To take good portraits, you need to use the right camera settings. Let’s have a look at what combination of lens, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO give you the awesome portrait look with a sharp, in-focus subject and a creamy, blurry background like the photo below.

The Gear You Need for Portrait Photos

While you can take portraits with any lens, to get the classic portrait, you need a lens with a wide aperture. Something with a maximum aperture between f/1.8 and f/2.8 is perfect although f/5.6 can work, especially with longer lenses.

Ideally, you’ll also use a normal lens or short telephoto, in other words, a lens with a focal length of between 50mm and 90mm on a full frame camera or about 35mm to 60mm on a crop sensor camera.

The good news is that there are great, cheap 50mm f/1.8 lenses available for pretty much every major camera brand. They’re one of the lenses we recommend you buy first for your camera (check out our guides for Canon and Nikon).

Aperture for Portraits

Aperture is the key to the portrait look. A wide aperture creates a shallow depth of field that keeps your subject in sharp focus while blurring the background, so it isn’t a distraction. What apertures create this effect depends somewhat on the focal length of your lens. In general, if you’re not using an extremely long telephoto, you need to use an aperture of f/5.6 or narrower. In reality, you’ll probably want to use f/2.8 or f/1.8 to maximize the amount of background blur.

The photo below was shot at f/5.6 using a 50mm lens on a crop sensor body. While the background is starting to blur, it’s not quite indistinct.

This next photo, on the other hand, was taken using the same lens and camera but at f/1.8. This is the look we’re going for!

The exact aperture you go with depends on your lens, camera, and distance from your subject. Your images will often be sharper if you use an aperture that’s a stop or two narrower than wide open, so f/2.2 or f/2.8 on a lens that opens to f/1.8. This will also give you a little more depth of field to play with which makes focusing easier.

Shutter Speeds for Portraits

Shutter speed doesn’t matter so much for portraits as long as it is fast enough that neither camera shake nor your subject’s movements add blur to your image. In most cases, any shutter speed faster than 1/100th of a second will work. If you’re shooting a subject that’s dancing or otherwise moving quickly, then 1/500th of a second is around the minimum.

I recommend you use aperture priority mode and use a combination of ISO and exposure compensation to make sure your shutter speed doesn’t drop too low.

ISO for Portraits

For portraits, the normal rules of selecting an ISO apply: keep it as low as possible and increase it when you can’t adjust anything else without negatively affecting your shot. Since you’re using a wide aperture, keeping a low ISO should be relatively easy as long as the light is alright.

If I know I’m going to be working in variable lighting conditions and don’t want to have to keep faffing around with camera settings, I’ll set my ISO to 400 before I start. I do lose a small amount of image quality but not enough that I really notice it.

At night, you will need to increase your ISO much higher. I’ve shot good portraits at ISO 6400 so don’t worry too much if it’s being pushed up. As long as the photos are strong, no one will notice the digital noise.

To recap: the right camera settings for the classic portrait look are a normal or short telephoto lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider. Shutter speed and aperture don’t matter as much; they should be kept above 1/100th of a second and as low as possible respectively.

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Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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