Every portrait photographer (and avid amateurs) wants to create images with the subject in sharp focus as the background fades to a buttery smooth blur.
But not everyone has a lens that can create that look right out of the camera. So you need a way to create that look after the fact.
If you want a step-by-step walkthrough, check out the video I made…
I’m going to cover three ways you can blur the background in Lightroom using (1) the graduated filter, and (2) the brush tool…as well why to not use the radial filter.
Why Blur The Background Of A Photo
Blurring the background of a photo has a few beneficial effects.
It can help focus the viewer’s attention on the subject of the photo rather than the background. Blurring the background separates it from the subject when the subject is in sharp focus.
It can also help to “clean up” a distracting or otherwise unsightly background.
I’ve taken plenty of portraits in locations that weren’t necessarily the most picturesque settings, but by blurring the background with a shallow depth of field, the images looked great.
If you want to learn more about doing this in camera, read our guide to Blurring The Background In Photos.
But if you need to blur the background in Lightroom, keep reading…
First Identify The Parts That Should Be Blurry
This is actually the most important part and can vary based on what kind of image you have. Before you even start working on the image, you need to figure out what you want blurred and what should be in sharp focus.
The obvious part of this is that you want the person sharp and the background blurred.
But doing this in a way that looks realistic is the tricky part, especially when you have an image where the connection between the subject and the background is in the frame (usually this happens at their feet).
If possible, cropping out that part of the image can make things a lot easier and make it look a lot more natural.
But if that isn’t an option for you, then you need to realize that the background needs to have a varying degree of blur. Starting out sharp where the subject is in focus and then gradually out of focus as you get deeper into the photo (or closer if there is foreground in the image as well).
It can actually help to sketch out the areas you want blurred ahead of time to help you visualize it.
The image below is one that has shallow depth of field done in camera using an 85mm lens and f/1.4 aperture. You can see the in focus depth of field designated in white. It helps to analyze images like this so you can understand better what it looks like when an image has the background blurred naturally.
Once you can understand how it looks when done in camera, you’ll be ready to recreate that look using Lightroom.
Getting this wrong is the most common mistake that can make an image blurred in Lightroom look fake.
Applying Background Blur In Lightroom
There are two parts to blurring the background of an image in Lightroom
- Selecting the area you want to blur (and not the subject), and
- Applying the blur
That first step is going to be the hardest in Lightroom. Photoshop handles selections much better than Lightroom, but I know many of you prefer to stay in Lightroom (and I totally get it).
So lets talk about some ways to get it done in Lightroom…
Using the graduated filter is the way to go for more wide-angle images or those where you have a background of varying depth, such as the image below.
The reason I use the graduated filter for these types of images is that it allows you to uniformly increase the blur in an image on a linear path (ok I know that sounds confusing, but it’s easy to see in the demonstration video above).
Click on the Graduated Filter icon and then set the adjustments to -100 sharpness and -100 clarity.
Drag the Graduated Filter down from the top of the image. The goal is to use the gradient to simulate how the depth of the image will naturally fall out of focus.
The middle line of the graduated filter designates where the effect is at 50% strength and the bottom line is where it is at 0% strength. Position it so that the bottom line is just above where you want the image to be in focus (in the image above, I placed it just above her feet).
Next, you’ll have to use the Brush Tool built into the Graduated Filter (not the main brush tool at the top). Set the brush to Erase and then brush it onto the subject to remove the blur from your subject.
This can be tricky and you’ll have to use the auto-mask function to ensure you get the edges carefully masked out. You can see how I did it in the video.
If you have an image where the background is a consistent distance from the subject across the entire frame, then using the brush in Lightroom will be the quickest and easiest way to accomplish your goal.
The brush tool is perfect for this situation because you don’t have to worry about gradually increasing the blur like you do in an image like the one above.
I would approach an image such as this in three steps.
First, select the brush tool and set it to -100 sharpness and -100 clarity and turn auto-mask off. I also like to work with the overlay turned on so I can see where I already brushed.
Next, brush in areas of the image that are not near the subject. Depending on the image this could be a large part of the image or not.
Finally, turn auto-mask on and brush in the background along the edges of the subject. This is where you have to be the most careful not to add blur to the subject itself.
You may have to switch back and forth between turning the auto-mask on and off while zooming into your image and using a smaller brush to get to the finer details.
The more meticulous you are with the edges of the image, the better the result will look.
Why You Shouldn’t Use The Radial Filter
I have seen other tutorials suggest using the radial filter for adding blur to your image. This is the lazy way to do it and is sure to make your image look digitally altered.
If the fake look is what you’re going for, then go ahead and try it.
The problem with the radial filter is that the natural depth of the image will almost never be in a radial shape like that, so it will not look natural even if you mask out the subject perfectly.