Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
- Multi-zone metering takes light readings from different areas of the image and evaluates all those areas to determine the best overall exposure for the shot. It's best used for portraits in which there is a large area of darkness or brightness and in instances in which the subject is not in the middle of the frame.
- Center-weighted metering takes its light readings from a relatively large area in the center of the image. That means if your portrait subject is in the center of the frame, the camera will use only the light readings from that area to determine the exposure. This is also a good option in cases in which there is strong backlighting because the camera will disregard the light information from the background.
- Spot metering takes its light information from a very small area - usually less than 5 percent of the frame - which gives you very accurate control over metering from a very specific area. Furthermore, you can select which autofocus point is used for metering (unlike in center-weighted or multi-zone). It's ideal for high-contrast scenes in which the subject is very bright or very dark. It's also good for portraits in which the subject is offset from the center of the frame.
- Aperture priority mode - Noted as A or Av on your camera's dial, this mode gives you control over aperture and ISO while the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed. This mode is ideal for still portraits.
- Shutter priority mode - Noted as S or Tv on your camera's dial, this mode allows you to control shutter speed and ISO while the camera controls aperture. This mode is ideal for portraits when the subject is moving.
- Program mode - Noted as P on your camera's dial, this mode puts ISO under your control and the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed. This mode is especially helpful for low-light portraits.
- Auto White Balance (AWB) - AWB puts the camera in complete control of white balance. "Control" is a strong word, however, because it's really just the camera's best guess as to what the colors should look like. As lighting situations get more difficult, AWB becomes less reliable.
- Daylight/Sunny - Many cameras have a daylight or sunny preset that has a very subtle warming effect. If you find that the color of your images is ever so slightly on the blue side, try this setting.
- Cloudy - The cloudy white balance setting warms up images to compensate for the bluish tones that result from cloudy conditions. It is a stronger warming effect than the daylight/sunny setting.
- Shade - Lighting under shady conditions is even bluer than that under cloud cover. As a result, this setting adds more warmth to your photos than the cloudy preset.
- Flash - Because light from a flash tends to be on the cool or bluish side, the flash white balance setting warms up the light in your photos.
- Fluorescent - When shooting under cool fluorescent lighting, use this setting to warm up your shots.
- Tungsten - Tungsten light (incandescent light) is quite warm, so this setting counteracts that by cooling down the colors.
- Shooting mode: Aperture priority
- Aperture: f/2.8
- ISO: 800
- Drive mode: Single shot
- Focus mode: Single autofocus
- Metering mode: Spot
- White balance: Tungsten
- Shooting mode: Aperture priority
- Aperture: f/2.8
- ISO: 100
- Drive mode: Single shot
- Focus mode: Single autofocus
- Metering mode: Spot
- White balance: Shade
- Shooting mode: Shutter priority
- Shutter speed: 1/200 seconds
- ISO: 100
- Drive mode: Continuous
- Focus mode: Continuous
- Metering mode: Multi-zone
- White balance: Auto
There are few photos that have the ability to trigger an emotion or a feeling as well as a portrait.
Whether it's a professional portrait of you on your wedding day, a picture you snapped of your kids in your backyard with your smartphone, or a family portrait from years ago that's become an heirloom, the connection we have to portraits and the people in them is undeniable.
The tricky part, of course, is learning how to improve the quality of your portrait photography.
If you want to capture daily moments of your life and those you love, and do so with more confidence and capability, this tutorial is for you!
With explanations of basic camera settings and detailed instructions on specific types of portraits, this is your one-stop shop for learning the camera settings for portraits.
Essential Camera Settings for Portrait Photography
First things first...
Before you can begin to master portraiture, you need to understand some of the essential camera settings that you need to use to get the best quality portraits.
After we discuss best camera settings for portraits, we'll apply them to specific portrait photography situations in a few sample case studies.
The drive mode on your camera determines how often a photograph is taken.
The number of drive modes on a camera can vary from one model to the next, but for portraiture, the three most important are self-timer, single shot, and continuous.
As the name implies, the self-timer mode allows you to use the camera's timer feature to take a delayed shot. This is advantageous in situations when you want to get in the shot too.
Single shot is the most applicable to most types of portraiture.
In single shot mode, each time you press the shutter button, one image is taken. When your subject is still, as is the case in most portraits, single shot works great.
Continuous mode allows you to shoot in bursts by keeping your finger pressed down on the shutter button.
The number of images captured in continuous mode depends, with some cameras taking just a few shots and others firing them off at a very high rate.
This drive mode is most appropriate in instances in which your portrait subject is on the move, as shown above.
Autofocus Mode For Portrait Photo
Like the drive mode, there are different autofocus modes for different portrait situations.
Single-point autofocus is ideal for portraits in which the subject is stationary. That's because the camera's autofocus system will select a focus point and keep it activated on the subject until you release the shutter button.
Conversely, continuous autofocus constantly makes adjustments to the focus point in order to track a moving subject, so long as you have the shutter button depressed halfway.
