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