Portrait Mode in Photoshop – How to Add Background Blur Like iPhone/Pixel

Alright, so you have seen the awesome new dual camera smartphones being released with their fancy portrait mode camera functions and awesome looking photos. It’s amazing how far cellphone cameras have come. When I received my first Siemens cellphone as a teenager back in the early 2000’s, I was lucky enough to get one with 4,096 color combinations (versus the 16+ million that is standard today) and a 200px resolution. Needless to say, it was hard to tell whether the resulting photos were shot with a camera or a potato.

Fast forward to today, and smartphones are nearing (and surpassing, in some cases) DSLR levels of image quality. While some have had a rely on dual cameras for features like portrait mode, other manufacturers have found a way to integrate AI and machine learning to achieve the same results. Amazing!

The truth is, with a DSLR camera everything depends on your hardware, that being the body and the lens. If you don’t have the right lens, you will simply not be able to take portrait photos. Chances are, you’re also not ready to spend $1,000+ on a high-end smartphone just for a portrait mode camera function. Thankfully, as you’ve guessed, there’s a way to manually add background blur to your photos to achieve the same portrait look, using… Yes, Photoshop!

So how do you do it? Let’s get to it.

Note: this works much better with photos that have a good contrast between the subject and the background as it’s easier to separate the layers. The limitation of this approach is that the background will have the same level of blur across the whole image, which may not look fully realistic if there are objects immediately behind the subject. To overcome this, you can separate out the various objects onto different layers and apply different levels of blur to them accordingly. Right, let’s move on!

To turn your photo into a portrait masterpiece, you will need to make use of Photoshop layers, masking and the gaussian blur filter option.

Step 1: Open Photoshop and load up the image of your choice. 

Step 2: Duplicate the image layer, hide, the top layer, and select the bottom layer. This will be the background layer that we want to apply the blur to. 

Step 3: Use the Gaussian blur filter (Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur) to add a blur to the bottom layer. I recommend a blur radius of between 2.0-3.5px, depending on your image size. Feel free to play around with that value until you get a looking as realistic as possible.

Tip: Try to find a portrait mode image with a similar composition of off the internet to compare your progress against. That should help you determine what amount of blur is most realistic.

Step 4: Now select the top layer and unhide it. We will use this layer to make a mask selection of the foreground subject.

Step 5: With the top layer selected, use the Quick Select Tool to select the foreground subject that is meant to stay in focus. Don’t worry about getting all of the details selected at this point. In the next step you will use the Refine Edge tool to make a more detailed selection.

Step 6: Use the Refine Edge Tool to refine any necessary selections on the subject, such as their hair, fur, cloth or otherwise. If you’re not familiar with how to use the Refine Edge tool, then you’re seriously missing out on Photoshop’s true powers! Also, here’s a tutorial on how to use Refine Edge. Once you’re happy with the selection, hit OK.

Step 7: Apply a layer mask to the top layer selection, and TADA! You should now have an image that has a crisp clear foreground subject, and a blurred background. At this point, you can go back and make minor adjustments to your background blur and the foreground selection to fine tune the effect to your liking.

End Result – Before and After

Bonus Tip:

Since you’ve come this far already, you may also want to make post-production adjustments to the image at this point. The genius part is, since you’ve already taken the effort to mask out the foreground subject from the background, you’re now able to modify the subject and the background separately!

Leave a Reply