This autofocus mode is ideal for situations in which you're taking a portrait of a person that's on the move.
In the video above, Jared Polin offers a quick tutorial on autofocus modes, how they work, and when they should be used.
Exposure Settings For Portrait Photo
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are the settings responsible for the exposure of the image.
If you shoot in full auto mode, you don't have any input regarding what these settings are - the camera makes those decisions for you.
But as far as portrait photography tips go, one of the best is that you need to take control over the exposure settings to get the best results.
Aperture is the most important of these three settings because it not only controls the amount of light that enters the lens, but it's also one of the factors that influences the depth of field, or how much of an image is sharply in focus.
Aperture is measured in f-stops that range from f/1.4 (which is a very large aperture opening) to f/22 (which is a very small aperture opening) on most cameras. You can see how the aperture values change with the size of the opening in the graph above.
The larger the aperture opening, the more light that enters the lens, and the shallower the depth of field.
For example, in the portrait above, you can see that the background is very blurry - that's a shallow depth of field achieved in part by using a large aperture opening.
But in this image, it has a much larger depth of field with more of the portrait in focus. That's due in part to the use of a small aperture opening.
The best aperture for portraits will depend on the situation and what you want to do creatively with the shot. We'll discuss different aperture values for different situations a little later.
Shutter speed is responsible for the duration of light hits the camera's sensor. It's also responsible for how motion appears in the shot.
Naturally, the longer the shutter is open, the longer the camera's sensor is exposed to light and the brighter the portrait will be. The shorter the shutter speed, the less time the sensor is exposed to light and the darker the image will be.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. A shutter speed of 1 second is quite long; a shutter speed of 1/4000 seconds is quite fast.
Editor's Tip: Having a good selection of props can make a world of difference in your photos. Find portrait photography props here.
When taking a portrait of a subject that's completely still, you can use a slower shutter speed and still freeze their movement.
However, if the subject is on the move, as in the image above, you need to utilize a faster shutter speed if you want to freeze movement. Of course, best shutter speed for portraits depends in part on the speed at which the subject is moving.
Sometimes, including motion blur in a portrait adds an interesting artistic touch, as seen in the image above.
To blur movement, you need to not only use a slower shutter speed, but also have your camera on a tripod. That's because holding the camera in your hand with a very slow shutter speed will cause something called "camera shake," which reduces the sharpness of the image.
The third and final exposure setting is ISO.
ISO is responsible for how sensitive the camera's sensor is to light. ISO is measured on a scale that extends from a low of 50 up to 6400 (and well beyond on some cameras).
A lower ISO means that the camera's sensor is less sensitive to light, where a higher number increases its sensitivity.
Therefore, if you take a portrait at ISO 50, the image will be darker than if you take it at ISO 1600.
ISO also controls how much digital noise appears in the shot. Think of digital noise like graininess.
The lower the ISO, the less grain there will be. Conversely, the higher the ISO, the more grain that will appear in the shot.
Though in most situations minimizing the ISO is a good idea in order to minimize digital noise or grain, it's not always possible to keep the ISO low (i.e., when shooting in low-light situations).
Besides, as you can see in the image above, sometimes graininess adds interest to a portrait.
In the video above, Tek Syndicate provides a detailed tutorial on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
The video includes sample images so you can see how changing one of these three settings changes the look of the photos taken.
In addition to aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, the metering mode you use in your portrait photography will impact the exposure.
Your camera's metering system collects information about the lighting in the scene and gives you an indication of what the exposure should look like. As such, they are a valuable tool in ensuring that your portraits are well-exposed.
The most common metering modes are multi-zone, center-weighted, and spot metering (though some camera manufacturers use different names). The video above by Jana Williams offers a detailed look at each, with a quick rundown of each one below:
As noted earlier, if you want to take control over how your portraits look, the best camera settings for portraits are when you shoot in manual mode and adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO yourself.
However, that can be a big leap for some photographers, particularly those that have to this point used full auto mode.
Fortunately, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have semi-automatic shooting modes that allow you to have more control but without having to control all three exposure settings.
These modes are:
It's important to note an additional feature of these modes.
Where aperture priority and shutter priority modes do not let you override the selection the camera makes, in program mode, you can.
That means that program mode is a little more advanced in that if you don't like the aperture, shutter speed or both that it selects, you can simply change it to your liking.
Think of program mode as the final step before making the jump to manual mode.
For an in-depth discussion of each of these modes, check out the video above from First Man Photography.
White Balance Photo Setting
The light that you see with your eyes and the light that your camera collects when you take a photo has color.
Sometimes, that light has cool, blue tones, like when you take a photo outdoors in the middle of the day, as seen above.
Other times, light has warm, golden tones, like when you shoot outdoors at sunset, as seen below.
Still other times, light is yellow, like when shooting indoors under incandescent lighting.
Our eyes naturally adjust to these different color temperatures. Our cameras do not.
That's why you need to adjust the white balance depending on the lighting conditions in which you shoot.
In most cases, you can simply select from one of your camera's white balance presets to adjust the colors such that the color casts from the light are negated.
