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How to blur a background in Lightroom

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Sometimes when we take photos we end up too focused on capturing moments that really matter. In such situations even professional photographers can get carried away by the overall atmosphere and forget to change the settings of the camera exactly when this is essential.

Luckily with the powerful editing software these days like Lightroom, from Adobe. we have the opportunity to “go back in time” and fix some of these mistakes. One of the most common misfortunes you can experience is not making the right decision when it comes to the aperture – this often results in a sharp background where you can see a lot of details but the question is: do you really need them there? The subject would stand out more, if you had used a larger aperture. Keep on reading and you’ll find out how to make details in the background disappear by applying a blur effect in Lightroom.

Why would you need your background blurred?

blurring the background can add to the overall atmosphere of the image

Sometimes the background of your image is really irrelevant to your foreground and it can only distract. Imagine, for example, that you’ve taken a nice portrait with natural light in the park, but you have also accidentally caught a jogger in the frame. 

Does this person add up to the story of the photo or is her/his presence simply a distraction? If you feel like this element is completely irrelevant to the portrait, the easiest way to get rid of it is just to blur it – here’s where the functionalities in Lightroom come really handy.

Using the blur effect is also a powerful editing trick If you want to focus the viewer’s attention on the main subject. You can also achieve the same goal by playing with the colors, making them a little less saturated so that what you have in the front may pop up naturally. You can also lean on composition rules in these cases, taking advantage of the Rule of Thirds for instance, but once you have the photo already taken it’s sometimes not easy at all to make the necessary changes post factum. From this standpoint the blur effect proves to be very helpful, because it’s something that doesn’t require a lot of effort and it can be done in post-production.

Another reason to “wield” the blur effect is if you have something in the background which you’d like to hide from the viewer. It could be something unattractive or displeasing – a trash can, a ditched paper coffee cup or even a person in the distance that you don’t want in your photo. In these cases blurring the background is a quick and effective way to address the issue.

Last but not least blurring the background of your photo can add mood to your image, make it look extraordinary and just generally more pleasing to the eye.  This is especially important in genres such as portrait or wedding photography where you really want the atmosphere to feel more personal, romantic and magical.

Useful tip

Since we live in the era of smart phones, it feels important to mention that you also have the option of blurring the background of your photo in Lightroom mobile. It’s an app which is available for both Android and IOS and it has a number of useful features. 

If you need a quick fix or if you simply want to post something on social media without wasting extra time with the desktop version of Lightroom, this is a great option. 

How can you blur the background with the app? Well, the alternatives are still the same, you’ll only need to use your fingers to craft the mask yourself!

How to blur your background step by step in Lightroom

You have a few options when it comes to blurring your background and we’re about to explore all of them, but first things first – to begin you’ll need to import your image in Lightroom.

1. Import your photo

A word of caution must be mentioned here. Lightroom is a great editing program when you have to deal with batches of photos and does a remarkable job in applying the adjustments on more than one image at the same time. However, in the case of background blur applying the adjustments you’ve made wouldn’t not be possible for large batches. This is a process which needs to be customized and tailored for each different image. 

It’s good to have this in mind when you start so that you have a more accurate idea about how much time exactly the whole thing will take, especially if you need to work with more images. 

Knowing all this, you can begin by importing the image first. Make sure you’re in the Library module. On the left hand-side of your screen, you will be able to see a panel (which consists of a few other panels) and right at the bottom of it, you should see a button which says “Import”.

2. Create a mask that will only affect the background area

At this point you have three options in Lightroom to create the mask that you need for the blur effect. We’ll start with the most time-consuming (and probably the most precise): the Adjustment Brush tool.

First Option: the Adjustment Brush tool

I personally feel like this method is the best one because it gives you a lot of control over the selection you make. Now let’s see how it works. Firstly make sure you are in the Develop module. After that, take a look at the top right corner of your screen. What you’ll find there is the Adjustment Brush tool.

