In this article I’m going to give you the camera settings for portraits I usually use in natural light and then we’ll get into shooting with flash. These are just basic portrait photography settings to help beginning photographers start making professional portraits outdoors, indoors, and group portraits. So use them, but test and play having changed the location and time of the day.
Use this cheat sheet to remind yourself the key principles of good exposure for portrait photography and how they influence on the final picture you get. These are universal camera settings that can be used on various cameras for portraits, so you should make little changes according to your light, number of models, and destination.
Outdoor portrait photography may cause certain problems with lighting and shadows. View more about what outdoor portrait photography settings you are recommended to use for sunny and gloomy weather. That will assist you in getting amazing shots in spite of any difficulties.
You won’t find better conditions for shooting backlit portraits outside than the bright sun. These are recommended camera settings for outdoor portraits in sunny weather:
ISO: The maximum picture quality is a must for portraits. Typically, in natural light, the lowest ISO is preferable, which is ISO 100 on the majority of cameras. Choosing between ISO 100 and 400 is a golden middle.
Aperture: The lower the f-stop is, the shallower the depth of field is. Consequently, the higher the f-stop, the deeper the depth of field, the smaller the aperture will be. Aperture portraits should be set to wide, for instance, f/1.2-f/4 for a blurred background. In case you need to achieve more focused background or a sharper shot, set aperture 2-3 stops higher than the lowest aperture. It will be the sharpest point of the lens. For instance, at around f/5.6 to f/8, an f/2.8 lens will be at its sharpest point.
Read more about recommended camera settings for portraits taken in different light and conditions. Check out diverse portrait samples with various camera settings to understand the difference.
Shutter Speed: Now it is time to take advantage of the camera’s meter and regulate the shutter speed. Your goal is to achieve a center reading. After that, you have to take a test picture and examine the histogram and LCD screen.
Shutter speed is set approximately two times the lens’ focal length. If you shoot with a 24mm prime lens, you set the lowest shutter speed of 1/60th to prevent camera shaking and picture blurring. However, it isn’t the best shutter speed for portraits in all situations. In case your mirrorless camera or a lens features a built-in stabilization or you shoot with a tripod, setting lower shutter speeds is advisable.
By choosing aperture priority mode, your aperture will be set automatically.
White balance is suggested to be set to 5200-6000 Kelvin or “Sunny”.
The best camera settings for outdoor portraits in cloudy weather are illustrated on the example below:
ISO should be set from 100 and higher. Since it isn’t bright outside, the sensitivity of the camera must be increased. Keep in mind not to overdo, as some cameras set to ISO 800 may produce unnecessary noise. Still, the amount of grain depends on the camera model you have. At ISO 800, some cameras generate clear shots, other – rather grainy ones.
The Aperture (f) has to be set wide open. Of course, it doesn’t mean setting it to the highest point. The same as in photographing outside in sunny weather, you need to be aware of your composition. Therefore, stick to the widest aperture for shallow depth of field and the smallest one for the background to be in focus.
Shutter speed shouldn’t exceed the 1/200 or 1/400 values, because you may see insufficient light. In case you select aperture priority mode, this parameter is adjusted automatically. Bear in mind that the values slower than 1/60s, such as 1/15 or 1/30 might ruin your bridal portraits. Especially if you use a tripod, the shots will turn out blurry.
The white balance is set from 6000 Kelvin, “Shade” or “Cloudy”. Gloomy weather is more challenging to achieve great portraits, but with these tips you’ll easily get the amazing result.
In case you are wondering how to take studio portraits or fine art portrait photography, the settings resemble the ones for outside shooting in cloudy weather. Still, indoor photography has its nuances when it comes to camera adjustments.
Aperture should be 1.2 or the widest available for the lens. Don’t forget that the wider the aperture, the more light can pass through the lens. Pay attention to this parameter, as indoor lighting isn’t limited.
ISO: Photographing at f/1.2 will probably result in a shutter speed being slightly too slow for shooting with hands and prevent a camera from shaking. Cope with this by regulating shutter speed and pre-setting a raised sensitivity of approximately ISO 800. For low light, the best ISO for portraits is 1600+ and 800 for bright studio light without a flash. View more at the Lighting Portraits on Location course by Scott Kelby.
Shutter Speed: Select 1/15th for tripod shooting and 1/60-1/200 for stable pictures taken with hands.
White balance settings: “Fluorescent” mode is used to achieve warm and bright images when you can compensate for fluorescent lighting and cool tones. “Tungsten” mode is used for tungsten bulb lighting. This setting contributes to the accent on cool colors in the shots. “Flash” mode is used when the lighting is unsatisfactory. With this mode, the camera selects the correct white balance in low light environment. Auto mode will assist in auto-regulation of the white balance automatically in accordance with the type of lighting sources and their number.
When you face the task of shooting a great number of people at the same time, remember that it is full of challenges. You should watch everyone in front of the camera carefully, have creative group photo ideas in your mind, make sure that they are motionless and in focus. Being aware of the camera settings for large group photos definitely gives you an advantage during the shooting process.
