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Ever panic on a portrait session because you’re unsure as to your camera settings? Relax! Here are some easy tips for your portrait camera settings!

So I think we’ve all been there. You arrive on a portrait location and things are not “business as usual.” Maybe you’re behind on time, the light is not what you had hoped for, or the kids are extra wiggly! Don’t freak out. If you manage to learn the basics of your camera and your “go-to” portrait camera settings, you will produce images your clients love.

While there is no ONE standard setting for every session, there are some rules we can follow to get great results (while gaining confidence and making little tweaks along the way). This is a learning process, so be gentle on yourself and practice, practice, practice.

First, what lens do you choose?

It’s so easy to get lost in the endless amount of information on the internet…especially when it comes to choosing a portrait lens.  Everyone has their preference, of course, but let’s chat about the most popular options.  Prime (fixed lenses), and zoom lenses.

What are prime lenses? They are fixed lenses…meaning they only have one fixed focal length. What do we recommend? Here’s a in-depth tutorial about why everyone needs a prime lens.

35mm- This great wide angle lens will allow you to get more of the background in your image.

50mm– The 50mm is probably the most versatile and popular lens among photographers when it comes to portraits. It’s wide enough for those pulled back shots, and can also be used for epic close-ups!

85mm– This is the lens you want if you LOVE bokeh and have the extra space to shoot. It’s a dream for portraits if you love some serious blur!

135mm- The 135mm will give you the BEST compression, but make sure you have plenty of space to back up.  This lens is ideal for the beach or a park!

Zoom lenes are pretty self explanatory. They zoom in and out, allowing you to choose multiple focal lengths with ONE lens. We recommend:

24-105mm-This lens has awesome reviews and can easily be used for portraits.

70-200mm-This popular lens is great for portraits, and weddings! I really great option!

Auto or Manual Focus?

Auto. Just choose auto.  Ok, it is a little more complicated than that, but if you’re just starting out, shoot on auto focus mode. This allows your camera to do the focusing, which is what you pay the big bucks for.  You know when you stand just a little *too close to your subject and your camera starts freaking out trying to choose a focal point? Photographers tend to use manual focus mode when shooting smaller details, and when the camera has a harder time determining what you want to focus on, like a prong of a diamond ring.  The fact is, on most cameras, auto focus mode does a great job of choosing the correct focus. For a breakdown of the types of auto focus modes, read on here!

What to choose: Auto

White balance.

White balance can be approached three different ways.  The first is putting your camera on auto white balance and making any adjustments post-processing. This is the easiest way, and usually very accurate.

There’s also a great tool, called the Expodisc that allows you to set your white balance based on your current lighting (meaning you have to adjust it every time the lighting changes). The Expodisc is great (I used to use it religiously), but it does add an extra step that may add too much stress to your thought process.

The last option is using Kelvin. Kelvin is a temperature color scale that ranges from 2000k to 9000k…or from an warm orange temperature (2000k) to a cool blue temperature (9000k). Based on the lighting, YOU choose the numerical value. Does that sound complicated? It is…but it’s great when you figure it out.  For example on a sunny day, you’d choose a value of 5500k because you don’t need to compensate the white balance.  Kelvin really allows you to make small adjustments IN camera.

What to choose: Auto (it’s for everyone…beginners to pros), Expodisc (for those who want to play around and get a custom white balance in every type of light), Kelvin (for more advanced photographers who really want to make small white balance adjustments).

Set your ISO.

When it comes to getting accurate exposure, the first thing you want to do when you arrive on location is set your ISO. Your ISO determines the amount of light that camera will allow into your lens.  If you’re outside, you’ll set it from 100-400, depending if it’s sunny or cloudy.  The ISO basically sets your initial exposure, and then your f-stop and shutter speed help fine tune it.

This was taken with a Canon EOS 110D, Lens: 50mm, ISO 100, F/3.2, Shutter 1/125s

Read this tutorial on ISO if you want to learn more on the basics of ISO.  Remember that your ISO will change (will be lower) if you’re using any alternative lighting source like an on or off camera flash.

What to choose:

Sunny day = ISO 100-200

Cloudy day = ISO 400-800

Indoors with good natural light from windows = ISO 800-2000

Dark interior (wedding reception, church interior) = ISO 2000+

*Please note that these can vary slightly, so don’t worry if you find yourself deviating from these numbers in certain situations!

Pick your aperture (also known as f-stop or depth of field).

Canon EOS 70D, ISO 640, 50mm, f/2.8, Shutter Speed 1/125s

When it comes to your portrait camera settings, your camera’s aperture or f-stop determines the depth of field in your photo.  Shooting “wide open” means that your f-stop is open at say f/1.4-2.8 (depending on your camera).  The higher the number, the more your image will appear in focus.  If you’re shooting at f/1.4, keep in mind that maybe your subject’s eye will be in focus, while your subject’s ears may appear more blurry.  However, if you’re photographing a large group will multiple rows, you’ll want a longer depth of field to make sure everyone is in focus, and not just the front row.

To understand aperture in three quick steps, read here.

What to choose:

1 person = f/1.2-f/4.0

2 people = f/2.0-f/4.0

3 people = f/3.2-f/5.6

Large group = f/7.0-f/11.0

Choose your shutter speed.

ISO 640, 48mm, f/2.8, Shutter Speed 1/5000s

Your shutter speed is one of the most important elements of any photo. It freezes your subject and leads to those sharp, crisp images we are all after. A basic rule for this is, at minimum, set your shutter speed to double the focal length of your lens! This will ensure that you freeze your subject and won’t get that motion blur that we don’t love in portraits.  If you’re photographing wiggly kids or animals, it’s always a good idea to increase your shutter speed to “capture” the motion.

To read more on the exposure triangle, check out this great tutorial!

What to choose: At least double your lens focal length!

35mm = 1/70th

50mm = 1/100th

85mm = 1/170th

135mm = 1/270th

If you learn the basics of portrait camera settings, your stress will start to melt away! But please remember, it takes time!!! We recommend thinking through your sessions the day before! Running through session day scenarios will get your brain thinking in camera terms! Sometimes I even find myself taking my kids to school and asking, hummm, what would I set my ISO in this cloudy situation?  No matter the session, take a deep breath and go back to the very basics! You can do it! We are with you!