Photography is naturally figurative. Still images can evoke a mood, action, time, or anything else a photographer can dream up to express. One fascinating way to capture a mood is to blur parts of a picture.
A blurred background, also known as Bokeh, is one of the most popular subjects in photography. It adds drama and artistic interpretation, drawing our focus to one distinct area of an image. The good news is you can blur a background in Photoshop and add a magic touch to your photos by using the powerful blur filters.
To blur a background in Photoshop, you need to select the foreground object you want to isolate. Cut it out, and put it on a new layer. Then select the background layer and from the top menu select: Filter > Blur Gallery > Field Blur. Decide the amount of blur and press ok.
Blurs are also achievable with the right camera and lens. But sometimes you may want to add or enhance a blur effect after the photograph has been taken. Understanding how to blur elements is a very useful and important post-photography skill. The following guide will show you various methods to blur in Photoshop.
Related: How to Merge Layers in Photoshop
How to Blur Background in Photoshop – Step-by-Step
Step 1: Launch Photoshop
Choose the photo that you want to blur and open it in Photoshop. Keyboard shortcut Ctrl + O (Windows) or Cmd + O (Mac).
Step 2: Cut Out the Subject
Determine which part(s) of the photo you want to blur and which part(s) you want to stand out. The element you want to remain in focus is your subject, so you will need to cut this out. Choose the Quick Select Tool to do this.
Once selected, draw around your subject. It is better to over-select and leave a small margin. This allows you to go back and use the Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows) key to fine-tune and reduce the margins. Doing it freehand on your first try is tricky. Using Alt or Options keys, however, is much easier.
Step 3: Create a Mask
In the top menu bar, choose the Select and Mask tool Ctrl + Alt + R (Windows) or Cmd + Option + R (Mac). Select the tool to the top left of your screen that looks like a hairbrush. You can now trace around the edge of your subject. The transparency slider on the right panel will help you find out if there are any areas that you are missing.
Now click on the Show Edge tool on the top of the right panel. Increase the radius using the slider until you begin to see the edges. You can now turn off the Show Edge tool and see that the selection has improved. Then choose the ‘New Layer with Layer Mask’ option and click on OK in the bottom right.
Step 4: Hide the Subject and Expand
You can hide the new subject layer by clicking on the eye icon to the left of the layer in the layers panel. Next, choose the background. Then use Cmd or Ctrl-click on the hidden layer mask of the subject to load the selection.
We will expand this selection for a better result. Go to Select and then Modify, and then finally, Expand. Input the appropriate number of pixels to expand by. Something like 5 to 10 pixels should do the trick.
Step 5: Fill the Selection
Now you need to fill this selection with content. Use Shift-Delete or Shift-Backspace. Choose Content-Aware and click on OK. Then use Ctrl + D to deselect. You will now be able to see the background without the subject. There will be a few bits left here and there, which is fine. Since you are blurring out the background, you don’t need to worry about it being pixel perfect.
Final Step: Blur the Background
With our subject out of the way, it becomes easier to blur out the background. Now make the subject layer visible, so we can see our work. Ensure that the background layer is still selected. Then go to Filter, then Blur Gallery, and finally Field Blur. Use your mouse pointer on the small circle represented by a pin to control the blur. In many portrait photos, one pin may be enough. You may need to set more than one point to make the blur look natural. Different parts will show different levels of blur.
Once you have placed the points, you can use the circle on the point or the slider to adjust the blur. When you are satisfied with the amount of blur, click on OK to apply the effect. You will have successfully blurred the image.
You can also blur the background for a focal point in Photoshop. Read the official Adobe guide here.
How to Blur Text and Faces in Photoshop
Aside from blurring backgrounds, you may also want to blur out text or faces in your photographs. The reasons for this vary. You might want to hide personal information or make someone anonymous. Here is another way you can use the blur tool in Photoshop:
Step 1: First, select the Marquee Tool, located in the Tool Bar or accessed by pressing M on the keyboard.
Step 2: Choose the area you would like to blur. A rectangular outline will appear on the selected region.
