How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos

Want to know how to add a blur background effect to your smartphone photos without using a fancy camera? You can do it with any smartphone as long as you know a few tricks.

In this post I share how to achieve professional photo blurring in the background of your photos without using a DSLR camera – it's all on your smartphone for free! 

How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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Red Blurry Lights by goja1, Shutterstock


Like many of my readers, I'd love to be savvy with a fancy camera.  I'm slowly learning a few things with my under-used DSLR cameras. Yes I have a couple of them (acquired over the years) and yes I'm a little embarrassed they've rarely moved away from auto. Gah!

I hope to change that soon with a photography course I am doing but in the meantime I wanted to find a shortcut for taking more professional-looking photos with my smartphone. After all, it's what I usually have handy, especially when travelling.

Recently I came across a brilliant way to add the blur effect to photos and it's available to everyone, no matter what kind of camera you have. I realised that many of you don't know this trick either, so I figured, why not wrap it up into a post with a few other tips and tricks for getting the blur background effect.

Why use a blur background effect on your photos or videos?

Creating professional blur effects (or shallow depth of field) has long been something that photographers could achieve with expensive DSLR cameras but not so much those of us holding smartphones.

Now our phones have developed and so have our phone cameras and we can achieve this effect. Here's an example of a photo I took in a winery with my iPhone: 

Shallow depth of field photo at Ekhidna Winery - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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Being able to achieve blur background effect has a number of benefits:

  • it helps you to achieve a more professional look for your photos.
  • It helps to focus in on the subject too. This helps the eye to focus on the important part of the image.
  • You can reduce the distraction of a busy or messy background, resulting in a cleaner, more impactful image.

You'll be able to add professional-looking blur background effect using at least one of the following tips, no matter what type of phone you use.

3 Easy Blur Background Effect Techniques for Smartphone Photos and Videos

1.  Use the Focus Tool in Instagram Stories (even if you don't intend to post to Instagram)

Did you know you can use Instagram to create and edit photos and videos without even saving them to Instagram? Yes, yes you can.

It allows you to use “portrait” mode on phones that don't have a portrait setting of their own.

This first trick I stumbled across one day when creating a post to share to Instagram Stories. I knew I could use the “Focus” tool to create blur effects, but I had no idea that I could use it to create photos and videos without actually posting them to Instagram – saving to my camera roll instead.

This includes most iPhones and I believe at least some Androids so make sure you test it on your phone. And of course you'll need to have Instagram on your phone.

Have I got your attention? 

I hope so.  Here's how it works:

Using Focus to Take Photos with Blur Background Effect

The Focus Camera format is a special camera feature within your Instagram Story tools on Instagram. It sits next to a bunch of other fun camera effects, including tools like Boomerang and Reverse camera. You can see it below:

How to find a face using Instagram Stories Focus Camera - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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Image by Instagram.

It's specifically designed for taking selfie photos or videos – where the focus of the video is somebody's face.You don't have to just use it for Instagram though!  Here's how you can use this feature for photos and video you don't want to post to Instagram:

1. Choose the camera icon in the top left of Instagram to open up Instagram Stories.

2. Go to the settings along the bottom and swipe to the left until you see Focus and choose that setting. Focus sits next to Superzoom under the record button.

3. Now take a selfie photo on the forward or reverse-facing camera (by tapping the button) OR take a selfie or portrait video (by holding down the button).  You will need to get your camera in position to achieve the blur background effect.  As soon as the camera finds a person, it will keep the person in focus and add a blur background effect to the rest of the image.

4. Choose the Save icon at the top of the screen (the arrow pointing down) and it will save the photo to your camera roll. You can then choose whether you post the image to your Story (even add filters, stickers or text to your photo or video before sharing).  But you don't have to. 

Here's an example of a photo that I took with Focus, but never posted to Instagram.  All I had to do is save it to my camera roll instead of sharing it to Instagram.  Then just delete out of the app.  Notice the soft blur background effect?  This tool rarely takes a bad photo!

Using Instagram Stories Focus Camera - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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I took this photo of the fruits of our mulberry picking:

Using Instagram Stories Focus Camera - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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Whether you choose to proceed and post to Instagram Stories or just save to your camera roll and cancel out of the app, either way you'll end up with a saved photo in your camera roll to use later!

Note: It's a little tricky to use without a face but it can be done – you just have to play around with focus and distance.

Using Instagram Stories Focus Camera - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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Using Focus to Take Videos with Blur Background Effect

Here's the feature I really love about Focus – using it to capture video. You still need to include a person as it's essentially “portrait” mode but this feature really lifts your videos for quick interviews/video captures and face-to-camera selfie videos.

Here's how it looks on the screen to achieve the blur feature. Just press and hold Focus and it will take video with a blur background effect. It's adds a cool effect to your Instagram Story Videos… or just save the video to use later.

Using Instagram Stories Focus Camera in Video Mode - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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I can also take video and save to my camera roll without posting it at all. Maybe I want to add the effect to a video I'll use later on another site like Facebook or my website.

