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  • Writer's pictureAbdul Qudoos

Complete Guide to Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

Updated: Nov 27, 2023


best camera settings for portrait photography

Want to take jaw-dropping portraits that make your subjects look their absolute best? Getting the camera settings right is the key, but with so many options it can seem overwhelming.


Not to worry! In this complete guide, you'll learn the essential settings every portrait photographer needs to master. We'll reveal the secrets to achieving stunning background blur, tack-sharp focus, pristine skin tones, and flattering angles guaranteed to wow.


If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick list of best camera settings for portrait photography:

  • Set aperture priority mode

  • Lower f-stop for blurred background, higher for more in-focus

  • Fast shutter speed (1/100s or faster)

  • Low ISO (100-1600)

  • Match white balance to lighting

  • Eye-level shooting angle

  • Simple, clean backdrop

  • 85-135mm focal length

  • Shoot RAW

  • Take test shots and get feedback

Now let’s get into the details.


Select the Shooting Mode

illustration of camera shooting modes

The first setting to get right is your camera's shooting mode. This determines how much control you have over the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more.


For portrait photography, the aperture priority mode is ideal. Here's why:

  • Gives you manual control over the aperture for adjusting the depth of field and background blur.

  • The camera automatically sets the shutter speed to ensure proper exposure.

  • Allows you to concentrate on getting the look you want without worrying about other settings.

To set your camera to aperture priority:

  • Nikon: Turn the mode dial to "A"

  • Canon: Turn the mode dial to "Av"

  • Sony: Select "Aperture Priority" on mode dial

Once in aperture priority, you can adjust the aperture via a command dial or rear LCD panel. Lower f-number = wider aperture, while higher f-number = narrower aperture.


Now let's talk about what aperture you should choose for stunning portraits.


Pick the Ideal Aperture for a Stunning Background Blur

The aperture controls how wide the opening in the lens is for light to pass through. Adjusting this setting allows you to change the depth of field in your images.


What does aperture do for portraits?

Aperture can be wide:

  • Wider aperture (lower f-number) = shallow depth of field

  • Blurs background to make the subject stand out

  • Good for individual portraits

Or the aperture can be narrow:

  • Smaller aperture (higher f-number) = greater depth of field

  • Keeps more of the scene in focus

  • Better for group portraits

Recommended aperture range

For portraits, moderate aperture values between f/1.8 and f/5.6 are ideal.


This allows you to blur the background enough to make your subject pop while keeping their entire face razor-sharp.


Some tips for picking the best aperture for different portraits:

  • For headshots and close-up portraits, use wider apertures like f/2 or f/2.8. This ensures you get plenty of background blur.

  • For full-length portraits, go with narrower apertures like f/4 or f/5.6. This keeps your subject sharp when both near and far from the camera.

  • For group portraits, use smaller apertures like f/5.6 or f/8 to keep everyone in focus.

  • Feel free to experiment within the f/1.8 to f/5.6 range and judge what you like best!

Now let's talk about pairing your aperture with a fast shutter speed...


Select a Shutter Speed Fast Enough to Avoid Blur

In addition to aperture, choosing the right shutter speed can impact the sharpness and quality of your portraits. A fast enough shutter speed is needed to avoid blur from camera shake or subject movement.


The general recommendation is to use a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th of a second for portrait shots. However, if you are using a long focal length lens like an 85mm or 70-200mm, you may need an even faster shutter speed.


A good rule of thumb is the reciprocal rule - “Your shutter speed should be at least as fast as the reciprocal of your focal length”.


So at 200mm, use a shutter speed of 1/200s or faster. This prevents camera shake blur, especially when shooting hand-held.


For moving subjects like children or pets, increase the shutter speed to 1/250th or higher to freeze the action and avoid motion blur. Portraits will be sharpest when your shutter speed matches the speed of your subject.


Adjust the ISO for Clean, Noise-Free Portraits

The ISO setting controls how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light.


