What are the best settings for portraits?

by Dec 13, 2021

What are the best settings for portraits?



The answer is the correct settings are the best.

Every time you take a photo you have to go through the step-by-step framework to get the correct exposure.  That doesn’t mean there is only one group of settings that are correct. It depends on what you want to achieve.

The step-by-step framework is:

  1. Where is the light coming from?
  2. How much depth of field do you need? (Aperture)
  3. How fast does the shutter speed need to be?
  4. Set the ISO to 100
  5. Balance the exposure meter by turning ISO up
  6. If the ISO needs to be less than 100 to balance the meter you need to turn up the shutter speed until it’s balanced.


If your exposure meter is balanced and the settings are:   f/4 – 1/500 – ISO100


You can get the same exposure using the following settings:


f/5.6 – 1/250 – ISO100  Aperture -1 stop & Shutter +1 stop


f/4 – 1/1000 – ISO200  Shutter -1 stop & ISO +1 stop


f/2.8 – 1/1000 – ISO100   Aperture +1 stop & Shutter -1 stop


If you take one stop of light from the aperture, (f/4 to f/5.6), the meter needs to get one stop of light from the shutter speed or the ISO to be balanced.

The exposure setting can be anything you like as long as the exposure meter is balanced.

So going back to the question…. What are the best settings for portraits?

For a portrait, you need to think about the depth of field which is controlled by the aperture setting. If a shallow depth of field and nice bokeh (blurry background) is what you’re looking for, start with an aperture of f/2.8.

Because the subject is still you can use a shutter speed of 1/125 or faster. So set it to 1/125.

Check the exposure meter and change the ISO setting until the meter is balanced. If it needs to be lower than ISO100 you need to turn the shutter speed up until the meter is balanced

Take a test shot. If the depth of field is too shallow at f/2.8, turn your aperture to f/4. To balance the meter you can either turn the shutter speed down or turn up the ISO. This is because f/4 lets in less light than f/2.8 and we need to gain that light back.