Note: Focus is available on iPhone SE, 6S, 6S+, 7, 7+, 8+ and X as well as selected Android devices.

Want more Instagram Hacks and Features? Check out this post.


2.  Use a SmartPhone with Portrait Mode

I'm lucky to have Portrait mode on my iPhone 7 Plus, though I often use the camera on Instagram Stories as outlined above.  It depends on what I am using at the time!

Here's a quick snap using Portrait Mode which gives an instant blur background effect:

Using Portrait Mode on an iPhone - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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Rocco always wants to be the centre of attention…

Again, the idea with Portrait mode is that you focus in on a “person”, however I've been able to get this to work by focusing on an object too.. and animals of course! It's actually much easier to use on objects than the Instagram Focus tool.

You can get a blurry background by focusing on an object without a face if you play around with the distance and focus point. Here's an example. It's subtle, but the blur is still there:

Using Portrait Mode on an iPhone - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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iPhone Portrait Mode

Unfortunately Apple only includes Portrait mode on recent “Plus” models of its iPhones – iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone X. This is for one simple reason:  Portrait mode needs the phone to have dual cameras, and these are the only iPhone models that have it.

Find out more about the Portrait mode here for iPhones. Here's a few things to know:

  • You can take a selfie in Portrait mode on iPhone X or later (my current iPhone 7 Plus doesn't do this, so I use the Instagram Focus camera if I need to take a selfie).
  • When taking Portrait photos on the iPhone, you simply swipe to Portrait mode on your camera. Then move farther away from your subject if the app suggests you should do so.  The Depth Effect text will light up in yellow when you are in the right position. Take the photo!
  • You get extra effects on the iPhone 8 Plus and later as well as the iPhone X and later. This includes studio-quality lighting effects such as Studio light, Contour light, Stage light and Stage Light Mono.  Time for an upgrade, methinks! 

Android Portrait Mode

There are, of course, models of Android phones that have Portrait mode too. These include:

  • the Galaxy S9+ has a Live Focus mode that allows you to not only add a blur background effect to photos, but you can use a slider to change the level of “blur” which is super handy.
  • Google's Pixel 2 smartphones allow you to use software to create the dual camera effect.  You simply open the camera > tap menu > select “portrait” option > take your picture > tap the thumbnail to select the image you just captured > Google automatically adds the blur background effect to the image.

The good news is that Google has this software “open source”, so we might soon see this applied to camera apps on a lot of other smartphones.  If not, then try Solution #3!

3.  Use an App to apply Blur Background Effect

If you are not using Instagram and you don't have one of the smartphones that comes with the portrait mode ready to go, there's another option. Use an app that does all the blurry work for you!

Here's a few apps that you can try for adding blur background effect to photos:

1. AfterFocus

After Focus let's you bring DSLR-like Photography to your phone (or so they say!).  You can create the blur background effect by choosing a focus area and it also includes other filter effects to create professional-looking photos.

Simply mark the areas you want/don't want and AfterFocus will recognize the focus area with decent precision, especially for a small screen. You can also create motion blur effect. Available on iOS or Android.

Afterfocus App - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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2. Tadaa SLR

Tadaa SLR is an app I have used before for masking (to blur the background) and bokeh lighting effects. This app claims to bring you the best depth of field and bokeh on the App store.

I'll leave it up to you to decide if the claim is true, but I've had some pretty good results with it (before my camera phone evolved!). Available on iOS.

Tadaa SLR App - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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3. Picsart

Picsart is a well-loved Android app that does many things, among them is the ability to blur the background of a photo.  It's an all-round editor that allows you to choose more than one blur effect (including smart, motion or normal blur).

You can also do many other editing effects with Picsart including cropping, callouts and adding filters. It also has fun features like the CutOut Tool that enables you to make custom stickers. Available on Android.

4. Fore

I like Fore for its simplicity! Just simply open a photo, click one of 4 levels of “blur” and the app does the rest, blurring the background of your image (the extent to which it is blurred depends on the level you choose!).  Available on iOS.

Fore App for Blur Background Effect - How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos
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Wrapping it up

As you can see there are many (many!) ways to achieve a professional blur background effect with just your smartphone. No fancy camera required.

Whether it's the Instagram Stories camera hack, your own smartphone camera with portrait mode or using a separate app to apply the blur effect… you have plenty of choices and no excuses not to create images of a professional quality.


Over to You

Are you creating images with blur background effect? Did you know about these tools?

Now you know how to blur background images in photos … like a pro! 

How to Add Blur Background Effect to Smartphone Photos and Videos (without a Fancy Camera)
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Red Blurry Lights by goja1, Shutterstock

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Donna Moritz

Visual Social Media Strategist at Socially Sorted
Donna is a Visual Content Strategist and founder of Socially Sorted, listed by Forbes as a "Top 5 Social Media Blog You Need to Know About in 2019". Donna helps brands leverage the power of visual storytelling and content strategy in their business. Her content has been featured in publications such as Forbes and Entrepreneur Online and she is a contributor to Social Media Examiner. Donna speaks about digital and visual content for the marketing and tourism industries internationally.
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