How To Get The Most Out Of Google Camera’s Lens Blur Feature

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I wasn’t always into photography. In fact, I’ve started to develop an interest in the field only recently. As recent as my Nokia X review. I was one of those people who always thought that words and memories were superior to photos, that photos somehow sullied the moment. As a guy who claims to be a tech geek and an early adopter, that was narrow minded thinking.

But, I’ve now learned the error in my ways. I’m learning about cameras and checking out EXIF data from photos on Flickr and 500px to understand them better. I’m learning about focal length and aperture and other technical terms, and experimenting with mobile photography.

When Google released their Camera app with Lens Blur feature, the internet made a lot of noise. Yes, HTC and Sony already had such features in place but they were device exclusive. Google’s entry in this field meant that anyone using a Kitkat device had access to it. But, what is Lens Blur? Why should you be using it? Can it really shoot SLR like images? Let me tell you all about it.

Lens Blur

In simple words, Lens Blur creates the same effect as an SLR does by focusing on the object in the foreground and blurring the background. But unlike an SLR, using Google Camera does not mean forking out a couple hundred dollars on an expensive lens. Google Camera does this by using math that’s too complicated to understand. They might as well be using magic piggies.

Intro Intro

Yes, it’s not always reliable. Yes, it takes some time to get it right. But when it does work, the results are nothing less than spectacular.

How To Get The Most Out Of Lens Blur

I spent a couple of hours experimenting with the Lens Blur feature, both indoors and outdoors to see what works and what doesn’t and now let me share my findings. First things first. Google Camera does not bypass the rotation lock setting. So if you have it turned on, turning the phone to landscape won’t switch the UI. Until it is fixed, you’ll have to turn the option off before jumping in.

How To Use Lens Blur

Open the Google Camera app, slide in your finger from the left edge of the screen and select Lens Blur.

Activate lens blur

Now, keep the subject in the middle of the screen and tap the shutter icon.

move device up

The app will show a slider in the middle of the screen, slide it all the way up to capture the image. You can do that by tilting the phone back slowly or by slowly raising the phone up.

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processing image  option

The image will then be rendered and in editing mode you can refocus the subject and increase or decrease the background blur.

Adjusting blur

Capturing blurred images is easy, but there is quite a lot you can do wrong. Here are some helpful notes.

A Clear Subject And A Clear Background

For Lens Blur to work, there needs to be a clear foreground and a clear background. The field of depth can vary but there cannot be more than two layers. For example, trying to take a Lens Blur picture with the subject placed on stairs is not going to work out well.


Subject In The Middle Of The Screen

There seems to be no way around it. You’ll have to keep the subject in the middle of the screen or somewhere near it.


Move Your Device up slowly and swiftly

If your subject is in dead middle of the screen, you will need to move your phone up as swiftly and slowly as possible – dead slowly. I got the error message far too many times and I had to take some deep breaths before jumping in again.


Refocus And Blur Settings – Handle With Care

In the editing menu, you can refocus the subject but focusing on the background does not mean the foreground will be blurred and the entire background will be focused.

refocus finished product

And you should handle the blur tool with as much care as possible. The default blur level being about 20% is the sweet spot. Over doing it means messing up the borders between the subject and the background as going from clear to so much blur is not something a simple camera app can handle well.

Your Advice

Have you been using the Google Camera’s Lens Blur feature? Do you have some helpful tips to share? Let us know in the comments below.

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Archived Comments

  1. RobVdm says:

    I’ve gotten great results where the subject wasn’t centered at all and there were more than two layers. While moving your phone up, you just have to make sure the subject stays more or less in the same place on your screen. If you’re photographing something up close, that means you have to tilt your phone slightly forwards as you move it upwards (imagine your phone is the tangent gliding on a circle around the subject).

    Also, I’m not sure what “slowly and swiftly” means. Speed doesn’t really matter anyway as long as there’s enough light and you’re keeping the subject in the same place.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the app calculates depth from the degree of change between corresponding pixels as a result of moving your phone upwards. That means the scene itself should remain as motionless as possible. Anything that moves (leaves in the wind, for instance) will be interpreted as being very far away and will be blurred more than it should be.

    • Hey RobVdm, thanks for the input.

      You seem be well versed with photography. I’ve presented my test notes from the point of view of a beginner who just wants to get some SLR type lens blur images by using an app.

      The speed I mention is in respect to the motion where Google Camera requests you to raise your device. When you raise your device, Google Camera is measuring the depth via a 3D scan. I suppose this is why you need to go slow. Doing so too fast gives you an error. I found this to be the case indoors and outdoors as well.

      About the center part: before clicking the image, this is what Google Camera says “Slowly raise your device. Keep the subject centered”. The closer the image is to the center, easier it is for the app to measure depth of the foreground and the background.

      Tilting your phone to capture the images seems to a good solution and I’ll test it out.

      The problem with having different layers is mostly an issue with outdoor shots where there’s too much going on and getting things to be motionless is out of your control. In this setting, having only two layers and the subject front and center is a big help.

      • RobVdm says:

        Thanks for your reply! Like I said over on LifeHacker where your story was linked, you’re right about outdoor shots with some wind movement and other uncontrollable factors: they do work better with only two layers. But it’s certainly a fun feature to experiment with.

  2. Dennis Caunce says:

    I was really looking forward to using the blur feature. Unfortunately, for some reason it doesn’t render on my stock Galaxy S3 (4.4.2) from Sprint. It quits the rendering process and leaves me with just a normal picture. If anyone has come across a fix for this then i’m all ears!