Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

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In this article and video, you will discover the best camera settings for portrait photography for taking photos in natural light and for flash photography. Whether you are brand new to portrait photography or a seasoned pro, you will benefit from these helpful photo tips.

Best camera settings for Portrait Photography

If you prefer watching videos to reading, I have also included a video that will walk you through these photo tips for taking photographs in both natural light and for using fill flash.

Taking photos in natural light is the most common so we will start with those camera settings first.

#1 Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

I suggest you set your camera to manual mode to give yourself more creative control of your exposure. Sure, it will take a little extra time to capture your images but you are a much better judge of how you want the final image to look than your camera.

ISO

First choose your ISO, which is usually the lowest setting in natural light, ISO 100 on most cameras. Some Nikon cameras have a lower ISO and allow you to you choose a native ISO of 64. Set your ISO as low as possible to avoid extra noise and that grainy look you will get if you use higher ISO settings.

best camera settings for natural light portraits

Aperture

Step two, decide which aperture you would like to use. For an out of focus background use an aperture like f/1.4. If you would like more of the background in focus or a sharper image, in most cases using an aperture that is two to three stops higher than the minimum aperture will be the sharpest point of the lens.

For example, an f/2.8 lens will be at its sharpest point at around f/5.6 to f/8. If you are a little confused by that, feel free to post your questions in the comment box below this article.

Read more here: How To Find Your Lens’s Sweet Spot: A Beginner’s Guide to Sharper Images

best portrait settings mirrorless cameras

Shutter Speed

Once you have set your ISO and decided on your aperture your next step is to refer to your in-camera meter and adjust your shutter speed until you get a center reading. Then take a test shot and have a look at your camera’s LCD screen and histogram.

Make sure your histogram is as far to the right as possible without blowing out the highlights in your image. Refer to the video above for some examples of how the histogram should look on your LCD screen.

best camera settings for high speed sync

A general rule is to set your shutter speed two times the focal length of your lens. For example, if you were using a 100mm prime lens then you would set a minimum shutter speed of 1/200th to avoid camera shake and image blur.

There are exceptions to this rule. If you are using a tripod or you have in-camera stabilization, like some mirrorless cameras have, or you are using a lens that has built-in image stabilization, then you can photograph at lower shutter speeds.

best camera settings for portrait photography with flash

Step #2 Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography Using Flash

When it comes to using flash photography there are a couple of different strobes that are in common use today. There are smaller speedlights that fit on your camera’s hotshoe mount and there are larger studio strobes.

There are also strobe units that function differently. Some strobe systems do not allow you to shoot at a shutter speed faster than 1/200th (the camera’s sync speed). Other strobe setups will allow you to use something called (high-speed sync mode) to shoot with flash up to a shutter speed of 1/8000th.

best camera settings for portraits using fill flash

If a majority of your portrait photography is going to take place outdoors, then I would consider a strobe like the Godox AD600 Pro which is what I used to take a majority of the images in this article. The Godox AD600 Pro allows you to use high-speed sync and flash at shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th.

If your current strobe does not allow you to take photos at above 1/200th, you can use a filter like a B+W 3-stop ND filter which will allow you to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/200th but also at an aperture 3-stops larger than you could without it.

For example, with a 3-stop ND filter, you can shoot at f/2.8 instead of f/8 for the same exposure.

best camera setting for natural light portraits

Another important thing to keep in mind if you are shooting outdoors is that you will achieve better results if you shoot closer to sunrise or sunset when the sun is less harsh.

The image above was taken one hour before sunset in the shade and provides a nice even light on the subject’s face. If you would like softer light, then avoid shooting in the middle of the day or move to the shade if you do not have the luxury of shooting just before sunset.

Step #3 Practice These Tips and Explore Your Creativity

best camera settings for portraits at golden hour

One last tip I have for you is to set your camera’s LCD screen brightness level to 4 or 5 and to leave it there. Make sure your LCD screen brightness is not set to auto. That is because it will be difficult for you to gauge your exposure level if your LCD screen brightness is constantly changing.

Check your camera’s settings and set your LCD screen brightness level manually and keep it at the same setting for future photo outings.

best camera settings for shooting with strobes

Conclusion

If you are new to shooting in manual mode it may seem a little difficult at first. But with a little practice, you will be shooting like a pro.

If you have any questions about the best camera settings for portrait photography that were covered in this article, feel free to ask in the comment box below this article. I look forward to hearing from you.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Craig Beckta is a Professional Portrait Photographer with over 150 free Youtube photography tutorials, watch them on Craig Beckta's YouTube Channel. You can also find out more about him at Craigbeckta.com, or you can connect with him on Craig Beckta Instagram.

  • Larry

    The rule of thumb for shutter speed is the inverse of the focal length, so a 100mm lens needs a 1/100 shutter speed without stabilisation. Not sure why the article says double the inverse (1/200)

  • I personally like to shoot at double the lens focal length as a minimum shutter speed. These so called Photography rules are merely guidelines. Feel free to try them out and experiment and do what works for you. There are also other factors that determine image sharpness. Check out this video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFAVeamDAC4

  • Martin Messmer

    t(max) = 1 / (f * Crop)

  • Don 66

    I find with film which is much less sensitive to light than a digital sensor that rule works but digital is much more sensitive to light a higher shutter speed is needed for a sharp photo. I have shot many weddings and found this is the reason.

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  • Viv Shein

    What aperture setting would you suggest for shooting a family of 4 – 2 adults, one 8 ear old and one 8 month old? I’d like the background as blurry as possible – hoping for some good fall foliage background! I have a fixed 50 mm. 1.8 portrait lens on my Canon Rebel.

  • Hi Viv, you are not going to get as much background blur with a 50mm vs say a 105mm at the same aperture. Also, if you are shooting a group you want to make sure everyone is in focus. I would shoot at F5.6 as a minimum with a group and make sure they are all on the same focal plane. If not then you might have to try F8. Shooting groups is much more difficult then single subjects.

  • Mark Miller

    First I’d like to say those are all great tips. However, most times I prefer to use aperture priority mode. If my camera can’t get within 2-3 stops, and then use exposure compensation, I’m looking for another camera.

  • Boris

    You said ‘you cool it down to 5300’….

  • I shoot in raw and adjust white balance to taste. Sometimes 5300K if for example I shot it at 5500K.

  • I prefer shooting in manual mode personally but whatever works for you Mark.

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