Which aperture is best for portraits?

Taking pictures of people can be challenging for an amateur photographer. Everyone enjoys seeing good portrait photos, whether of family, friends, or just an attractive face. As photographers, we also enjoy being able to make an image quickly, which is why we hate when something goes wrong with the photo or our camera settings.

With that in mind, here are some technical tips to help you improve the quality of your portrait photography and use the best possible camera settings along the way. If you need advice on your wedding photography, check out our photography packages and services at Wild Romantic Photography.

Choosing the best aperture for portraits doesn’t have to be complicated, but there are some guidelines to follow if you want your shots to look stunning.

And in this article, I’m going to break it down for you. I’ll share apertures for different types of portraits – so that you can confidently pick the perfect gap whenever you’re out shooting!

Which aperture is best? You may be surprised at how common this question is. To answer it most simply, just as your kindergarten teacher said of you and your classmates, “each of you is special and unique in your way,” and the same is proper of aperture.

What Is Aperture?

Which aperture is best for portraits?

First, let’s take a look at what aperture is. The general definition of the aperture is an opening, hole, or gap.

Specific to your camera, the aperture is the lens’s diaphragm opening, which allows light to pass through to your film or sensor. Photography itself is defined as the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and incredibly light on a sensitive surface (such as a film or an optical sensor).

You can say that photography is the process of capturing light, and aperture is one of your essential tools that allows you to control and even manipulate how you do that.

The general rule of the aperture is that the larger the opening (that’s the beginning of the diaphragm in the lens), the lighter you take in. In relation, the smaller space, the less light you take in. That opening is measured in “f/stops.” You’ll frequently see things like f1.2 or f11, etc. It may seem a little contradictory, but the smaller the number, the more light the camera takes. Think of it as “small number = large opening.”

Before you say, “GREAT! Give me that f1.2,” you have to know that you are making a tradeoff. Newton’s third law still applies to photography, and every action you take affects something else down the line. In the case of aperture, we’re making trades with the depth of field. The lower the f/stop, the more shallow the depth of field. Our exclusive range of Melbourne wedding photography will help you not miss a thing on your wedding day.

What Is the Best Aperture for Portraits?

The best aperture for individual portraits is f/2 to f/2.8. If you’re shooting two people, use f/4. For more than two people, shoot at f/5.6. These aren’t the only apertures you can use, and there are certainly other elements to consider. But if you want great results, you can’t go wrong with these rules of thumb.

Unfortunately, there is no single best aperture for portraits. There are myriad factors that affect the final photo, so you’ll need to adjust your aperture depending on your subject.

Let’s take a closer look at some different shooting scenarios and the apertures I recommend:

The Best Aperture for Individual Portraits

While I stand by my earlier recommendation for an f/2 to f/2.8 aperture, you should consider those apertures as starting points or as an insurance policy of sorts. Depth of field is so thin at wider apertures that it’s best to create a bit smaller than your lens’s maximum aperture value to make sure your bases are covered.

After all, shooting at f/1.2 can keep a person’s eyelashes in focus while their iris ends up blurry!

Note that you can shoot at larger apertures when using a wider focal length because the field depth won’t be as shallow. For example, if you use a 35mm prime lens, you can go all the way to f/1.8 or broader and keep plenty of your subject in focus.

One caveat: Some lenses, especially less-expensive zooms and even some primes, lose sharpness at maximum apertures. For that reason, I recommend shooting conservatively and not always going as wide as you can. 

Of course, each lens is different, so test out different apertures and see what you’re comfortable with.

The Best Aperture for Small Group Photos

Selecting the correct aperture for small groups depends on several factors. Though you can’t go wrong with f/4, there are variables to consider to help you get the best shots possible. (One reason f/4 works well is that it gives you the depth of field wiggle room while still producing outstanding results.) When photographing a single subject, it’s essential to get the eyes in focus, or at least the one look that is closest to the camera.

But when working with small groups, you ideally want everyone’s eyes in focus. So the depth of field should be more comprehensive, which requires a smaller aperture. Fortunately, when shooting groups, you’ll be positioned farther back from your subjects, which will deepen the field’s depth. An f/4 gap strikes an outstanding balance between blurring the background, sharpening your issues, and giving your clients frame-worthy photos.

Note that apertures wider than f/4 can work, but people must be aligned perfectly with one another; otherwise, there’s a good chance someone will be out of focus. So apertures such as f/3.5 and f/2.8 tempt fate, and you might not realize it until it’s too late.

If your subjects are too far out of alignment, even f/4 won’t do the trick. 

Even though f/4 is my go-to aperture for small group photos, it’s a good idea to get shots at smaller apertures, as well. Otherwise, things can get so chaotic that you might not have time to check all your photos, and only after you load your images in Lightroom will you realize that you didn’t get everyone in focus.