A lower ISO like 100 or 200 produces the cleanest images with minimal noise. However, higher ISOs allow you to shoot in darker conditions by boosting the sensor's light sensitivity.

The tradeoff is that images get progressively noisier as you ramp up the ISO, reducing image quality.


For pristine portraits, always start with the lowest native ISO your camera allows. This is usually ISO 100 or 200. Then, only increase ISO as needed to achieve a good exposure while retaining a fast enough shutter speed.


Some tips for setting ISO for portraits:

  • Use ISO 100-400 in bright light and ISO 400-1600 in low light situations.

  • Increase ISO rather than reducing the shutter speed to control motion blur.

  • Use noise reduction software conservatively to retain detail.

  • On some cameras, you can set an automatic ISO range for aperture priority mode.

Now let's talk about the crucial focus settings required to get tack-sharp portraits...


Achieve Perfect Focus for Tack-Sharp Eyes


Camera focus on waman eye

In portrait photography, accurate eye and face focus is non-negotiable. If the eyes are even slightly out of focus, it can ruin the entire portrait.


Use Eye AF Modes

Many mirrorless cameras have Eye AF modes that automatically lock focus on the subject's eyes. Take advantage of these! On Sony cameras look for the Eye AF setting. On newer Canon models use Eye Detection AF.


Use Single Point AF

If your camera lacks automated Eye AF, switch to single-point AF mode.


Manually place the focus point over one of your subject's eyes and lock focus. Recompose while holding the shutter halfway to keep the focus locked.


Here are some tips to help you nail focus right on the eyes every time:

  • On DSLRs, engage AF to lock focus on the eyes, then hold the AFL button while recomposing to maintain the focus distance.

  • Get as close as your lens will allow to make it easier for the autofocus to detect the eyes accurately.

  • For ultimate eye sharpness, use focus peaking or 10x zoom focus assist to check and manually fine-tune eye focus.

  • Have your subject look at and focus on the camera lens when shooting, so their eyes are properly directed at the focus point.

Accurate eye focus is crucial! Once you've nailed focus, the next step is setting a white balance for flawless skin tones.


Set the White Balance Properly for Accurate Skin Tones

White balance controls the color temperature or "warmth" of your photo. Adjusting it properly ensures natural, flattering skin tones.


In different lighting conditions:

  • Outdoors - Use Daylight or Cloudy white balance presets

  • Indoors under tungsten/incandescent lighting - Tungsten preset

  • Fluorescent lighting - Fluorescent preset

  • Mixed lighting - Custom white balance for accuracy

Pro tips:

  • Set a custom white balance with a gray card for consistency

  • Check the LCD to confirm skin tones look natural. Adjust if needed.

  • Fine-tune white balance in RAW processing

Getting the white balance right avoids weird color casts and keeps the skin looking its best!


Add Flattering Lighting for Dimension and Sparkle

The way you light your portraits can create mood, shape subjects' features, and add that extra visual pop. Use these tips:


Make the Most of Natural Light

  • Turn subjects towards window light for flattering illumination

  • Diffuse harsh sun with a scrim or reflector

  • Use tree shade for even, soft lighting

  • Position subjects for sculpting with side lighting

Enhance with Artificial Light

  • Bounce flash off ceiling or walls for soft, even lighting

  • Use off-camera speedlights for more dramatic effects

  • Light from the side to add contours and shape

  • Add backlights for outlining and separation from the background

Pay attention to the quality, direction, and intensity of light. Lighting can make or break a great portrait!


Choose a Focal Length for a Flattering Perspective

focal length explanation

The focal length of your lens determines how large your subject appears relative to the background. Wider lenses make subjects appear stretched and distorted. Telephoto lenses compress the scene for a flattering, naturally proportional look.


For portraits, ideal focal lengths are:

  • 85mm - Perfect headshot focal length, ideal for 3⁄4 and full body portraits. The flattering perspective is similar to that of the human eye. Nice background separation.

