Portrait photography is an incredible discipline. With enough patience, practice, and the right equipment, you can produce some truly breathtaking shots. If you’re first starting out, camera settings for portraits can be difficult to figure out on your own. That’s where we come in!
We’ve scoured the internet to find the most up-to-date advice. From shutter speed to outdoor portraits, we’ve got you covered.
Also be sure to check out our equipment and general tips guide a bit further down this page. It’s designed to help you put your best foot forward when first starting out. Before you know it, you’ll be taking stunning portraits every time!
Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
We cover all the camera settings you’ll have to worry about in this section of the guide. We’ll also explain the advantages of manual mode and how to know which settings mode is best when shooting portraits.
Scratching your head wondering about shutter speed? Overwhelmed by how much there is to learn? Don’t worry. The bottom line here is that the more you practice, the easier all this will become. You’ll develop a kind of ‘sixth sense’ for portrait photography settings and you’ll instinctively know what will work for a given situation.
To get to this stage, though, you have to practice!
Which Mode Should I Use?
So, which settings mode should you use when shooting? In general, we recommend getting to grips with the manual mode of your camera. This can certainly feel like a steeper learning curve at first but it’s worth it – trust us.
Once you’re familiar with tweaking your portrait photography settings manually, the level of control you’ll have at your fingertips will be impossible to achieve with an auto mode alone.
This isn’t to say that leaning on some automatic modes can’t be helpful, though. Some cameras come with a built-in portrait mode that could prove useful, at least when first starting out.
Also, automatic features such as aperture priority mode are worth using even if you’re an experienced photographer. We discuss these in more detail further down this page.
ISO For Portrait Photography
The hard and fast rule here is to set your ISO as low as you can without affecting your image quality. The aim is to avoid as much image noise and distortion as possible. The specific number you choose will be determined by your lighting conditions, lens, and camera body.
Try starting at an ISO of 400 and adjust up or down until you like the look of your test shots.
Best Shutter Speed for Portrait Photography
If you don’t know already, your shutter speed setting determines how long the shutter element of your camera stays open before taking a photo. This influences the amount of light that is let into your lens and the level of image noise you’ll have to account for.
In general, a faster shutter speed lets in less light but makes it much easier to keep things sharply in focus. In contrast, a slower shutter speed can be great for long exposure shots like astrophotography, but can cause too much blur for your portraits if you’re not careful.
When deciding your portrait photography camera settings, you’ll want a fast enough shutter speed to keep things in focus, but will need to keep the setting slow enough to get the right light for your shot.
When using the manual mode on your camera, you should see a built-in light meter that’s designed to help you choose the right shutter speed. After taking stock of your available lighting and setting your ISO, adjust your shutter until you see a comfortable middle reading on your meter.
Take a couple of test shots to make sure you’re happy with the result and you should be good to go!
Aperture Settings for Portrait Photography
It’s not quite as simple as learning the best aperture setting and sticking to that one figure. Instead, it’s best to approach this with your desired outcome in mind. Looking for a classic blurred background? Want to use an in-focus background element to frame your model?
Both of these would require a different aperture setting to get the results you’re looking for.
If you’re going for the ‘stereotypical’ blurred background, try starting with a nice wide aperture of around f/1.4 and adjust from there. For a sharper background, you’ll have to narrow things to somewhere around f/6.
Use your best judgement here. Take plenty of test shots while working to find the best camera settings for your environment. Be sure not to over do things with your depth of field, either. You still want sharp focus for your models!
Aperture Priority Mode
Aperture priority mode can be super useful for portrait work. It acts as a kind ‘halfway point’ between manual mode and auto mode. It lets you manually set the aperture setting you want. Your camera will then automatically choose an appropriate shutter speed that will properly expose the photos you take.
Aperture priority can free up some much-needed thinking space. Having one less setting to think about can be a real bonus when working on the fly.
White Balance Settings for Portraits
White balance determines the color temperature of your images. The goal here is to do your portrait subject justice and create an image that’s as ‘true to life’ as possible. So, how do you find the correct white balance setting for your portraits?
This is one area where you can lean on the preset, auto white balance settings of your camera. Play around with the white balance presets that came with your device. Try to match your chosen preset to the current lighting conditions of your scene.
Choose the option that stands out the most to you when taking test shots.
Once you’ve pinned down your minimum shutter speed and accounted for things like camera shake and your available lighting, it’s time to decide which focus settings to use. Using manual mode can really help you fine-tune things here but to be honest, a huge proportion of portrait photographers stick to auto.
