Selecting the best camera settings for portraits is challenging for many new photographers. Even some more advanced photographers who are not used to portrait photography find it difficult. Choosing the best ISO, aperture, and shutter speed take practice.
In this article, I’ll walk you through a variety of situations and share the options for the best settings for portrait photography. I’ll also share some photography tips to help you avoid common problems in portrait photography.
The Best Portrait Photography Settings Are …
F/9, 1/200th of a second, ISO 100 with a 105mm lens on a full-frame camera.
These are the settings I used for this portrait. They worked pretty well.
But, if you’re not in a studio and not photographing a crazed-looking, dreadlocked young woman with a melting chocolate ice cream, these settings may not be optimal for you. But they are a solid starting point for a lot of portrait photography.
A shutter speed of 1/200th or faster will ensure any typical movement a person makes is frozen. An aperture of around f/8 will give you as much depth of field as you need to keep both the person’s nose and ears in focus. The lowest ISO you can use to achieve this shutter speed and aperture setting is always best.
But the best camera settings for portraits can be as varied as the people you choose to photograph. So much depends on your intention for the portrait you are making.
- What style of picture do you want?
- How much of the environment will you include?
- How much depth of field do you want?
- What is the ambient light like? Is it hard or soft? Bright or dull?
- Are you relying only on natural light or adding some artificial light also?
- What camera and lens are you using?
- Will your portrait be in color or in black and white?
Each of these and some other factors influence camera settings for portrait photography. Knowing the best camera settings is not a matter of picking shutter speed and aperture. There aren’t universal settings for every situation with every person you want to make a portrait of.
Portrait Photography Settings in a Controlled Environment
In a studio or other environment, you have a lot of control over the lighting and background. It’s easier to maintain similar aperture and shutter speed settings for each portrait sitting.
Working in my studio, I can control the lighting and background. I often use the same camera and lens to make standard portraits. This means I do not need to vary the camera settings I use for portrait photography.
When I want to mix things up a little and take some alternative styles of portrait, I’ll often adjust my camera settings. I might use a wider aperture for a shallow depth of field. But I’ll not need to alter my shutter speed because I am working with studio strobe lights. A slower shutter speed will have no noticeable effect on the portrait.
I like making portraits with my 35mm lens. I don’t believe it’s necessary to always use a ‘portrait’ lens to make portraits with.
With my 35 mm lens, I can get closer to my subject and still capture a reasonable amount of background. With a more conventional portrait lens, less of the background is included. Using a wide aperture on my 35 mm lens also creates a shallower depth of field, so the background is more blurred.
In this photo, I did not want the background to be in focus as I was more interested in the shapes the light was making on it. I used a narrow aperture on my 35 mm lens and came in close to my subject.
Best Camera Settings for On Location Portraits
Outside of controlled environments, ambient light influences exposure. White balance options also have more influence on portraits. When you rely on available light, you must be more attentive so you can capture a good exposure.
I always use manual mode, so I am assured my settings will not change unless I alter them. Using any priority mode, the camera will adjust one or more exposure settings whenever it detects a change in the lighting. This can result in poorly exposed portraits. It can also mean unwanted variations in depth of field.
Outdoor portraits are always influenced by natural light. If you use aperture priority, shutter priority, or program mode, the camera will adjust exposure settings as it is programmed to do. Unless you are continually watching your settings, these adjustments may not produce the portrait you are hoping for.
If the camera chooses a faster shutter speed and a wider aperture, there will be less depth of field. This may result in part of your subject not being as sharp as you want it to be. Maybe the person’s nose or ears will not be sharp.
Using manual mode allows you to choose the best shutter speed, best aperture, and best ISO setting for portrait photography.
Keep reading as I explain each of these camera settings and others. These will help you make informed choices for the best camera settings for portrait photography.
I made this street portrait with a 50 mm. The scene and my subject are fairly evenly toned, and the lighting was soft but not too flat. I wanted her to be sharp but did not want too much depth of field, so I chose a wide aperture setting of f/4.
If I had not used manual mode, the camera setting could have added more or less depth of field.
Individual Camera Settings and How to Select the Best Ones for Portrait Photography
The best portrait photography relies on the best camera settings. It also must include other aspects of photography, such as composition, timing, and how you relate with your subject. But these are all topics that require their own dedicated articles to cover well.
Here I am focused on providing you with the best information about camera settings for portrait photography and how to choose them. There is no set formula. But, as with anything in photography, the more frequently you practice, the better you will become. This is why I have produced the 365 Days of Photography course. It contains 12 modules with one lesson and challenges each day. There is also a bonus 13th module where I teach specifically about portrait photography and go beyond only the best camera settings.
The aperture setting you choose influences both the exposure and how much of the image is in sharp focus. It is entirely up to you how you set your exposure and how much of your composition you want to have in focus.