  • 100mm - Superb for headshots. Allows you to take the shot from a distance without getting too “compressed.”

  • 135mm - Great for tight headshots and partial body shots. Provides background separation. Can feel too cramped for full-body shots.

  • 70-200mm - Extremely versatile zoom range. Allows you to frame from headshots all the way to the full body without moving your feet.

Some tips for choosing the ideal focal length:

  • Avoid wide-angle lenses like 18mm or 24mm which distort facial features.

  • For full-body portraits, err on the longer end like 200mm for a more natural perspective.

  • Get closer rather than going wider if you need to fit more of the scene or background.

  • Zoom with your lens rather than moving physically when possible.

Focal length massively impacts the look and feel of your portraits. Choose wisely!

Up next - how to use creative camera angles for maximum impact...


Pick Camera Angles and Orientation for Maximum Impact

The angle and orientation at which you shoot control how your subject appears.

Subtle tweaks make a big difference in the mood and tone of your portraits.


Some creative camera angles to try:


Eye Level

  • Shooting from the subject's eye level creates the most natural, flattering perspective and connection with the viewer.

Low Angle

  • Shooting from below eye level looks up at the subject, lending a sense of power and dominance.

High Angle

  • Shooting from above can portray vulnerability or innocence.

Side Angle

  • Capturing the subject from an angle adds flair. Watch the nose and ear positions.

Some tips for using orientation:

  • Landscape orientation fits more of the scene/body and implies stability.

  • Portrait orientation feels more intimate and focused while adding tension.

  • Tilted orientation creates energy, movement, and dynamics.

Play with angles and orientation - but do it intentionally, not randomly.


These enhance the mood and feel of your portraits immensely when done purposefully.

Now let's look at picking the perfect backdrop...


Select Simple Backdrops to Make the Subject Pop

A clean, simple backdrop helps highlight your main subject. Busy, cluttered backgrounds compete for attention.


Some tips for choosing flattering backdrops:

  • Seek Solid Colors: A solid color backdrop like black, white, or grey isolates the subject with a neutral tone.

  • Look for Soft Textures: Subtle textures like weathered wood or textured concrete add interest without distracting.

  • Embrace Negative Space: Allow ample blank space around your subject to prevent competing elements.

  • Use Walls Wisely: Plain-painted walls, industrial walls, and outdoor architecture make clean backdrops.

  • Conceal Clutter: Position the subject to hide messy backgrounds. Frame tightly to avoid distraction.

  • Use Bokeh: Blur the background optically with shallow depth of field and wide apertures.

  • Keep it simple. Draw attention to your subject's character, not the environment.


Set the Image Format to RAW for Maximum Flexibility

To unlock the most flexibility when editing and retouching your portraits later, be sure to shoot RAW image files rather than JPEGs.


The unprocessed nature of RAW images allows more exposure latitude and wiggle room for adjusting settings like white balance and noise reduction. This helps compensate for any small errors in your camera settings when shooting.


You can always export finished portraits as JPEGs to share online or deliver to clients. But shooting RAW gives you far more creative options, especially for dialing in ideal skin tones and colors during editing. RAW is a must for serious portrait pros.


Refine Your Settings with Test Shots and Feedback

Don't just set it and forget it! Take test shots to nail your settings:

  • Review images on your LCD screen and histogram

  • Check focus sharpness at 100% zoom

  • Zoom in on eyes to confirm focus

  • Ask your subject, clients, or pro photographer friends for feedback

  • Pay attention to subtle facial expressions and body language

  • Make small adjustments and observe improvements in results

Refine your technique every shoot and your portrait settings will become second nature!


Conclusion

That covers the core camera settings for truly thrilling portraits!


But remember - these are just a starting point. Don't be afraid to experiment and break the "rules" at times too.


Learn your specific camera model inside out, then practice regularly to build your skills.

Portrait photography requires equal parts art and science. Master your gear, then leverage it to capture the essence of your subjects.


Now get out there, make mistakes, and create some magic! 📸


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