Camera Settings For Portraits

Robert Delgado Webb

Once you have mastered the automatic settings of your camera, it’s time to take on manual mode. Manual shooting gives a photographer more control over their surroundings and is a neccessary technique to understand when advancing in your professional career.

One type of photography that performs exceptionally when captured in manual mode is portraiture. Because manual mode allows you to alter your shutter speed, aperture and ISO to your personal preference, you can essentially decide how you want your portraits to be composed.

To help you further understand the techniques for capturing your subject and utilizing your camera to its fullest extent, let’s discuss in detail the different camera settings for portraits.

The Relationship Between Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO

Understanding how shutter speed, aperture and ISO work together is the foundation for the concept known as the exposure triangle. In short, these three settings each rely on one another to create a high quality image.

As a general rule, you will need to understand the basics of each setting in order to manually adjust their values while shooting.

Aperture

Aperture refers to the amount of opening available in the camera’s iris or sensor.

A smaller aperture means that the opening is wider and will allow more light to enter. A larger aperture means that the opening is smaller and will allow less light to enter. If you have a large amount of available light, you may increase the value of your aperture. While the inverse is true, if you have less light, you would need to a smaller aperture to allow in all possible light sources.

The amount of light we want to reach the sensor also corresponds to our desired depth of field. Depth of field is how much of the background of our image will be in focus depending on our aperture values.

If we want to compose an image with a large depth of field, this would show more of our background in focus and be created using a higher f-stop. Inversely, if we want to compose an image with a small depth of field, more of our background would be blurred and this is created by using a lower f-stop.

Generally for portrait photography, you will want to isolate your subject from the background which calls for using a wider aperture or lower f-Stop. Common aperture choices for portraits are f/1.2, 1.4, 1.8, 2.2 and 2.8.

Shutter Speed

The second element of the exposure triangle is shutter speed. This refers to the how long the shutter stays open and how long the sensor is exposed to light.

A fast shutter will give less time for the sensor to be exposed and therefore result in a low exposure. While a slow shutter will allow for more time for the sensor to be exposed and will result in a higher exposure.

For portraiture, you generally want to have a faster shutter speed in order to maintain sharpness and clarity. Slow shutters are often used in low lighting or moving motion situations, but can often  result in a softer image.

If you are shooting portraits on a sunny day, you will want to adjust your shutter to the fastest values such as 1/2500 or 1/4000, so that the exposure to light is lower. Matching this with a wider aperture is guaranteed to create a smaller depth of field.

ISO

The final aspect of the exposure triangle is ISO. ISO is a component that measures the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor.

ISO is the simplest to understand. A small ISO allows the least amount of light, while a large ISO creates the most amount of light for the camera’s sensor. Yet, ISO is a tricky topic as it should rarely be adjusted haphazardly as it can create noise and result in less detail when the value is too high.

For ISO it is best to keep it as low as possible and adjust your aperture and shutter speed to make up for discrepancies in lighting conditions. In portraits, keep your ISO at a value of 100 or 200 when shooting with an optimal amount of light.

Camera Settings for Portraits

For each of these camera settings, let’s assume that you have an optimal amount of light either natural or artificial.

For Portraits With a Large Depth of Field 

To create portraits with a large depth of field, you will need:

  • To narrow your aperture, increase the value of your f-stop
  • Move further away from your subject
  • Utilize a lens with a shorter focal length such as 35mm
  • Decrease your shutter speed
  • Up Your ISO

Example Images:

For these images, you can see more of the background as it surrounds the subject.

Augustin de Montesquiou

Camera Settings // Aperture: f/4.5 , Shutter Speed: 1/50s , ISO: 160

Riki Ramdani

Camera Settings // Aperture: f/3.5 , Shutter Speed: 1/50s , ISO: 400

For Portraits With a Small Depth of Field 

To create portraits with a smaller depth of field, you will need:

  • To widen your aperture, decrease the value of your f-stop
  • Move closer to your subject
  • Utilize a lens with a longer focal length such as 50mm and above
  • Increase Your Shutter Speed
  • Keep ISO low

Example Images:

For these images, you can see less of the background as it surrounds the subject.

Riki Ramdani

Camera Settings // Aperture: f/1.8 , Shutter Speed: 1/1250s , ISO: 100

Angelos Michalopoulos

Camera Settings // Aperture: f/1.4 , Shutter Speed: 1/1000s , ISO: 100

For Background Blur or Bokeh 

Background blur and bokeh is created by a utilizing a faster lens with an aperture of at least f/2.8. In order to achieve this, many photographers will drop the value of their f-stop for ranges anywhere between f/1.2 to f/2.

Background Blur and portraits where there is visible bokeh follow the same formula as those with a small depth of field. For background blur you will want to use:

  • A small f-stop value such as 1.2, 1.4, 1.8, 2.0 or 2.2
  • A lens with a longer focal length such as 50 or 85mm
  • A fast shutter speed in optimal lighting / a slow shutter speed in low lighting
  • A low ISO in optimal lighting / a high ISO in low lighting

Here are examples of portraits with background blur and bokeh. Notice that the background is completely blurred out and starts to blend around the framing of your subject.

Arnaud Mesureur

Camera Settings // Aperture: f/2.0 , Shutter Speed: 1/15s , ISO: 640

Irene Caramaschi

Camera Settings // Aperture: f/1.8 , Shutter Speed: 1/800s , ISO: 200

As you can see, adjusting your camera settings for portraits relies on the three main components of creating a properly exposed image – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Remembering their relation to one another and how each is effected by the amount of available light, will allow you to create portraits with a large depth of field, small depth of field and portraiture with blurred backgrounds and bokeh.

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