download my free DSLR photography for beginners PDF HERE.

     

    Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!

    I looked down past my large, round belly, to the brand new DSLR sitting in my lap. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child and I couldn’t wait to take beautiful photos of our new baby.  

    But as I read the instruction manual and fumbled with the camera settings my excitement waned. I wanted to take great photos, but had no idea where to begin.  

    “A photography class is what I need!” I mused.

    A few days later a discount on a local photography class landed in my inbox and I registered right away. 

    Surely this would unlock the mysteries of my camera and have me taking beautiful photos in no time.

    I went to the class one week before my due date, larger and rounder.  I paid close attention and scribbled notes on ISO, aperture and shutter speed.  

    I was sure I understood.

    Then it was time to go out and test my new knowledge by taking photos in manual mode. And I was LOST.  

    I couldn’t remember

    -which setting to choose first,

    -which setting controlled which aspect of the photo, or

    -why I thought this class was a good idea in the first place!

    How was I supposed to hold all this information in my head???

    DSLR Photography for Beginners

    I checked my notes again.  I was still lost.

    In frustration I switched the camera back to Auto mode.  

    The instructor came by to check my progress.  He saw that I’d reverted back to Auto.  I felt the heat creeping into my cheeks.  

    “It’s challenging, isn’t it?”, he said. 

    “Um, yeah, understatement of the year” I thought.  I was ashamed to admit I’d already given up.

    My scribbled notes weren’t cutting it. This photography class didn’t deliver the results I’d hoped for.  

    I needed someone to simplify this for me.

    DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF

    This article explains the exposure triangle in depth.  I want you to read it all.

    But if you’re like I was and need a simple photography cheat sheet, you can download it HERE.

    Pin This for Later

    photography cheat sheet

     

    photography for dummies pdf

    If you’re new to photography, the exposure triangle is the first thing you need to understand.  It’s the foundation for understanding how to use your dslr camera.

    Every camera (even your camera phone) utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or image.

    When you shoot in auto mode your camera makes the decisions for you of how to balance the three elements of the exposure triangle based on the scene you’re photographing and the light available.

    When you shoot in manual mode you get to do the thinking and choose the best settings for the lighting you’re in and the effect you want to achieve.

    Taking control of my camera settings and learning manual mode was the key to learning to take photos I love.  

    Let’s look at the function of each leg of the exposure triangle.  We’ll start with ISO:

    ISO Settings

    ISO stands for “International Standards Organization.”  

    That’s not important except to know there are internationally recognized standards for this camera setting.

    Your ISO setting determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor (the part inside your camera that captures an image) is to light.  The lower your ISO setting, the less sensitive.  The higher the setting, the more sensitive.

    The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will be able to “gather”.

    Most entry level DSLR’s have an ISO range from 100 to 3200 or 6400, while pro-level DSLR’s have ISO ranges up to 32,000 and even higher! 

    A higher ISO setting has one major drawback.  The higher you set your ISO, the more “noise” you’ll get in your photos.

    Higher end cameras can handle this noise better than entry level DSLR’s, so the better your camera, the better it’s ability to shoot in low light where you’ll need to use a higher ISO setting.

    A higher ISO setting also limits the range of highlights and shadows (known as the dynamic range) your camera can capture.

    For these reasons, it’s best to keep your ISO setting as low as possible.

    ISO Examples

    I took this photo of my daughter watching fireworks under dark low light conditions. I have a higher-end DSLR and my ISO setting was at 20,000!

    photo of girl watching fireworks at night illustrates digital noise caused by a high ISO setting

    When I zoom in (below) you can see the noise caused by the high ISO setting. This noise is considered undesirable in terms of image quality.

    To avoid this always keep your ISO setting as low as possible.

    Don’t forget to download the FREE DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF HERE.

    Shutter Speed

    The next leg of the exposure triangle is SHUTTER SPEED.

    Shutter speed refers to how long the camera’s shutter stays open when you snap a photo, expressed in fractions of a second.

    For example, a shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter will stay open for one one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second (which isn’t long at all)!  

    You’ll sometimes see shutter speed written as a whole number, like SS 125, but this can be confusing, so it’s best to write and think of it in fraction form.

    The smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed.  

    For example, SS 1/800 (one 800th of a second) is faster than SS 1/50 (one 50th of a second).

    Shutter speed can be used to capture motion blur.  A slow shutter speed can make running water look silky, or lend a sense of movement to a photo.  To achieve this look you would choose a longer shutter speed, such as 30 seconds.  

