GBMAPhotography supported by its audience. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Portrait settings for the most captivating headshots

A portrait is meant to capture details and effervescence through the lens, and just the settings to do that won’t suffice.

Your camera needs a good lens to capture powerful portraits, and luckily, almost all professional/semi-professional level cameras accommodate different lens attachments. The most important aspect of photography is the vision. If you can imagine the picture you are about to take before you’ve even clicked, your picture has a better chance at coming out just the way you want it to. Regardless, you need proper gear and to know how to set your vision into a frame.

If you’re trying to understand the art of portrait photography, you need to know the basics. So, here we go:

Selecting the right lens

Lenses usually do the heavy lifting when it comes to clicking a portrait. Different types of lenses can be used to get different portraits, which is why I can’t narrow it down to one perfect lens for all portraits. It all comes down to preference. Sometimes portraits are better with major out-of-focus backgrounds, whereas some can have more evident distortion on the images. These would be the effects of different lenses.

Telephoto lens

A telephoto lens is usually 70-200mm/f2.8 which takes great out-of-focus backgrounds. The bokeh effect can be used to focus entirely on the subject and bring out the intricate details. Photographers take classic portraits, simple and sophisticated, using telephoto lenses.

Wide angle

Standard wide-angle lens focal points can be from somewhere between 16mm and 24 mm. Focal lengths for wide-angle lenses can go as high as 35mm, and ultra-wide angles are below 16mm. Wide-angle lenses can leave distortions on your images, which some photographers have adopted as a technique. You can use a wide-angle lens for dynamic portraits.

Prime lens

Prime lenses can be as low as 20mm and go up to 200mm. If you are planning on emphasizing on the background or if you’re short on space, I would recommend you use a 50mm/85mm lens to bring out the colors.

Switching to manual mode

You cannot take portraits with your training wheels on. I had a difficult time when I first switched to manual mode, but eventually, I got the hang of it. Switch to manual and play with the settings till you get a clear understanding of what they do.

For portraits, start with Aperture Priority Mode so you can have control over the aperture that can be altered to adjust the depth of field. The shutter speed will automatically adjust to determine the amount of exposure required for you to take a balanced portrait. If you are shooting outside where there is lots of light, the shutter speed won’t be a concerned. However, for low-light conditions, you can use Shutter Speed Priority mode, which will allow you to control the shutter speed while the camera adjusts the aperture all by itself.

ISO can be adjusted based on the lighting conditions around your subject. If you don’t have enough light to illuminate the subject, a higher ISO setting can make it brighter and vice versa.

Aperture Settings

Apertures under the f-stop value of 2.8 or less can give you a shallow depth of field. This means the focus will be entirely on the subject and the background will be blurred. Consequentially, it will make the photo more realistic—the contrast between the skin and the eyes will make the eyes pop out, the portrait will attract the viewer’s attention, and a shallow depth of field will direct the viewer’s eyes entirely towards the subject.

For group photos, you may want to use an aperture setting of 5.6 to allow the camera to focus on all the faces in the frame.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is not a concern if the subject is luminous. To avoid shaking, you can use 1/100th and it should be fine. In case you’re using flash, set it up to 1/200th to sync the exposure with the flash, but use a faster shutter speed if you’re not using flash.

Subjects in motion can be photographed in different shutter speeds depending on how fast the subject is moving. You can add motion blur into your photograph by setting up the shutter speed to as low as 1/50th.


Spot metering pinpoints the center of your frame and determines an exposure. It is the best way to take portraits because it allows you to select the points you want to expose. If you’re not using a flash, your camera will focus on taking in more light reflected from the faces of your subject rather than the background.

ISO Setting

Increasing the ISO makes your camera more sensitive to light and vice versa. Higher ISOs can make your photographs grainy, which is why I prefer shooting at 100 or 200. Your camera plays a big part in taking better or bad pictures in high ISOs. Some cameras, because of the technological improvements and the demand for taking pictures in low light, can take pictures at a higher ISO setting with little to no grain. Other more backdated cameras will not be able to do this.


To start without a hitch, you can follow the above-mentioned settings to take amazing portraits. But experimentation is the key to developing photography skills. Your camera can do a lot more than you can imagine. Trial and error will help you figure out what works and what doesn’t. In the end, it’s important that you have fun with it. And learning is an integral and result of that process.

Buying a camera with a complete set-up is a huge investment. I recommend that you lease a camera before buying one. This allows you to experiment with it, determine its capability, and figure out whether the technology in it will help you achieve your goals.

Leave a Comment