It’s silly to say that there is only one right way to take a good portrait, but there are some generally accepted norms and basic camera settings that you need to know and understand if you want to improve your portrait photography. In this article, based on the publications of renowned photographer John Harris, we will go over the basic settings that you can use as a starting point for shooting portraits.
A variety of cameras can be used for portraiture: Nan Goldin used a battered 35mm film Nikon in her early work, and Richard Avedon shot on a Deardorff 8x10 large format camera, among others. For some photographers, high resolution is a necessary criterion for a good portrait, while others prefer “dreamy” softness.
In general, experienced portrait photographers are more likely to choose full-frame DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and medium format cameras. But even if you do not have such a camera, this is not a reason to limit yourself and not take pictures until you save up for the “right” camera. The main thing is to find the right way to interact with the model, and capture the moment when a person discovers his true self. Andy Warhol, for example, did this with a Polaroid Big Shot, a camera that you’re unlikely to find on any list recommended for portrait photography.
Canon EOS R full-frame mirrorless camera (left), Nikon D7500 full-frame DSLR (center), Fujifilm GFX 50R medium format mirrorless camera (right).
The concept of ISO is inherited from the days of film photography, and on a digital camera it reflects the sensitivity settings of the sensor. A high ISO setting produces a brighter image in low light conditions, but the side effect is the potential for noise, or grain as it is also called. These are digital artifacts that become noticeable at high ISO settings and do not contribute to beautiful (from a conventional point of view) portraits. The best practice is to use as low an ISO as the light source will allow. Depending on your lighting, camera stability, and assuming your model is not moving, try to keep your ISO below 400. For the most pleasing skin tones and overall image clarity, try ISO 100. It may not be possible to maintain this ISO level in all lighting situations, but if you are using strong continuous, flash or daylight, ISO 100 will be the best option.
Low ISO (left), high ISO (right). Source: Matt Granger
Shutter speed is the time during which the film or sensor of a digital camera is exposed to light. Fast shutter speeds are good for stopping (“freezing”) motion, while slow shutter speeds allow for more light but can result in motion blur. Even such fleeting things as the model looking away or blinking can lead to blurring, which, in turn, can spoil the portrait. The same applies to camera movement at slow shutter speeds.
So what are the ideal shutter speed settings for portraits? Again, this is very subjective and depends on the type of portrait you want to take. Consider, for example, Richard Avedon’s photograph of choreographer Killer Joe Piro, or, conversely, a portrait of a dancer “frozen” in a jump.
However, since this material is aimed at beginners, as a general rule, try to use shutter speeds no slower than 1/60th of a second to avoid blur. Many photographers in the right conditions use even slower shutter speeds, especially when using a tripod or other support. However, shutter speed is not the deciding factor when deciding on settings because there are other camera settings, notably aperture, that will determine how fast a shutter speed can be.
Also remember that during a portrait session you have some control over the movement of your subject, and you can also place the camera on a tripod or other stable support.
A motion blur portrait and a fast shutter speed portrait with frozen motion. Source: bhphotovideo.com
One last thing about shutter speed: your light source, be it a flash or natural light, will also determine what your shutter speed should be. You can be flexible with this setting and change it as you shoot.
There is a simple rule that the slowest shutter speed you can use when shooting handheld should match the focal length of the lens you are using. If you’re using an 85mm lens, for example, the slowest shutter speed you can use to avoid blur is about 1/85th of a second. In general, sometimes it’s better to make a mistake and underexpose a picture a little (in this case, it will be a faster shutter speed) than to overexpose it with a slow shutter speed and get a blurry picture.
The aperture setting determines the size of the lens aperture through which light enters the camera. On most lenses, the aperture can be adjusted — the size of the hole is indicated by the number f (relative aperture of the lens), or, as they say, f‑stops. F‑stops on most portrait lenses range from f/1.4 to f/22, but can be larger or smaller. The smaller the f‑number, the more the aperture is open, and vice versa. An aperture of f/22 is a tiny aperture that lets the least amount of light into the frame, while f/2.8 is a relatively open aperture that lets in more light. The main trick in photography is to balance ISO sensitivity, shutter speed and the amount of light passing through the aperture so that the image is well exposed — neither too dark nor too light.
