5 Camera Setting Tips for Shooting Great Portraits :: Digital Photo Secrets

5 Camera Setting Tips for Shooting Great Portraits

by David Peterson 41 comments

Intermediate Portraits are one of the most common photo ops out there. As a photographer, you'll likely be asked at one point or another by family or friends to take their photo. Some photographers are naturals at capturing people while others freeze when the person is in front of the camera. They're not sure how to pose them, how to find flattering light, or how to make the subject comfortable. After all, why should the subject be relaxed if your brow is sweating?

Take a deep breath, relax, and read these 5 tips for shooting great portraits before you agree to the challenge of a portrait shoot.

1. Picking the Right Lens

I like to start with lens choice because that will determine the flexibility to carry out some of the other tips that speak to focal length and aperture settings.

There are a few lens options you can reach for, and it may depend on your setting and the number of people in the shoot.

If it's a large group, such as a few generations of a family, your wide-angle lens (around 18mm) will help you capture a wider angle of view, allowing more people to fit in the shot.

A 50mm portrait lens will give you less diversity than a telephoto or zoom lens, but often give you sharper images and lower f-stop ranges. You will also need to move around more to fill your frame the way you want since you won't have zoom capability. It's up to you to determine if the low f-stop for a shallow depth of field is worth the trade-off. For many photographers, it is.

A telephoto (i.e. a 70-210mm) lens restricts your angle of view, but works for some angles. For example if your subject is down on a dock, you can be on a hillside shooting them from above with a telephoto to get close. You will also have to deal with f-stops that are a little higher. See the tip on Apertures for more information.

2. Setting Your Aperture/F-Stop

The basics on aperture settings are that: the lower the f-stop, the wider aperture, the shallower the depth of field. Alternatively, the higher the f-stop, the smaller the aperture, the deeper the depth of field. If you can remember this, you'll be set!

That said, when shooting portraits, you're better off setting a wide aperture (for example, f/2.8-f/5.6). Why? Because, portrait photographers want a shallow depth of field so that the background isn't competing with the subject, making for a "busy" photo. A shallow depth of field makes the subject, such as an adult, pet, or child, stand out in the image. Their eye and hair color will stand out, and the background essentially serves as a curtain backdrop.

Shoot in Aperture Priority mode to control depth of field; in this mode your SLR will helpfully set the shutter speed for a correct exposure.

Specialist portrait lenses tend to have even wider maximum apertures (from f/1.4 to f/2.8) in order to blur backgrounds further.

There may be some occasions when you want a deeper depth of field, especially if it's a large group of people and you don’t want the people in the back row fuzzed out. This is another tip where some of it will be up to your discretion based on your immediate situation.

3. Exposure Compensation

Sometimes you might want to brighten your subject's face slightly. Maybe you don't have enough light directed on their face to take a great photo, or maybe your subject has darker skin. To do this, use Exposure Compensation.

Landscape photographers use this trick to darken or lighten skies, and you can use it for portraits. Here's how it works: press the Exposure Compensation button (see your manual for your specific camera) and dial it up +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces or -1 stop to darken it. I would start with 1/4 EV, and keep increasing or decreasing by 1/4 increments until the face looks just right.

4. Shutter speed settings

As a rule of thumb, when setting your camera's shutter speed, consider your lens’s focal length to avoid blurred results from camera shake. The shutter speed should be equal to or faster than the focal length, so make sure your shutter speed is faster than your focal length. For example, at 200mm you will want to shoot at 1/250 sec or faster.

5. Increase your ISO

In order to give your aperture and shutter speed choices a boost, you can always adjust your ISO. Also consider that kids, pets, and even adults tend to move around while being photographed. To combat these wiggly subjects, and to prevent motion blur appearing, you can bump up your shutter speed by bumping up your ISO.

In low light (indoors and outside), you may need to increase it to ISO400, 800, 1600 or even 3200. The offset will mean a little grain, but that's certainly better than a blurred image.

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  1. kayleeheartkins.tumblr.com says:

    Advantages of using SLR s in fully manual as well as tips and examples on how to.If you think the shot doesnt look quite right, try turning your camera on its side and you will be surprised at how much of the difference it can make to your Nikon D3100 Guide Setting your camera Tutorial.

  2. Zoe says:

    I am taking engagement pics of my son and his fiance. She wants a sunset pic. I have a basic nikon 35mm camera. Any advice on settings?

  3. Ethan Hanes says:

    Hi, I'm a very rookie photographer and I was going to go out and shoot some of my siblings with my camera. What would you recommend is the best setting (ISO, Aperture, Shutter speed, etc.) to set in order to get the best quality portrait photography Lara Jade and all the other great photographers get? I've been trying to get a really good, crisp, cool photo but I can never find the right setting. Thanks for your help!

  4. Guled says:

    Thank you for the tips.

    I am doing a group photo shoot tomorrow and was looking for advice on how to approach it.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this.

  5. Martha geldenhuys says:

    Hi David. Thank you so much. If i want to take a photo at sunset . With my model walking down the beach. With i dress eith soft layers. In the frint above the knee and at the back on the ground . It must be soft on the dress . What must my settings be. I have a canon 1300 d eos . With the sunset in the background

  6. Amizul says:

    Hi.im using nikon d610 and 24-70mm f2.8 lens nikkor and a speedlight sb910.i always got difficulties in to get sharp for a couple people in portrait pictures.when a guy is sharp,the lady is blur.and why is that?my iso is usually 1600-2000.aperture f2.8.

  7. Terry Lim says:

    Hi.... what is the best mode to use for everyday use day or night time. For those professional photographer like you what mode you use. Thanks

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Terry,

      Most pro photographers no longer use scene modes, but when you are starting out, look for "Portrait Mode" to photograph portraits. For general every day use, stick with "Auto" mode. For nighttime, look for the Night, or Night Portrait mode.


  8. Pakorn says:

    hello! I have a question for shooting family photos and portraits, I have a Canon Eos 1200D DSLR camera that came with factory lenses, I was wondering what is the best like absolutely best settings used for family photos? Both in High light and low light (outside and inside)

  9. Sonja Steenkamp says:

    Good day,
    i have a Nikon D3100. When shooting a family shoot or even individual shoots my pictures comes out with some sort of a grain? why is that? what settings do i need to change my camera to have nice clear photo's.
    the picture sometimes comes out too dark or blur a lot. Settings is currently : "A" mode, Metering - matrix, ISO 400, Shutter 1/250. and it struggle to focus sometimes..

    please help.

    thank you

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Sonja,

      You're describing a few different issues:

      1. Grainy images: Another name for this is noise. It's usually this caused by the ISO being too high. Try reducing it to 100 and see if that's any better.
      2. Too dark or blurry images: That's caused by not enough light in the scene. You can help by increasing the ISO (although then you'll get more grainy images as per above). Another option is to turn on more lights in the room before taking photos.

      I hope that helps.


  10. Jane says:

    I have been asked to do a photoshoot of multiple dogs and possibly some humans. Can you tell me what settings are required to capture everyone and not have any subjects blurry.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.