Use PowerPoint's artistic effects to create superior backgrounds

PowerPoint 2007 and later offers artistic solutions for problematic backgrounds.

Microsoft PowerPoint backgrounds can be problematic. You don't want them to distract, but no background at all can be harsh or boring. (Harsh can be an appropriate look, but never settle for boring.) If your focus is a picture, try using the picture itself as the background and the focus.

A sample PowerPoint file is provided to help illustrate this tip.

Slide focus

Now, let's look at a simple example, shown in the image below. Which slide do you prefer? The first one looks unfinished. If the picture is the only important feature, you could try to enlarge it to fill the entire slide, but that seldom works. For the second slide, I softened the edges, offset the picture, and used a complementary color for the slide's background. It's nice, in an ordinary and expected way. Most people will choose the third slide. The background adds interest without distracting from the picture's purpose. (There's no comparable feature in PowerPoint 2003.)


Creating the third slide is simple but has several steps:

  • Insert the picture. Crop it to remove any elements you don't want to use.
  • Enlarge the picture to cover the entire slide.
  • Blur the background.
  • Lighten or darken the background.
  • Insert the same picture, retaining its original size (or somewhat original size) and position it.
  • Crop the picture if necessary.
  • Soften the edges around the focus picture. This step won't always be necessary, but I've used it in this example slide.

Now, let's create the third slide. (You'll find the picture file and the completed slide in the downloadable demo file.) First, insert the picture you plan to work with by clicking the Insert tab, and then choosing Picture in the Illustrations group. Or, you can copy the picture from the Clipboard.

Next, enlarge the picture to enclose the entire slide. Use the corner handles to maintain the picture's aspect ratio. (Otherwise, the picture stretches oddly and the distortion is obvious and ugly.) Keep extending the corners until the slide is covered. Use the rulers above and to the left to keep your bearings.


This step is probably the most difficult, but it's also the most forgiving. You'll lose elements along the edges, but by deciding how to position the enlarged picture, you decide what elements you lose. In this case, the background is mostly peanuts, so it doesn't matter. The only thing I truly want to lose is that sliver of light along the picture's right border.

Once you enlarge and position the picture, blur it as follows:

  • Select the picture.
  • Click the contextual Format tab.
  • In the Adjust group, click Artistic Effects.
  • Click Blur. There are many to choose from, but for backgrounds, Blur is usually a good choice.


With the picture still selected, lighten or darken the background. Leaving the background the same color is usually too distracting. To choose one of these options, click Corrections (on the Format tab) and choose the second thumbnail in the first line of the Brightness And Contrast gallery.


Insert the same picture or copy it from the Clipboard or a holding slide. Resize it as necessary and crop as necessary. There's a small sliver of light along the right border that I cropped as follows:

  • Select the picture and then click the contextual Format tab.
  • In the Size group, click Crop.
  • Use the cropping handles to move the borders accordingly. In this case, I moved the handle on the right border to the left to eliminate that gray light.
  • Click Crop a second time to commit the change.

After cropping the picture, position it. You can even resize it a bit, if necessary. Be sure to use the corner handles to retain the aspect ratio. You can use the left pane to review your changes. Press [Ctrl]+Z to undo a change you don't want to keep.

You're almost done. You have one more step - to soften the edges of the focus picture as follows:

  • With the focus picture (not the background picture) selected, click the contextual Format tab.
  • In the Picture Styles group, click Picture Effects.
  • Choose Soft Edges.
  • Choose a setting - I chose 25 points.
  • Save the presentation and then view the slide.



If you examine the last figure closely, you'll notice that it isn't the same as the third slide in the first picture. Nor is it even the same as the picture just before. After viewing the slide, I made a few more small adjustments. I enlarged the background picture a bit by moving the chickadee's blurred head off the slide. I adjusted the size and the position of the focus picture until I was satisfied. I wanted you to see how forgiving this technique is.

Bottom line

Combining artistic effects and color corrections, you have more possibilities than you can imagine. There's no right or wrong. Experiment and share your results with others for a consensus if you're unsure which effect is the most pleasing and effective.