Wood Stork Blurred Background Before & After
Bird Photography,  Photo Processing

How to Blur the Background of your Bird Photographs using Photoshop

Sometimes you get really sharp photograph of a bird but the background is distracting because it’s not blurred enough.  A blurred background (also called Bokeh) can bring more attention to your subject (the bird) and really make your bird photographs stand out.

Heron Blurred Background Before & After
Heron Blurred Background Before & After

You could just replace the background.  But this can lead to unrealistic looking results.  Sometimes, just adding a little blur in post-processing can really make a difference in your photograph, and it’s not difficult to do.  A Good clean background can make or break your bird photographs.

In this blog, I’ll show you the steps to blur your background without halos or ghosting.  This is also a non-destructive workflow, so you can go back and re-edit the image in the future.

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Photoshop Blur Filters

I use 2 different blur filters in Adobe Photoshop to blur the background of my bird photographs:  Gaussian Blur and Tilt-Shift. 

Gaussian Blur Filter

I use the Gaussian Blur filter when I want the entire background blurred out. 

Sandhill Crane Blurred Background Before and After
Sandhill Crane Blurred Background Before and After

Tilt-Shift Filter

The Tilt-Shift filter provides more of a gradient effect where you can specify what area should be in focus with either side of that point being gradually be blurred out.  This provides the ability to have some of your background more in focus than the rest. 

The Sandhill Crane photograph in this blog was blurred using the Tilt-Shift filter.  Notice how the background around the crane’s legs is more in focus than the rest of the background.

Steps to Blur the Background of your Bird Photographs

Below are the steps to create a blurred background in photoshop.  The steps are the same whether you use the Gaussian Blur Filter or the Tilt-shift filter.  I’ll first go through the steps using the Gaussian Blur filter and then I’ll show you how to use the Tilt-shift filter.

1. Create a duplicate layer by pressing Command + J (Mac), Ctrl + J windows. Rename the layer “Foreground”.

2. Click on the Background Layer.

Stork - Results of Select Subject
Stork – Results of Select Subject

3. In the Select Menu, choose Select Subject.  This usually does a good job selecting the subject, but you may need to touch up the selection by using the Add to Selection and Subtract from Selection options in the Quick Selection Tool.  The selection doesn’t have to be perfect, you can clean up the layer mask later on in the process.

Expand Selection by 5 pixels
Expand Selection by 5 pixels

4. In the Select Menu, Choose – Modify – Expand.  Expand the selection by 5 pixels.  Press OK.  This is to help with reducing the halos and ghosting.

Content Aware Fill to New Layer
Content Aware Fill to New Layer

5. In the Edit Menu, select Content Aware Fill to remove the subject from the background so we can blur it.  Make sure Output is set to Duplicate Layer.  Press OK.  Don’t worry about this being perfect, the subject will be on top of the blurred background.

6. If it’s not already there, move the background copy layer below the foreground layer.

7. Since subject is still selected, we will want to use it create a layer mask on the foreground layer.

8. Select the Foreground Layer. 

Select and Mask - Output to Layer Mask
Select and Mask – Output to Layer Mask

9. In the Select Menu, choose Select and Mask.  Select output to layer mask. Press OK.

10. Select the Layer Mask on the foreground layer. 

11. In the Filter menu, select. Other –  Minimum.  Set the pixels to 1 more than you used to expand the selection – in this case 6 pixels.  Click OK.  This is to undo the selection expansion we did in a previous step and go avoid fringing and ghosting.

12. Right click on the background copy layer and select Convert to a Smart Object.  We made this a smart object so we can go back and re-edit the blur later if we decide that we don’t like it.

Blur Background - Gaussian Blur
Blur Background – Gaussian Blur

13. In the Filter Menu, choose Blur – Gaussian Blur.  Adjust the Radius Slider to blur the background to your liking.

14. If you see parts of the background that aren’t blurred or parts of the bird that are blurred, you can fine tune layer mask by painting on it with the paint brush tool.  Paint in white to remove the blur from parts of the bird and paint in black to blur the background.

15. Save the image in photoshop format with layers checked to be able to go back and re-edit the photograph.

Final Layer Stack for Blurring your Background

Below is what your final layer stack should look like when finished editing your image.

Blur Background - Final Layer Stack
Blur Background – Final Layer Stack

Using the Tilt-Shift Blur Filter

Tilt-Shift Blur
Tilt-Shift Blur

1. In the Filter Menu, select Blur Gallery – Tilt-shift

2. Move the larger circle in the Tilt-shift window to where you want the background to stay in focus.  The background will start to blur on either side of this circle.

3. Adjust the dotted line on either side of the circle.  The image will gradually blur from the middle circle to the dotted line.  Above and below the dotted line will be fully blurred.

4. Adjust the blur amount slider to your liking.

5. Click OK at the top of the page when finished.

Additional Processing Tip

While you have the background separated from the subject, you can darken the background to make your subject stand out even more.

1. Create a new Brightness / Contrast Adjustment Layer

2. Move the Adjustment Layer right above the Background Copy Layer where we blurred the background

Clipping an Adjustment Layer to only effect the Background
Clipping an Adjustment Layer to only effect the Background

3. Click on the Clip to Layer icon at the top of the Layers Panel.  The Brightness / Contrast Adjustment Layer will now only effect the background copy layer.

4. Adjust the brightness of the layer to your liking

Written by Martin Belan

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