Once you enter this panel you’ll see there are quite a few options to customize this particular tool. If you want to use the shortcut on your keyboard for the Adjustment Brush – simply press K. Remembering the shortcuts to the tools you need regularly is super helpful and it definitely saves time. If you haven’t already worked on your memory skills, I recommend using sticky notes around your screen, this really helped me remember most of the shortcuts back in the day. 

The most important aspects of this tool in our case are: Size, Feather & Flow – these will help you determine the edges of your selections (and its contents of course). These adjustments are also very popular in Photoshop so you’re most probably quite familiar with them. Feather determines how hard or how soft the brush is. Flow tells it how “strong” the brush is or in other words how many clicks away it is from reaching its full strength capacity. 

Armed with the Adjustment Brush, you can easily create a mask with precision. When you start painting over the image you’ll definitely need to see exactly what you’re doing at the moment. Press O on your keyboard, that will reveal the mask you’ve done so far and it will show it in red color. If you want to get rid of the marking – simply press again O and it will disappear. 

Once you start with this method you’ll notice that the brush gives you room for fine-tuning the mask which is closely related to the success of the “blur mission.”

When you’re fully ready with the mask, you’ll have to create the blur effect itself. This is done by decreasing the Clarity and the Sharpness of the background. And since you’ve already spent time refining the selection of the background, you can be sure that these edits apply only to it. For full blur effect setting the values of Clarity and Sharpness to -100 is acceptable, but in reality it’s often over the top. If you’re going for a more natural effect trying playing with the values until you manage to adjust the blur effect to your liking in Lightroom.

Second Option: the Radial Filter

use the radial tool for a quick background blur effect in lightroom



However If you don’t want to use the brush for creating the mask, you have a couple of other options as well. Which one is the best? Well, this depends heavily on the image you start with.

For example if you have an image with a simple central composition where you need the whole background blurred, the quickest way may turn out to be using the Radial filter.

The Radial filer is located right on the left hand-side of the Adjustment Brush tool icon which we’ve just discussed above. 

This method is without any shadow of a doubt quicker, but it may need some extra work to get it polished and to make sure it looks credible. Firstly you need to position the circle on the photo, press O to see what parts of the image are affected. Everything that’s under the red haze is going to be affected by the adjustments you make. To achieve the blur effect itself start decreasing the sharpness, it can easily go to -100. 

The problem with the Radial blur option is that the selection is not very precise. To fine-tune it, grab the brush which is located within the same panel. Here you have two alternatives: either to add more to the selection with the brush itself or to take out of it by grabbing the Erase tool. The brush within the Radial filter will help you tweak the selection and most importantly: to make improvements. 

The good thing about these selections is that you can always go back and change what you’ve done to the image. It’s a non-destructive (& a smart) way to add blur to your background in Lightroom.

Third Option: The Graduated Filter

use the gradient tool to create a linear graduated blur effect in lightroom

The third option that I’m going to share is quite similar to the second one. It’s in fact the other popular filter in Lightroom: the Graduated Filter. The icon is a rectangle orientated vertically and it’s located on the left hand-side of the Radial Filter. For quick selection you can press M when you’re already in the Develop module.

Place the filer over the area of your photo which you want blurred and don’t forget to press O so that you see the affected part. The more intense the red haze is the more affected (more blurred) this area is going to get. You can still adjust further the placement of the filter by moving it around and paying attention the effect it causes.

Identical to the Radial blur you have a Brush located within the same panel. If you click on this brush you’ll see that you can add or remove bits and pieces of the selection. To erase the selection hold ALT and brush over the desired area or simply click on “eraser” at the bottom of the filer panel. It’s really helpful to know that you can regulate the brush size just by pressing the “[” and the “]” button on your keyboard. The first one makes the brush smaller and the second one makes it bigger.

In many cases you’ll have to deal with more detailed fragments from the image and it’s best if you zoom in to keep a close eye on the selection. If you have a graphic tablet, it will surely up your brush game, the only downside is that it’s highly addictive!

Final words

Knowing how to blur the background of your image in Lightroom is a powerful way to go back in time and “change” the settings of your camera in post-production. It can surely enhance your photo and make it look better, but it can also completely save it from going to the virtual trash bin, so having the knowledge how to achieve the effect is essential!

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