ISO: Such low values as 100-400 are highly recommended. For faster shutter speed, the value should be raised.
Aperture plays a key role in wedding portrait photography. The best aperture for group portraits, so that every person is in focus and an image is sharp is f/5.6 or f/8. Take into account the positioning of people, they shouldn’t be located very far from each other. Ask the models to gather as close as possible and photograph at f/5.6 to get sharp and well-focused shots. Besides, don’t go overboard with closing the diaphragm and raising values higher than f/11. If the set aperture is quite small, in combination with most lenses, it will cause the loss of quality and accuracy of group portraits.
Use this helpful table to figure out what aperture to set, depending on how many people you have in the frame.
Shutter speed has to be 1/15th for shooting with a tripod and 1/125th – with hands.
White Balance: For outdoors photo sessions, set the white balance to "Shadow", "Daylight" or "overcast" conforming to the weather. As for camera settings for group photos indoors, take advantage of the white balance settings for fluorescent or incandescent light photography bulbs, in accordance with the chosen lighting source.
Bringing your portraiture to the next level is a pretty troublesome process, but, thankfully, I have prepared effective portrait photography tips and techniques you may use to make your photos pop.
Even though modern digital cameras boast of RAW file format compatibility, plenty of rookie photographers keep on shooting in JPEG. Actually, the RAW format is more beneficial for photoshopping portraits. It ensures top-grade picture quality along with dynamic range expansion in dark and light image parts. With the RAW file, you can fix any errors in camera settings for portraits, particularly, white balance and exposure. But if you took pictures in JPEG, you wouldn't have an opportunity to edit anything and would end up deleting these files.
Aperture Priority is probably the most widespread portraiture mode. It enables a shooter to choose the aperture (f-number value), while the camera regulates the shutter speed. With this mode, you fully manage the depth of field along with background blur to emphasize the subject. As an alternative, you may choose manual camera settings, which provide complete shutter speed and aperture regulation.
One of the most essential tips for good portrait photography is not to allow the camera to pick where to focus itself. It will apparently fail. Instead, set the focus by yourself on a single point, for instance, the model's eyes. In case the eyes aren't located on the same distance to the camera, focus on the eye closest to the device. When it comes to focus adjustments, prefer Single one (AF-S) to Continuous Shot (Servo or AF-C).
Don’t mix up the tracking focus for moving objects with the autofocus for static objects, you need the latter one. Once you are dealing with models, who constantly move, like children, set Continuous AF mode and select numerous focus points. By combining numerous focus points and Continuous AF mode, you are more likely to get a sharp shot.
Successful portrait photography requires spot metering. It enables you to check whether the particular area is exposed correctly. Spot metering processes the light in the center spot of a shot and estimates the exposure. Unless you shoot with a flash, the model's face will be that point.
In the case of flash usage, exposing for the background is a must. As a result, the person’s face would be illuminated by the flash. Check twice that you don't have Aperture Priority mode switched on. You will have to perform manual adjustments of shutter speed and exposure values, as you have already resorted to spot metering and new exposure values were indicated.
It often happens that you need to increase the brightness of a person's face because of insufficient lighting or skin turning out darker than necessary in an image. Another variant is when the snow appears not as white and bright in the frame as you intended. Exposure Compensation will assist you in fixing this. Firstly, examine the camera manual to find and press the Exposure Compensation button. The next step is to raise it to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to brighten model’s face or lower -1 stop to make it darker. As for my Exposure Compensation camera settings for portraits, I typically begin with 1/4 EV and then raise or lower by 1/4 increments till I am satisfied with the result.
Now that you have figured out how to shoot portraits, learned how to set up the camera and lighting sources, it’s time to edit images in Photoshop or Lightroom. The following 5 portrait editing freebies will surely simplify your work. I recommend you watching these Photoshop portrait tutorials if you’re new to this photo editing software.
If you wish to convey a mystic and dim atmosphere in the picture, go for this matte LR preset. It is aimed at muting the colors so that the portrait looks like it was printed on a matte sheet of paper.
When you feel like drastically changing the appearance of the portrait, apply this monochrome effect. It contributes to the elegance and retro vibe.
This PS action excellently copes with the task of darkening the portrait without overdoing it. It puts emphasis on the model’s facial features making them more vivid and prominent.
The primary goal of portrait retouching is skin smoothing. This action beautifully illuminates the skin giving it matte finish without distorting the peculiar features.
Making a person stand out on the busy background won’t be a problem anymore with this overlay. It accurately blurs the background, adds golden bokeh, and concentrates on the desired subject.
Summing up, I want to say that the best camera settings for portraits don’t exist. What really matters are you being willing and ready to turn on your creative thinking, playing around with various shooting aspects. In the end, it all comes down to defining and developing your own portraiture style and approach. Following the principles described above can help you do that.