Easy Way to Blur the Background Using Adobe Photoshop

by May 25, 2023Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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Easy Way to Blur the Background Using Adobe Photoshop

In this tutorial, I want to share an easy process for blurring the background in a photo using Adobe Photoshop. This is a three-stage process:

  1. Select the main subject and isolate it onto a new layer.
  2. Create a new background layer and remove the main subject from this.
  3. Blur the background layer.

You can see a before and after example below, that was produced using this approach.

before and after example showing a photo with a background blured in Photoshop

Let’s look at each step now in more detail, to understand how it’s done.

Step 1: Isolate the Subject on a New Layer

Start by opening the image in Photoshop where you want to blur the background.

We now want to duplicate the image layer so that we can add a Layer Mask to isolate the subject. To duplicate the layer, right click on it in the Photoshop Layers Window and then choose the “Duplicate” option in the menu. Alternatively, click the image layer in the Layers window to ensure it’s selected and then press Cmd + J on a Mac keyboard or Ctrl + J on a Windows PC.

Next, we need to select the subject. To do this, click the Select menu and then choose the Subject option. After a few seconds, you will see marching ants appear around an area of the image. This is what Photoshop has identified as being the main subject in the photo and it’s usually quite accurate.

Ensure you have the new duplicate layer selected in the Layers Window by clicking it. Then click the icon to “Add a new layer mask” at the bottom of the Layers Window. You can see this indicated in the following screenshot.

Adding a layer mask to the new layer in order to isolate the subject from the background

When you add a layer mask to the layer, it converts the active selection (indicated by the marching ants) into a mask. You can see the new mask attached to the layer in the illustration above.

Adding to the Mask with the Quick Selection Tool

Before converting the active selection into a layer mask, it’s often worth checking the image to ensure everything is selected. In the above example, the parcel in the foreground wasn’t included by Photoshop and so will be blurred when we blur the background. If we didn’t want this parcel to be blurred, we should add it to the selection become creating the layer mask.

For this example, we will use the Quick Selection Tool which is found in the Photoshop Tools Palette to the left of the interface. You can see this indicated in the screenshot below.

Using the Quick Selection Tool to add to the existing selection

After choosing the Quick Selection Tool, click the icon in the toolbar to set the Tool to add to an existing selection. You can see this above. There are three icons here, the first being create a new selection, the middle one is to add to an existing selection and the third is to remove from a selection.

You can then paint over any objects that you want to include in the mask so that they aren’t blurred. After that you would add a layer mask to the layer as previously described.

Step 2: Create a New Background Layer

Next, duplicate the background layer a second time, just as you did in the previous step. This layer will become our blurred background. But before we can blur the background, we need to remove the man, our main subject from the image. If we don’t, the blur will produce a halo around him.

Having duplicated the layer, we need to reselect our subject. We can do this by loading the layer mask we created as a selection. This is done by holding down the Cmd key on a Mac keyboard or the Ctrl key on a Windows PC whilst clicking the layer mask. You will then see the marching ants appear around the subject.

Now with the background layer selected, click the Edit menu, and choose the “Content Aware Fill…” option. This displays the Content Aware Fill controls as shown below.

Using the Content Aware Fill command to remove the man from the photo

Photoshop then samples the areas of the image which are shown here with a green overlay. These are used to remove the man from the layer, and you can see a preview of how this will look over to the right.

You can now click the OK button to apply the change to the layer and return to the image.

Step 3: Blur the Background

We are now ready to blur the background layer.

The best way to do this is to first convert the layer to a Smart Object. Then when we apply the Gaussian Blur filter it becomes non-destructive. This means that we will be able to reopen the filter later to adjust the level of background blur. If you aren’t very familiar with this technique, read my Smart Objects introduction.

To convert the background layer to a Smart Object, first ensure that it’s selected by clicking it in the Layers Window. Then click the Filter menu and choose the option “Convert for Smart Filters”.

Once the layer is converted, click the “Filter” menu a second time. Then in the “Blur” submenu choose the “Gaussian Blur…” filter. This displays the Gaussian Blur dialog as seen below.

Setting the level of background blur using the Photoshop Gaussian Blur filter

In the dialog, adjust the blur to suit the image.

Now Watch the Video

Whilst the three-step process outlined above will produce a good result, there are a few additional tweaks you can use to improve this. You can learn about these enhancements as well as see the entire process demonstrated in this short video.

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You can also watch this video on my YouTube channel. I publish a new video every week, often based on subscribers’ requests and feedback. Subscribe to my YouTube channel now and be sure not to miss future videos.

Now that you understand how easy it can be to blur the background of a photo using Photoshop, how about replacing it. You can learn how to do this using another of Photoshop’s features, explained in this tutorial, how to remove the background in a photo. You can also use these tools as an alternative to the Select Subject command used in this article.

More Photoshop Tutorials

You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Adobe Photoshop Tutorials page.

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