Step 3: Go to Filter, and then select Blur. Then choose Gaussian Blur. A menu will appear on your screen, where you can control the blur options. Change the settings and preview how the blur effect appears on the screen.
Step 4: Adjust the radius until the entire face or text is blurred out.
Step 5: When you see the desired effect on the screen, click on OK. You can now save this new blurred image.
How to Add Motion Blur in Photoshop
Step 1: Launch Photoshop and load/import an image.
Step 2: Choose Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and adjust the angle to match the direction of your subject’s motion. Use the Distance setting to control the amount of blur.
Step 3: Refine and define.
Isolate the blur effect by masking the areas that you want to keep detail in. In the Layers panel, click the Smart Filter mask thumbnail. Use the Brush tool to paint over the areas that should remain in focus.
Step 4: Add motion along a path.
To create movement in multiple directions, or along a curved path, choose Filter > Blur Gallery > Path Blur. Drag the controls to create a blur in the direction of the arrow. Click and drag in other areas of the image to create blur paths in other directions (see steps below to add a Path Blur).
How to Add Path Blur
Using Path Blur effects, you can create blurs along paths and control the shape and amount of blurring.
Follow the steps below:
Step 1: Choose Filter > Blur Gallery > Path Blur.
Step 2: In the Blur Tools panel, under the Path Blur section, specify whether you want to apply a Basic blur or a Rear Sync Flash blur. A Rear Sync Flash blur simulates the effect of a flash fired at the end of an exposure.
Step 3: Use the on-image controls in conjunction with steps 4-8 of this procedure.
Step 4: Specify the following settings:
Speed – Adjust the Speed slider to specify the amount of path blur you want to apply to the image. The Speed setting is applied to all path blurs in the image.
Taper – Adjust the slider to specify a taper value. A higher taper value lets the blur trail off gradually.
Step 5: If necessary, deselect Centered Blur. You may want to deselect this option if you want to apply a more directed motion blur. The Centered Blur option helps create stable blurs by centering the blur shape for any pixel.
Step 6: In the Motion Blur Effects tab, specify the following settings:
Strobe Flashes – Set the number of exposures of the virtual strobe flashlight.
Strobe Strength – Determine how much blurring is displayed between strobe flash exposures. Strobe Strength controls the balance between ambient light and the virtual strobe flashlight.
No strobe effect is displayed if you set Strobe Strength to 0%; only continuous blur is shown. On the other hand, when you set Strobe Strength to 100%, strobe flashes produce a full strobe effect. No continuous blur is displayed between flash exposures. Intermediate Strobe Strength values produce a mix of both individual strobe flashes and continuous blur.
Step 7: If necessary, adjust the blur amounts at the endpoints.
Step 8: Optionally, adjust the blur shape guides. Select Edit Blur Shapes to view the guides.
Step 9: In the blur tool Options bar, click OK to commit the Path Blur effect.
Photoshop Blur in a Nutshell
In actuality, blurring mimics a very natural effect in our eyes. When we see objects around us, our peripheral vision remains out of focus. When we look at a distant subject, objects near us are not clear. Conversely, when we focus on a close subject, objects that are far off are blurred.
You can blur in Photoshop to highlight and bring focus to very specific elements in your photographs. An out of focus background can help make your subject stand out by introducing a mood. And this can greatly improve the quality of your photographs.
You can also use blur to give the sense of motion or speed in your photography. This is called motion blur, and it adds a powerful effect to still images. Motion blur evokes the impression of movement within the frame. A fast-moving subject or longer exposure will both create motion blur inside the camera. This streak-like effect usually moves in the direction of the subject’s movement, but you can also create a blur streak in the opposite direction in post-photography.
Blurring is an incredibly dynamic feature in photography that will add an element of artistic interpretation to your work. Understanding masks and layers is another important aspect of advanced post-photography. Introducing those techniques to your blur work will really make it shine.
The next time you realize a blurred effect would look better after you have taken a photo, know that you can turn to post-photography to create the effect. Follow the steps above in Photoshop for impressive results.
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.