Separating Your Subject From the Background

Today I’m going to start answering questions that I’ve received from all of my awesome readers.  I want to thank everyone for submitting questions.  I’ve gotten so many that there’s no way I can individually respond to you all, but I will be covering the topics that I think are appropriate for this blog.  I have received emails from people wanting to know things about wedding photography and about shooting family sessions.  Right now, the main focus of this blog is to help moms take better pictures of their own kids.  Not to help people take pictures of other peoples children.  The other focus is to connect with other moms who are professional photographers and talk about balancing a family while running your own business.  I will not be covering pricing on this blog as my clients are some of my readers and I don’t think it’s an appropriate place to discuss that.  I will also not be covering wedding photography.  While I may touch on it every now and then (because that is the main part of my business), I won’t be answering any questions about wedding photography here.  If you’d like to learn more about wedding photography, pricing and marketing you can always schedule a “Day With Drew”.  You can read about those sessions here, here, and here.

Okay, onto today’s topic.  The question comes from Paige:

Oh Drew this blog is my dream come true!  No joke!  Okay my question (which may make no sense) is how do you get the background blurred out so your main focus is the baby?  I just love how that looks and I can’t seem to achieve that look, is it a photo shop trick?  Thanks! Seriously awsome blog!!!!xo

Hi Paige!

This is super easy to do and is definitely not a photoshop trick.  But, you will need an SLR camera (the one where you can change the lenses) to achieve this look.  The key to getting your subject to stand out from the background is to shoot manual (it’s the “M” on your camera).  By shooting manual you can control all of your settings on your camera.  Shooting manual can seem like a daunting task and it will take a lot of practice to get used to it.  But, once you master it you’re images will look much better than letting your camera choose all of your settings.  

There are three things you have to worry about when shooting manual – ISO, Shutter Speed, and Appeture.  I’m going to try and explain these three things as simply as possible and I’m not going to get into all the technicalities.  

First, let’s talk about ISO.  The ISO speed is basically how fast your sensor will absorb light.  Generally the ISO speeds are 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, and so on.  The better the camera you have, the higher your ISO will go.  To make this as simple as possible all you really need to know is that you should always keep your ISO as low as possible.  The higher your ISO the more noise (that grainy, yucky stuff on your pictures) you will have.  When shooting outside in bright light I always keep my ISO at 125.  If you’re shooting indoors and without a flash you’ll have to bump it up.  

The next thing is Shutter Speed, which is simply how fast or slow your shutter opens.  The slower the shutter speed, the more light gets let in because it’s open for longer.  Make sense?  But, for kids, I never want to shoot lower than 100 (maybe 80 at the very lowest).  Anything lower than that you will get motion blur when your subject moves.  And we all know how much kids move!

Lastly, you have to control the Aperture (and also referred to as the f-stop).  This is the key part on how to separate your subject from the background.  The aperture is the focal length of the lens and this will probably be the trickest thing to explain.  Basically all you need to know is that the smaller the f-stop, the more light will be let in.  And the smaller the f-stop the more blurry the background will be.  There’s no need to analyze it.  It’s really that simple (but, if you want to get the complicated definition that will make your head hurt you can read it here).  I always shoot as wide open (the smallest f-stop possible) as my lens will allow.  Typically when I’m shooting with my 50 1.2 I will shoot at 2.0 if it’s just one subject.  If you add in more subject and they aren’t on the same plane, the people in the back will be out of focus.  A lot of stock lenses that come with the DSLR cameras will only stop down to 4.0 or 5.6.  That won’t allow you to get the background as blurry.  You can see my post on lenses to get an idea of what lens you may want to look into buying in order to achieve this look better.

So, what I do when I’m shooting is, first I set my ISO.  If I’m outside I will set it at 125.  Then I set my aperture.  Typically I will set it at 2.0.  Then, I focus on my subject and set the shutter speed.  When you look into your camera you’ll see a little scale (I have no idea what the technical term is).  On my camera it goes from -2 to 2.  When setting your shutter speed you typically want the dial to be right in the middle.  That’s how I know what to set my shutter speed at.  If it’s telling me that my shutter speed should be below 100 then I will bump up my ISO until my shutter speed can be higher than 100.  The only thing that you will be changing is the shutter speed and your ISO every now and then.

Whoa!  Does your head hurt yet?  It’s really not complicated.  Yes, it takes practice, but once you get it your pictures will improve so much!  You can use the portrait setting on your camera (the little face icon), or shoot on aperture priority, but the reason I don’t shoot on automatic is because your camera can make mistakes.  It may read the light on something other than your subject making them under or over exposed.  

Here are some examples that I took today.  

This first image was f2.0, 5000 shutter speed, and 250 ISO (only because I forgot to change it to 125, but it really doesn’t make too much of a difference).  See how separated Brayden is from the background?


This next image f8.0, shutter speed was 350, and the ISO was 250.  I think it still looks nice, but there’s definitely not as much blur in the background.


