The Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography, Explained

by John Stapel

the best camera settings for portrait photography

What are the absolute best settings for portrait photography? In other words, what settings can you consistently use to create stunning portraits?

In this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about portrait photography settings. I’ll cover both natural light portrait shooting and flash portrait shooting. And whether you’re brand new to photography or a seasoned pro, you’re bound to benefit from these tips.

Let’s dive in, starting with portrait photography in natural light:

The best camera settings for portrait photography using natural light

While it isn’t a requirement, I do suggest you start by setting your camera to Manual mode. That way, you’ll have more creative control over your exposure – and sure, it might take a little extra time to capture your images as you fiddle with your settings, but you are a much better judge of how you want the final image to look than your camera, so you’ll get superior results.

As for your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture:

The best ISO for portraits

I recommend you pick your ISO first, mostly because it’s easy to set and forget. For natural light portrait photography, your ISO should almost always be your camera’s base option (ISO 100, ISO 160, and ISO 200 are three of the most common base values). That way, you avoid excessive noise and capture the best possible image quality.

When shooting in low light, you may need to boost your ISO, but do it conservatively – only bump up the ISO after you’ve widened your aperture and dropped your shutter speed.

best camera settings for natural light portraits woman plus reflection

The best aperture for portraits

Next, I recommend you decide on the perfect aperture. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach; instead, you’ll need to determine whether you want a blurry background or a sharp background.

If you’re after a blurry background, use an aperture such as f/1.4. But if you’d like more of the background in focus (or you’re hoping to maximize image sharpness), stop down by two or three stops to f/4, f/5.6, or f/8.

In general, portrait photographers prefer a blurry background approach (and all of the images in this article use it, as well). So if you like that style, then a wide aperture is the way to go.

Be careful not to go too wide, however. You don’t want to use such a shallow depth of field that your subject’s nose is out of focus!

woman with green background bokeh and flowers

The best shutter speed for portraits

At this point, you’ve set your ISO based on image quality considerations, and you’ve set your aperture based on aesthetics.

So what’s the next step? To choose your shutter speed. Here’s what you do: Simply check your in-camera meter, and adjust your shutter speed until you get a center (i.e., well-exposed) reading. Then take a test shot and have a look at your camera’s LCD screen and histogram.

Make sure your histogram is as far to the right as possible without blowing out the highlights. If highlights are blown out, then go ahead and increase your shutter speed. If the image is too dark, go ahead and lengthen your shutter speed.

woman posing by the water

Once you’ve nailed the exposure, consider the shutter speed duration. And ask yourself: Is this fast enough for a sharp shot? After all, a well-exposed image is worth nothing if it turns out blurry.

A general rule is to set your shutter speed at twice the focal length of your lens (or faster). For example, if you’re using a 100mm lens, then you would set a minimum shutter speed of 1/200s to avoid camera shake and image blur.

There are exceptions to this rule. If you are using a tripod, you have in-camera stabilization, or you are using a lens with built-in stabilization, then you can photograph at slower shutter speeds without issue. Otherwise, however, make sure your shutter speed conforms to this “double the focal length” guideline (and always take a test shot or two, then zoom in on your LCD to make sure everything is sharp).

By the way, if your shutter speed is too slow, then as you raise it, you’ll need to either widen your aperture or boost your ISO to compensate for the loss of light. Either can work, so you need to determine which value you can sacrifice.

woman posing with flash at sunset best camera settings

The best camera settings for portrait photography using flash

Portrait flash photography might seem overwhelming – but the basic settings are actually quite simple.

Note that these generally stay the same regardless of whether you’re using an on-camera flash, a small speedlight, or a studio strobe setup. Make sense?

Also, for this portion of the article, I’m going to assume you’re using only studio light to illuminate your subject, not a mixture of studio light and ambient light.

Let’s get started.

The best shutter speed for flash portraits

woman headshot

In flash photography, the shutter speed matters little.

Simply set your shutter speed to the flash sync speed, which is generally 1/200s (if you go over the sync speed value, you’ll end up with a dark band running across the edge of your images).

You’re free to go below the sync speed, but I generally recommend sticking to it for your entire photoshoot.

The best aperture for flash portraits

The aperture is one of three variables you can use to control the exposure of a flash portrait (with ISO and flash power as the other two).

Technically, you can select your aperture based on depth of field considerations, but the wider the aperture, the lower the necessary flash power for a good exposure, so you’ll need to be careful not to go too wide.

A good starting point is f/8 or so, but feel free to adjust this depending on your aesthetic (or exposure) needs.

The best ISO for flash portraits

As with natural light portraits, you should keep the ISO as low as possible for optimal image quality.

So set the ISO to your camera’s base option and forget about it. You might consider raising the ISO if you need to boost the exposure but don’t want to adjust the aperture or light power, but in general, the ISO should remain untouched.

woman headshot with bokeh

Strobe power

When working with flash, you’ll have one more variable to contend with: flash power.

This is where you’ll want to spend most of your time, and you can use your strobe’s variable power settings to achieve proper exposures when shooting portraits.

So first determine your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Then adjust the strobe power until you get a good result.

One more portrait settings tip

woman at golden hour posing

Here’s one last tip: Set your camera’s LCD screen brightness level to 4 or 5 and leave it there. Make sure your LCD screen brightness is not set to Auto. It will be difficult for you to gauge your exposure level if the brightness is constantly changing.

So check your camera’s settings, set your LCD screen brightness level manually, and keep your camera on the same setting for future photo outings.

best camera settings for shooting with strobes woman at sunset

The best portrait photography camera settings: final words

Well, you should now know exactly what kind of settings to use for beautiful portrait photos. And with a little practice, you’ll be shooting like a pro.

So head out with your camera. Have fun. And practice your exposures!

Now over to you:

Do you have any portrait photography settings advice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography, Explained