When Does Blur in Photographs Work?

By Katie Yates

Blur creates a sense of movement, dreaminess, and abstraction to photography when used properly. Blur can be captured with the camera or it can be created later with editing softwares. Want to learn more about creating effects with your camera or in Photoshop/Lightroom? Click here.

Traditionally, photographers aim for crisp edges, hard lines, and tight focus. There’s nothing worse than seeing an image that’s just not quite right, as though you’re seeing it through the wrong pair of glasses. It’s satisfying to have a blurred background and sharply in-focus subject. That’s why Apple created the Portrait Mode effect, this elevates standard iPhone images.

But, there are instances when blurring the subject is okay–in fact, there are times when blurring the subject is more than okay! The result of tasteful, purposeful, and meaningful blurring can be the difference between an image that’s humdrum and an image that’s fantastic.

Blurring Gives A Sense of Motion

This is an easy one. In photograph below, the blurring of the runner in the foreground enhances the sense that they are in motion. It puts the viewer of the image in the scene. The person standing at the railing is in focus–they are where our eye hits first–and we can build a story around them. The eye is more likely to linger on an image that requires some deciphering.

Blurring Can Convey Emotion

In the image below, the blur doesn’t so much convey motion, but rather emotion. The subject’s head is blurred and this seems to present a sense of anxiety or confusion. A neatly focused image of the subject could also convey these emotions, but because we cannot see the subject’s face, this creates an element of unknown.

Blur Makes Images Feel Dreamy

In the subject below, the coloring, lighting, and subject create a dreamy quality, but so does the blur. If the subject was focused, the dreamy quality of the image would be lost. Without the blur, his image would simply not be as successful.

There are many more instances where blurring in an image simply “works,” but it’s important as a photographer to know when. You may have a certain emotion or sense you’re attempting to articulate with your piece, and it could be lost in the blur or enhanced by it.

Click here to tour our virtual Members’ Juried Exhibition for examples of when blur works for photographs.