Camera Setting Tips for Portraits

Portraits can be very diverse, from traditional mugshots to low key black-and-whites, moody blurs, dramatic multi speedlights scenes, you name it. Camera settings can be varied too, so let’s take a closer look at a traditional portrait, one that could serve as your social media image or could be found in a graduates book and see which settings work best.

Peaceful black businessman

Basic settings:

First, we will focus on model’s eyes. We’ll always want some softness to emphasize the eyes even more, so let’s set Aperture at f2,8 - f4.

Second, the outdoor light will serve well even if it is overcast. Actually, this is nature’s softbox and it is ideal for portraits. To make sure the model is not motion-blurred, let’s set ShutterSpeed at 1/100.

Third, the light will be probably sufficient enough to set the ISO at 200/400, even if it's cloudy. Adjust this value to have the right exposure making sure the Aperture and Shutter stay as mentioned above. Higher ISOs will bring more noise, but for modern DSLRs, you have plenty of room here before the noise is too annoying. Also, some noise is still not a problem if you plan a B/W conversion later on.

Pink Little baby Girl with Big Eyes

Lens choice or focal length decisions

If you're making a portrait, the face filling whole frame, do you need to place the camera very close to the model? Nope, it’s the other way round. Take a good few steps back and then use your zoom or choose a long lens (my favorite portrait lens is a 70-210mm f 2,8). Why is that better? Well, the closer you get with your camera, the less appealing the face proportions become. To put it simply – if your camera is 1 meter away from the model’s nose, the ears are 1,15 m away, which is quite significant. You’ll have a big nose and small ears. Keep this in mind if you’re aiming for a funny face though.

Confused little nerd

Now that you know the best settings, you may feel like experimenting with them. Here’s what you can achieve.

Aperture – go for f2,8 or less for ultra shallow depth of field. Choose f11 and you’ll have everything in focus, commonly seen in a formal business-like portrait.

ShutterSpeed – go as low as 1/20s, make the model move the head from a side and stop at the central position. See this wind in the hair?

ISO 6000-12800 (depending on a sensor) – choose B/W mode, your portrait will have that classic newspaper look. Keep in mind the noise is very easy to add to a normally taken image, so I would recommend sticking with low ISOs anyway, should you decide the noise is not what you are looking for.

Man - Portrait

Mobile and point-and-shoot images.

If you don’t have access to all those controls mentioned above, focus on good composition (it applies to all kinds of cameras anyway). Remove or avoid distracting elements from the background (a lamp post protruding from the model’s head is a classic no-no), fill the frame, focus on eyes, do NOT use on-camera flash. Experiment and shoot multiple poses, head angles, expressions. Filters are not always bad, some can actually help you with not the best light or color cast.

Photo credits: Monika Wisniewska, Haywiremedia, Igor Dutina, Hongqi Zhang (aka Michael Zhang).

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nice article :)


Good advice. It helped me to remember things that I had previously forgotten as I don't take portraits on a regular basis.


Thanks for your advice. Very useful.


Useful article


Good article, thanks.


Great blog with awesome examples!


Good and useful blog! Thank you!


Great advice.


Professional advices


I really liked this blog.


I really liked this blog. Thanks

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