    This shutter speed is not written as a fraction, because it’s longer than a second.

    This site has great examples showing how to create motion blur using a slow shutter speed.


    For handheld photography it’s best to set your shutter speed at 1/125 or faster, especially if photographing a moving subject (like a child).  

    In most cases, a faster shutter speed is better.

    One important note:

    set your shutter speed higher than the focal length of your lens.  For example, if you have a long telephoto lens, such as a 200 mm, your minimum shutter speed would need to be 1/200.

    A slower shutter speed can lead to blurry photos.  This is known as “motion blur.” A fast shutter speed will be able to freeze the subject’s motion.

    A faster shutter speed also allows less time for the camera to capture light, so with a faster shutter speed less light will reach the camera’s sensor.  A slower shutter speed gives the camera more time to gather light, so more light will reach the camera’s sensor.

    Shutter Speed Examples

    These photos illustrate how shutter speed can help you achieve a sharp photo.

    This photo was taken at a fast shutter speed of 1/8000.  That’s one eight-thousandth of a second.  Note how sharp and in focus the flower is, even though the wind was blowing:

    photo of flower taken at shutter speed 1/8000 shutter speed 1/8000

    This next photo was taken at a slow shutter speed of 1/60 (that’s one 60th of a second). 

    1/60 is too slow for a handheld shot, and too slow to capture an object blowing in the wind.

    photo of flower taken with a slow shutter speed shows motion blur shutter speed 1/60

    For sharp photos, set your shutter speed at 1/125 or faster.

    Don’t forget to download the FREE DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF HERE.

    What Aperture to Use

    The third leg of the exposure triangle is known as APERTURE, also referred to as f/stop. The aperture you use depends on the effect you’re going for.  Let me explain.


    Aperture may be my favorite of the three legs because it’s what creates those beautiful blurry backgrounds that set a great photo apart from a snapshot.  This is what most people think of when they picture “professional photography.”

    Aperture means “opening”  

    The camera has an opening inside of it that allows light to pass through to the sensor.  The f/stop number, expressed as a fraction (yes, fractions again!) refers to how “wide open” or “closed down” the camera’s aperture is.

    The wider the camera’s aperture opens, the lower the f/stop number will be, and the blurrier the background of the photo will be.  

    The more closed the camera’s aperture is, the higher the f/stop number will be, and the less blurry the background will be.

    Some situations call for having more of your photo in focus.  Landscape photos, for example, should have the whole scene in focus and you’d need to use a narrower aperture to achieve this. 

    A photo of a large group of people may also call for a narrower aperture setting so everyone will be in focus. 

    The aperture you choose depends on what you’re photographing.

    A wider aperture (lower f/stop number) lets more light reach the camera sensor.  A narrower aperture (higher f/stop number) lets less light reach the camera sensor.

    The terms can get confusing!

    I had a hard time keeping this one straight when I first started learning manual mode.

    Think of it like the iris in your eye. When the light is dim your iris opens wider to let more light in.  When the light is bright your iris closes down to let in less light.

    In practice, the most important points to remember about aperture are:

    A lower f/stop number will give you a blurrier background. 

    If you’re photographing a larger number of people or a landscape a higher f/stop number will be needed.

    Aperture Examples

    The photos below illustrate how your aperture, or f/stop affects your photo.

    This photo was taken at f/3.2.  Notice the nice blurry background:

    photo of tulip with a blurry background taken at wide aperture f/3.2

    In this photo I changed my aperture to f/7.1.  Notice how the background doesn’t look as smooth.

    photo of tulip taken at narrower aperture f/7.1

    This photo was taken at f/16.  Notice how the background is much more in focus and we see more of the distracting elements in the background.  The photo taken at a wider aperture blurs them out for us.

    photo of tulip at f/16 f/16

    If you want a blurry background, choose a lower f/stop number.

    FREE DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF

    Five years later after my third child was born I’d finally gained a good understanding of how to use the exposure triangle.  

    I don’t want you to struggle with it for as long as I did, so I have a simple photography cheat sheet for you. It will help you when you’re trying to decide on your camera settings.  

    You can print it and take it along with you when you’re out shooting.  

    I truly love my photos now that I’ve mastered shooting in manual mode and understand how the exposure triangle affects my photos.  

    Learning manual mode was the key that unlocked the mysteries of photography for me and allowed me to take beautiful photos I love.