But the aperture also provides another feature that is especially important for portraiture. Aperture size determines the depth of field (DOF), or simply depth of field, and describes how much of your image, from the background to the foreground, is in focus. An image with a large depth of field will be in focus from the foreground to the background, while an image with a shallow depth of field will only focus on a certain point in the frame.
A portrait with a shallow depth of field (left) and a portrait with a large depth of field (right).
Setting the aperture to get the picture you want is essential for portrait photography. For a portrait in an environment in which the background and the physical space around the person is important for understanding their character (or, for example, profession), it is worth using an aperture setting of at least f / 5.6, so that most elements of the composition are in focus.
When you want your subject’s eyes to be in focus and everything else to be softly blurred (for bokeh), set your aperture to f/2.8 or lower if your lens allows. To simplify as much as possible, an open aperture is usually considered a setting that is favorable for creating beautiful portraits.
After setting the aperture, you can set the ISO and shutter speed. Most cameras have built-in exposure meters, but to better measure light and determine these settings, photographers sometimes use a handheld exposure meter.
Certain lenses are commonly referred to as “portrait lenses” because they are best suited for the task, but as with cameras, many great portraits have been taken with other types of lenses, from wide-angle to telephoto. And, of course, “portraits” can also be used not only for portraits, but also for other genres of shooting.
Focal length is the most common way to describe and classify lenses. Telephoto lenses are lenses with a focal length between 85mm and 600mm (telephoto/telephoto). Lenses with a short focal length from 8mm (fisheye) to 35mm are called wide-angle. The intermediate area between them from 40 mm to 70 mm is usually called the normal focal length (although there is some disagreement in the definitions). Normal, as well as close telephoto lenses, in particular from 85 to 105 mm, are usually used for portraiture. Whether you use a zoom lens that has a full range of focal lengths or a fixed focal length (so-called prime) lens, it is this set of focal lengths that is considered optimal for shooting faces and portraits.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
An important reason why wide-angle lenses are not suitable for portraiture is that they create distortion that your model is unlikely to like: the nose will appear too large, the eyes are widely spaced, and the overall shape of the face can look odd, especially when shot from the side. . This does not mean that you can not make portraits with such distortions — sometimes it even helps to better convey the essence of the character, but this is rather an exception.
But when using a far telephoto lens, the picture in the frame is compressed, which is why the background and foreground seem unnaturally close. This may have its advantages for portrait photographers, but it is better not to overdo it with this effect. Another reason to avoid long telephoto lenses is entirely practical. If you don’t stand far enough away, you won’t be able to achieve focus, or you won’t even be able to fit everything you need into the frame.
A similar but opposite problem with a wide-angle lens is that you may have to get too close to the subject for the face to become the main subject in the frame. Wide-angle portraits are more commonly used for environmental portraits that include (and keep in focus) elements across the frame.
When using portrait lenses with the previously mentioned average range of focal lengths, the subject’s head and face will appear more natural and realistically scaled. Thanks to their soft telephoto effect, these lenses place the subject comfortably in relation to the background, but without too much compression and with the right separation to bring the face into focus while slightly defocusing the background.
The quality of the out-of-focus area is another criterion for lens selection and camera setup. As discussed above, lenses with large maximum apertures (below f/2.8) provide shallow depth of field, which is good for portraiture. Being able to focus on the face, especially the eyes, while maintaining a soft background defocus is often the most important aspect of portrait photography, and a close telephoto lens with a high maximum f‑number is the best way to achieve this.
Creating interesting creative portraits is more than just having the right camera settings. The placement and control of lighting, the use of shadows and contrast, location and work with the model are important, which we will cover in our other materials.
However, if you’re shooting with a full-frame camera in natural light, you can start with the following basic settings: 85mm focal length, f/2 aperture, ISO 100, and an appropriate shutter speed that maintains the overall image exposure so that the picture isn’t too dark or too dark. light.
If you have any questions, our experts will always be happy to answer them. We would also love to hear about your experience with portrait photography in the comments.
* when preparing the article, materials from the resources bhphotovideo.com (John Harris) and onfoto.ru were used