I hope all of this made sense.  I have no formal education in photography and am totally self taught so if you have super technical questions I’m probably not the person to ask, but what I do works for me so you should give it a try too!  Remember, practice makes perfect!  It will take some time to get used to, but don’t give up!  You can do it!


  1. Drew,
    Fabulous post! I have emailed this link to several friends who have recently got new cameras and need some technical help!
    Thanks so much!

    Denise Skelton’s last blog post..Photography For You

  2. I def like the first picture best – I always like to shoot as wide open as I can…. Brayden is such a cutie-pie!

    Bobbie Brown’s last blog post..Tori

  3. Simone says

    Hey Drew, I loved the way you explained everything. So easy and simple. I’m sure a lot of moms will be rockin’ the photos now.

    Simone’s last blog post..Family Love

  4. Shan says

    Thanks Drew…you make everything so simple and help things make sense. I am a mom and aspiring photographer and this blog keeps me inspired.

  5. kamee says

    this blog is so stinkin’ cool! so happy you are taking it on on top of everything else! thanks for all the tips and pointers. can’t wait for more!! 😉 kamee

    kamee’s last blog post..When You’re Smiling

  6. Julie says

    Such a great post Drew! I can’t wait to share this post with other people. I’m so bad at explaining this and you summed it up perfectly, pictures and all. As always, thanks for sharing!

    Julie’s last blog post..Missing Cameras Unite!

  7. Elizabeth says

    LOVE your blog – such great explanations and EXACTLY what I need to help me figure it all out…slowly but surely!

    Elizabeth’s last blog post..We’re ready!

  8. Annie says

    Thank you Drew for explaining ISO. You explained it very well. Brayden is such a big boy on his bike!

  9. Eden says

    These posts are awesome! I have emailed a bunch of my “new mommy” friends your link.

  10. Kathy says

    Do you think you will have a “day with drew” momtog style? I know most of your readers are already photographers. But would you eventually have like a beginer momtog class? for those of us that are’nt photographers but want to take better kid pictures?

  11. Paige says

    Ummmm well I feel so cool for getting my question answered, especially because I thought it didn’t make any sense! I’m excited to try this out and I will definitely post my pics on my blog when I figure it out! Oh by the way, you rock!

    Paige’s last blog post..lazy sunday

  12. tina says

    Thank you!! Finally information that I can understand! Perfect explanation and examples! Thanks so much!

  13. Melissa M says

    Great post Drew!!! I’m not a mom but I’m learning more and more about photography so this is just great!!!

  14. DRE says

    Drew, Just wanted to let you know I am a DAD and I have been wanting to get better pics of my 2 yrs old, and this site is great. I appreciate how you can explain in “non-technical” terms, in a real sense, i.e shooting “Wide Open” – now I get it! Thanks

  15. Hana says

    I am so excited about finding your blog! I’ve had a passion for photography for 6 years (when my 1st was born) but haven’t had the tools until now. I just ordered the Nikon d90 (w/ a 15-105mm VR) as well as a 50mm f/1.8 lens and they should be in my hands tomorrow afternoon. I hate it’s taken 6 yrs and 3 kids before I’m able to buy my first “real” camera but I’m excited about getting started in time for my youngest daughter’s 1st birthday! Your tips will be so helpful in getting the perfect shots on the big day! Thanks for taking the time to share w/ all of us photo lovin’ mamas!! I will be a regular visitor from now on!!

    Hana’s last blog post..A New Skill

  16. Patty says

    Excellent explanation!!! Can’t wait to try your tips on my baby girls.

  17. Nikki says

    Hi Drew! Andrea turned me onto your site & like all of your fans above I can’t say thank you enough. I have 2 boys (5.5 & 2) and have some formal training in CSI related photography for work but am dabbling in and enjoying my new love of photographing my boys with my Canon 50D. Can’t wait to read on and stay tuned for more from you. Thanks again. Hope to meet you someday and will continue to practice based on your experienced posts. =)

  18. Monica says

    Drew, YOU ROCK!!! Thank you for taking the TIME (I have a 9month old, so I can TOTALLY appreciate how little free time you have!!) and for sharing your incredible, hard earned knowledge….thanks to you, I’ve bought a new DSLR camera, 1.4 lens & bounce flash and have been capturing wonderful images of my son….without you, I’d still be getting flat shots with my old point and shoot….you are the best, and this mom is soooo greatful!

    Nashville, TN

  19. Maria says

    Drew!! Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You HAVE helped me take better photos of my children. This was my goal after seeing the gorgeous photos and possibilities. I was sad at first because so much time had gone by, my oldest now almost 11, but in the last four months I have captured their childhood in a way that finally does them justice. My ever growing, ever changing, precious little wards and I thank you!

  20. Sofia says

    OMG!! Thank you so much!! I have been afraid of going manual – this morning i stumbled across this post and went out to our yard and made my very FIRST shot in M. Wow – haha, loving it so much!!!!!!!!

    Here is my shot, i might just well getting addicted to using manual mode from now and on, thank to you:))))