The point of that process is to ensure that any whites in the shot appear as white, not as bluish-white, yellowish-white, and so forth.
Most DSLRs have the following auto white balance settings:
Naturally, these presets don't always work, and manually setting the white balance is the way to go.
In the video above, Mark Wallace dives deep into white balance, including how to manually set the white balance for your specific portrait situation.
Case Study #1: Best Camera Settings for Indoor Portraits
Let's assume that you're taking a portrait indoors under typical household lighting.
Since you will most likely have a stationary subject and will want to control the aperture to blur the background, aperture priority mode is ideal.
Open the aperture as wide as it will go, ideally f/2.8 or more (though not all lenses have that large of an aperture).
Editor's Tip: Turn your portraits into fine art. Find out how.
Set the ISO to 800 to increase the sensitivity of the sensor to light since light is usually at a premium indoors.
Use single shot drive mode and single-point autofocus, along with spot metering to get the most pinpoint light reading possible.
Set the white balance to the tungsten setting, which will help counteract the warm, yellowish tones that are typical of incandescent lighting. You can see a quick indoor portrait photography workflow in the video below by PJ Pantelis:
Based on the results you get from these initial settings, you might need to make some adjustments.
For example, if the image is too bright, lower the ISO to 400 and take another shot.
If the white balance is still too warm, try manually setting the white balance using a gray card.
If you're taking the portrait indoors, but the subject is by a window, you might need to lower the ISO even more, change the white balance to cloudy or shade, and perhaps even change the metering mode to center-weighted to account for any backlighting that might occur.
Again, the settings discussed here are just a starting point, so be prepared to fine-tune them based on your specific situation:
In the video above by photofonz, see what the best camera settings are for getting sharp subjects with a blurry background.
Editor's Tip: If you're shooting indoors in a low-light situation, you might try shooting in program mode so that you can prioritize the ISO value you use.
Case Study #2: Best Camera Settings for Outdoor Portraits
Now let's assume that you're outside on a sunny day, ready to take a portrait.
Let's also assume that your subject will be stationary.
To begin, you will want to find a shady area - under a tree or in the shadow of a building - that way you can capitalize on better light.
Light in the shade is much more diffused and helps minimize harsh shadows on your subjects (and helps prevent them from squinting, too).
A good place to start is by shooting in aperture priority mode with an aperture of f/2.8 or so, single shot drive mode, and single-point autofocus.
Since there will be so much light, you can minimize the ISO to 100.
Since your subject will be in the shade, the shade white balance setting will be most appropriate.
Spot metering will likely be the best choice here, though if you place the subject in the middle of the frame, center-weighted metering is also a good choice.
As noted above, these are just starting points for your outdoor camera settings.
In the video above, Jana Williams discusses how these settings might be different when shooting outdoors on a cloudy day.
Editor's tip: If you're taking portraits of a subject outdoors around sunset, place them in the warm tones of the sunlight and switch your white balance setting to daylight or sunny to accentuate those warm tones. Using the shade setting will also warm up the colors of the shot.
Case Study #3: Best Camera Settings for Moving Subjects
If you want to take some action shots, say of your kids playing in the park, you'll need to turn your focus to managing the shutter speed.
To do so, switch your camera to shutter priority mode and dial in a shutter speed of 1/200 seconds with an ISO of 100.
Set the drive mode and focus mode to continuous, since your subject will be on the move.
Using multi-zone metering in this case will help maintain a good exposure using information collected from the entirety of the scene.
You can use auto white balance in this situation, or you can use one of the presets that fits the lighting when you're shooting. In the image above, for example, the shade white balance might be most appropriate since the boys are playing soccer in the shade.
In the video below, Spyros Heniadis offers some tips on camera settings for action photography:
Let's say that you utilize these settings, but notice that the movement of the subject's arms or legs is blurred.
That means the shutter speed is too slow, and that you need to dial in something faster, like 1/400 seconds.
Alternatively, let's say that the images you take are not well-exposed, and that the subject is a little too dark.
In that case, you might try center-weighted metering to force the camera to use the light information from the subject. Of course, you'll have to maintain the subject in the middle of the frame when using center-weighted metering.
Again, experiment with these settings to find what works best for the specific situation.
How to Take Portraits: Final Thoughts
When it comes down to it, though there are a finite number of camera settings you need to manipulate in portrait photography, there is an infinite number of combinations of those settings.
That's where some practice and experimentation on your part is needed.
Where a low ISO is ideal in one situation, a high ISO is needed in another.
Likewise, where aperture priority mode might be best for one portrait, for another, shutter priority mode will garner the best results.
In the end, half the battle is simply knowing what all the camera settings I outlined above actually do. Then you can set about learning how to change them as needed.
The question of how to take good portraits isn't an easy one to answer. That's for sure.
But with this tutorial and all the related resources contained within, you have all the resources you need to get started in portrait photography and understanding the best camera settings for portraits. For a few more portrait photography tips, check out the video above by Photos in Color.