There are a couple of things to mention about this though:
- Make sure you’re using a camera/ lens with a solid auto mode
- Don’t use ‘tracking focus mode’ – this is best for fast-moving subjects
Should You Use Flash for Portrait Images?
That depends, where are you shooting? Flash photography has earned something of a ‘bad rap’ in recent years. If you’re shooting outdoors or by a window with plenty of natural, diffused light, a flash is probably unnecessary.
If you’re in an artificially lit studio, however, flash photography might be the right way to go. You’ll want to play around with your strobe’s power setting to make sure you’re properly exposing your images.
Also, using an umbrella diffuser like this one with an external studio flash can help you overcome some of the harsher tones that flash can introduce. Use your best judgement and pick the option that works best for you!
Which Format Should I Us?
Where possible, shooting in a RAW format is the right way to go in our opinion. Portrait photography usually involves a fair bit of photo editing to get the results you’re looking for. The RAW format maintains a mountain of image data that can be lost if you shoot in JPEG.
With the right editing software, you’ll have all this data at your fingertips and will be able to tweak your images to your heart’s content. This can also help you do a much better job of maintaining final image quality and getting an accurate color temperature.
Our Portrait Photography Tips
So, you’ve got your shutter speed and other settings tuned to perfection. Now what? Camera settings are only half the battle here. You’ll also need to make sure you’re making the most of your environment on the day.
Check out our tips below to get you started!
Take Advantage of Your Available Light
Any photographer worth their salt understands that lighting will make or break a photo shoot. Before you start adjusting settings or doing anything else, take stock of the light you have available. If shooting outdoors or exclusively with natural lighting, pay attention to the position of the sun and where best to place your model to flatter their face.
You’ll want plenty of soft, diffused, natural light that will help to capture your portrait subject in all their glory. If working with studio lights, pay attention to your model’s appearance and position your gear to flatter the natural features of their face.
Try Shooting Outdoors
While we’re on the subject of natural light, shooting outdoors can be a fantastic way to get the results you’re looking for. The lighting, foliage, and colors can all make for sensational images that make a lasting impression.
Use the Right Lens for Portrait Photography
There’s no one-size-fits all approach here. The best lens for your portrait work will come down to your style as a photographer and the environment you’re shooting in. That said, many people like to use some of the following options:
- A short telephoto lens with strong autofocus features
- A ‘nifty fifty’ prime lens
- A relatively fast macro lens for very detailed portrait work (careful, sometimes a macro-level of detail can be unflattering!)
Keep Things Steady With a Tripod
Truth is, not everyone uses a tripod when shooting portraits, but it can really pay off if you use one properly. Problems like camera shake and motion blur can quickly lead to blurry photos if you’re not careful.
With the right tripod, however, you’ll have one less thing to think about!
Consider Softboxes and Reflectors
Using reflectors like these and softbox kits like this one can help take your portrait work to the next level. If you’re choosing one or the other, we say opt for the cheaper reflectors over the softboxes. Reflector kits can help you squeeze every last drop of light out of your shooting environment.
Sometimes the difference between a boring image and a breathtaking shot is just a bit of light repositioned to the right spot! Having an assistant on-hand can be really helpful here. They’ll be able to hold your reflector and reposition your natural light while you setup the rest of your gear.
Consider an IR Remote
As we’ve mentioned earlier on this page, the less you have to worry about on the day, the easier it will be to produce incredible shots. With this in mind, it might be worth picking up an IR remote like this one.
To be clear, these things can be super annoying to set up when you first get them. Once you’ve paired it with your camera and have set up your tripod, however, they can be an absolute Godsend. The ability to trigger your camera button without physically holding your camera can let you focus on what really matters – your model and image composition.
Our Last Tip – Practice!
The phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ is a cliche for a reason – it’s true! Any genre of photography can feel super overwhelming when you’re first starting out. However, if you stick with it and find as many opportunities as possible to practice, you may surprise yourself at how quickly you pick things up.
Problems like choosing the right shutter speed or exposing an image properly can quickly become second nature to solve! The more you can force yourself to take photos, the better you’ll become!
We hope you’ve found the tips on this page helpful! Portraiture is one of the richest genres of photography out there. With just a little practice and the right know-how, you’ll be taking incredible shots before you know it.
For all your photography questions and gear needs, check out the rest of our site!