Generally, you’ll want your subject’s face to be in focus. This means that with a standard portrait focal length, you’ll need and choose an aperture setting of f/8 or higher. Using a wide aperture could mean some of your subject’s face is not in sharp focus.
This does also depends on the focal length lens you use and how close you are to your subject. For more detailed information on this, please check out this article.
Sometimes I prefer to get close and use a wide aperture for my portraits. This very much depends on my subject and their surroundings.
I made this portrait during a street parade. There was a lot of movement and a very distracting background. I opened my aperture setting up to f/2 and came as close to her as possible. This was taken before the parade had started when the natural light in the morning was rich a bright.
Only her left eye and middle finger are sharp. Because I was slightly above her and had my camera angled down, they were both the same distance from my camera. I was happy to have one of her eyes in focus. Most of all, I was happy with the expression as she has such a vibrant, natural smile and was enjoying the moment.
Creating outdoor portraits in these circumstances is challenging. With so many variables and so much actively, both with my subject and the background, I prefer to use manual mode. Using shutter priority mode or aperture priority mode could complicate things. These modes could have caused my camera to adjust the exposure settings differently. This could have resulted in having too much focus or motion blur. This is always an important consideration when photographing portrait photos of moving subjects.
Shutter Speed Settings
Portrait photos are best taken using a reasonably fast shutter speed. This is because people move. Even a slight amount of movement will result in blurring if your shutter speed is too slow. I prefer to keep my shutter speed at 1/200th of a second or faster when possible.
This can be challenging for outdoor portraits in low light, especially if you can’t ask your subject to stay still. This is one reason portrait photographers like to be able to control their subject’s movement.
Any shutter speed slower than 1/200th of a second, you risk motion blur in your image if the person you are photographing moves.
At times you may wish to make images that include some motion blur. Setting slower shutter speeds is best done in relation to the speed at which your subject is moving. This will allow you to make portrait images with the best amount of blur. If your shutter speed is not slow enough, the resulting portrait may look like a mistake. If the shutter speed you use is too slow, the images you create may not look like a portrait at all. They’ll be all a blur.
At times, I like to include some motion blur when taking outdoor portraits. Not always blurring my subject, but blurring whatever is around them and moving. The key to doing this well is choosing a shutter speed that creates the most attractive amount of blur.
Choosing ISO for portraits is much the same as choosing an ISO setting for any subject. The rule of thumb I work by is to keep my ISO as low as possible. This depends very much on the lighting conditions you are making your portrait images in.
When there’s plenty of natural light, you can keep your ISO low. But at night or other times when the light is poor, you’ll need to use ISO 400, ISO 800, or even higher.
The main reason I prefer not to use a high ISO is that it affects the quality of images. The higher the ISO setting you use, the more digital noise affects the image. The color and contrast also tend to flatten out.
With modern digital photography, this is not such a problem as it used to be because camera technology has improved greatly. The level of ISO you can use before seeing noise appear in your images depends on the age and model of your camera.
As with my aperture and shutter speed settings, I prefer to keep my ISO on manual mode.
White Balance Settings
The correct white balance is vital for indoor and outdoor portraits. If your white balance is not correct, your subject’s skin tone will be off. This can make them look ill and is very unnatural.
Having said so much about using manual modes, I do actually have my camera set to auto-white balance most of the time. Because I capture RAW files each time I make a photo, it’s easy to adjust the white balance during post-processing if necessary.
I do find the camera sets the white balance correctly most of the time when it’s set to auto mode.
When I am taking studio portraits, I set my white balance on manual mode. If it’s set to auto in the studio, the camera will read the light temperature from the available lighting. This is often not the same color temperature as my studio strobe lights.
Professional Portrait Lightroom Presets
Focusing Mode Settings
One rule I most often stick to when making portraits is to focus on the eyes. Or at least the eye that’s closest to the camera if the person is not facing you squarely.
I find this is easiest to achieve consistently using single-point autofocus.
Many modern cameras now have focusing options that include facial recognition and eye detection. These are also very helpful when taking portraits. Now it’s also possible to touch the LCD screen where you want to focus when you are using live view mode.
Metering Mode Settings
Metering modes these days vary from camera to camera. Typically, the person’s face is the most important part of a portrait to take a meter reading. For this, I use the spot meter because it provides the greatest accuracy.
If you’re taking photos of your subject in an outdoor setting using natural light, taking a spot meter reading from their face is often best. It does not matter if your camera is in manual mode, aperture priority, or any other mode. What matters is that the skin tone of the person is well exposed.
Choosing the best camera settings for portraits comes down to knowing what you want. Your intention for the photos you want to make has a lot to do with determining the best camera settings for portrait photography.
Camera settings for portraits are somewhat dependant on the type of camera and the focal length you use. Lighting also plays a large part in what the best camera settings for portraits are. So it’s most important to be in control of them and understand them well.