What are the absolute best camera settings for portraits?
How do you choose settings that will get you amazing portrait photos, consistently?
It’s a common struggle…
…which is why we’ve created this portrait photography settings guide. In it, you’ll discover everything you need to know about portrait camera settings.
And you’ll never struggle when choosing portrait photography camera settings again.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Use Aperture Priority Mode or Manual Mode for Stunning Portraits
Digital cameras have several modes. And they’re all geared toward controlling different aspects of your camera.
The shutter speed refers to the length of time your camera sensor is exposed to the light.
The aperture refers to the size of a diaphragm in the lens, which in turn sets the amount of the photo that is sharp (the depth of field).
The ISO refers to the camera’s sensitivity to light. In other words: The higher the ISO, the brighter your image will be (all else being equal).
Entry-level DSLRs have a whole host of beginner modes. Things like Portrait mode, Action mode, and Night mode. These select your camera settings in advance. Unfortunately, beginner modes don’t give you any flexibility, so I recommend you avoid them.
For portrait photography, there are two modes I recommend you use.
First, you should work in Aperture Priority mode. Aperture Priority allows you to set the ISO and the aperture. Your camera will then select the best shutter speed, based on the amount of ambient light.
The main benefit of Aperture Priority mode is that it will give you control over the aperture. And since choosing the correct aperture is essential for capturing amazing portraits (see the next tip!), controlling the aperture is crucial.
Once you’ve spent some time working with Aperture Priority mode, however, I suggest that you move on to Manual mode.
Manual mode gives you the ultimate control over your camera settings for portraits. You choose the shutter speed, the aperture, and the ISO; nothing is left up to your camera.
And this lets you carefully select the best shutter speed, the best aperture, and the best ISO for the situation.
I personally use Manual mode all the time, because I like being able to choose my aperture and shutter speed on the fly.
So here’s the bottom line:
When you’re doing portrait photography, start with Aperture Priority mode. And once you feel confident, switch to Manual mode–so that you can have the utmost control over your portraits.
And you can choose the best camera settings for portraits, consistently.
2. Choose a Wide Aperture for the Best Background Blur
In portrait photography, your goal is to isolate the subject. To make your portrait subject stand out from the surroundings.
And one of the best ways to do that?
Create a beautiful background blur (also known as bokeh).
You see, the stronger and smoother the background blur, the more that viewers will be drawn straight to your main subject.
Look at this photo:
Do you see the strong background blur? That’s what you should aim to achieve.
Fortunately, creating a stunning background blur only requires one setting:
Choose an aperture between f/1.2 and f/4.
You see, the lower the aperture, the greater the background blur. A low aperture causes very little of the photo to come into focus–and therefore creates a beautiful background.
Now, when working with such a low aperture, you have to be careful. When you’re shooting with such a narrow area of sharpness, it’s easy to miss focus and get a blurry shot.
That said, a low aperture will let in more light, which means that you can use a faster shutter speed:
3. Choose a Mid to High Shutter Speed for a Sharp Portrait Photo
Your shutter speed is one of the biggest determinants of a portrait’s sharpness.
If your shutter speed is too long, your camera will shake or your subject will move–and this will cause blur.
But what shutter speed is right for portraits?
That depends on your subject’s level of movement.
If your subject is motionless, you want to choose a shutter speed at least 1/160th of a second. 1/200th of a second is safer, and will ensure a sharp photo.
If your subject is moving slowly (e.g., moving their head from side to side), you want to choose a shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second. This will freeze your subject’s motion.
If your subject is moving quickly (e.g., running, jumping, or dancing), you’ll need a shutter speed in the area of 1/1000th of a second and beyond.
In general, you should use the lowest shutter speed that you can afford, and no lower. If you shoot a dancer at 1/500s, you’ll end up with a slew of blurry photos. So go for 1/1000s and no higher, unless you notice that your photos are blurry.
I should also note that your shutter speed should increase if you use a long focal length. Because longer lenses are heavy, and therefore more prone to camera shake.
So if you’re shooting portraits with a 200mm lens, you’ll want to work at least at 1/200s, if not more–no matter how stationary your subject.
Related Post: Best Portrait Photography Lenses
4. Choose the Lowest ISO You Can Afford for Noise-Free Photos
Here’s the thing:
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO together determine the overall brightness of your portrait photos.
Wider apertures will make the photos lighter, while narrower apertures will make the photos darker.
Longer shutter speeds will make the photos lighter, while shorter shutter speeds will make the photos darker.
And higher ISOs will make the photos lighter, while lower ISOs will make the photos darker.
But you should choose your aperture based on the amount of background you want blurred.
And you should choose your shutter speed based on the amount of motion in your shot.
Which leaves your ISO to determine the rest of your exposure:
The actual overall brightness of your image.
Therefore, you need to choose an ISO that creates a good exposure, one with lots of details and beautiful colors.
If you’re in bright light, this may be the lowest possible ISO setting: 100 (alternatively, 50 or 200, depending on your camera). If you can get away with it, choose ISO 100.
But unfortunately, the light isn’t usually nice and bright. Which means that, if you want a nice exposure, you have to increase the ISO.
Here’s the problem:
The higher the ISO, the more noise you introduce into the photo. So you have a tradeoff: Do you want to increase the ISO and get a good exposure but more noise?
Or do you want to leave the ISO on its lowest setting, and get no noise but a too-dark photo?
Here’s what I recommend:
Increase the ISO…
…but only as much as you have to. As soon as you’ve hit an acceptable exposure, don’t push it any higher. Because noise just doesn’t look good in portrait photos!
Related Post: 7 Tips for Better Indoor Portrait Photography
Best Camera Settings for Portraits: Conclusion
Once you understand the best camera settings for portrait photography, you’ll start to capture consistently great portrait images.
Because you’ll know how to blur the background.
You’ll know how to ensure sharp photos.
And you’ll know how to avoid noise in your images.
And now that you know these things, all that’s left to do…
…is get out and shoot!
The best camera settings for portraits include a low ISO (to prevent noise), a fairly fast shutter speed (to ensure a sharp photo), and a wide aperture (to give a beautiful background blur).
The best aperture for portrait photography is a wide aperture, something in the area of f/1.2 to f/4. This will give a stunning background blur, one that makes your main subject stand out.
The best shutter speed for portrait photography is fairly fast–at least 1/160s or 1/200s. If your subject is moving quickly, you’ll need to increase the shutter speed accordingly.
The best ISO for portrait photography is the lowest ISO you can afford. This is hopefully in the realm of ISO 100 to ISO 400. The larger your camera sensor, the higher you can push your ISO without worrying about noise–but in general, you should exercise caution.
Both Aperture Priority and Manual mode are good for portrait photography. Aperture Priority is easier to learn, so I recommend you start there. Then, once you become comfortable, you can move over to Manual mode as you see fit.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.