I recommend taking some pictures at f/5.6, even if you’re pretty sure you nailed the shot at f/4. And by all means, go more comprehensive, too. Just be aware that, as the number of people increases, you are far less likely to get everyone in focus.

The Best Aperture for Large Group Photos

The larger the group, the smaller the aperture, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Smaller apertures mean less light enters the lens, so you have to use slower shutter speeds and higher ISO values. Plus, shrinking the gap keeps the background sharp – so you won’t get the creamy experience that many clients love.

Therefore, f/5.6 is a great place to start when dealing with large groups.

There are exceptions to this guideline. You can use a wider aperture if you’re able to get everyone positioned (somewhat) in alignment. Of course, this isn’t always possible, especially when kids are involved, since they tend to be slightly less predictable. But if you have the option, it’s worth trying larger apertures.

That is, as long as you’ve already captured some small-aperture photos to make sure your bases are covered! When doing large group shots, you are usually standing much farther away, so the field depth isn’t as much of an issue compared to single-person portraits.

You still have to be careful when using wide apertures, but sometimes you need to let in a lot of light, and a wide gap is the best option. 

The Best Aperture for Close-Up Portraits

Doing extreme close-up portraits, whether with macro lenses or close-up filters, can be exceedingly tricky.

Why? Because the depth of field is incredibly thin. Wider apertures further increase this issue, so it’s best to shoot in well-lit conditions and use a small gap like f/5.6. Wide apertures can work fine when doing macro photography with still subjects, but people (especially young children) move around so much that it helps to have some field breathing room depth.

Planning your dream wedding and don’t want to miss out on the special moments on your big day? Worry no more, Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.

Recommended Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

Which aperture is best for portraits?

Pick Camera Settings So Your Subject’s Eyes Are Sharp

We have five (or so) senses, but the one we use most is our sight. This means that the eyes on a photograph have to be sharp, no matter how many people are in it. Here are some tips to make sure that your subject’s eyes are sensitive.

To start, I like to use single-point autofocus. “Guessing camera” modes aren’t my favourite because they do not necessarily lock focus on the eyes. You want to use a single point and focus on the nearest eye. Lock the focus, and recompose slightly if needed to get a pleasing composition before shooting.

After taking some shots:

  • Check the sharpness of the eyes. You can’t check the edge by the default image on the LCD screen.
  • Start there, but use the zoom function to limit the eyes.
  • Shoot again if they aren’t sharp.

It would help if you played with your focus and perhaps read the manual to understand how to use your camera. The deeper problem might lie with your camera settings, which may not be optimal for portrait photography. Below, I will cover some of those settings to improve the portraits you take.

Shutter Speed for Portrait Photography

There is an almost infinite number of guides out there on the minimum safe handheld shutter speed. But only a small number of these guides understand you’re photographing a living person who is likely to be moving.

Using a 50mm prime is not a good reason to have a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second. Most likely, you will need to raise the shutter speed to counteract some of your subject’s movement. Don’t hesitate to try different techniques. Especially if the eyes are not sharp in your portrait photo, use a faster shutter speed (assuming that you’ve already adjusted the focus properly).

You will need a fast shutter speed when photographing a child, for example, because they are constantly moving at a higher rate than adults. This is one of the challenges at my photography company, NPM, where we mainly photograph children. Faster shutter speeds help in counteracting their continuous movement.

Don’t rely on technical features, such as optical image stabilization, to counteract this. Stabilization can help reduce shake from your hands, but it does nothing to prevent blur in your subject. This is not to say you should turn off image stabilization, but this feature alone is not enough to guarantee sharp portrait photos.

Looking for a Yarra Valley wedding photographer? Look no further! Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.

A Tip for Shooting Outdoor Portraits

To get the best possible portrait photos outdoors, you often will want a very shallow depth of field with a blurred background (as opposed to studio portrait photography, where that is less of a concern). How do you capture a thin depth of field, also known as a shallow focus effect?

The simple answer is that you should use a wide aperture. If you are getting into photography and don’t know where to start, you might consider setting your camera to portrait mode on the mode dial, which will do this for you. (Specifically, it uses a broader aperture and a faster shutter speed, giving you less probability of blurry photos and a higher likelihood of a soft, dreamy background with beautiful bokeh.)

Advanced photographers should do the same thing by turning to aperture priority or manual mode and setting their lens’s widest aperture or something close. The result, once again, is to capture a shallow depth of field and make the background less distracting. This tip might seem simple, but if you are not doing it already, take a shot at it. You may find that it drastically improves your images’ aesthetic appeal, as it focuses the attention of viewers onto the primary subject. Although, like all things in photography, it is a technique you should use deliberately, and there are always counterexamples as well.

Choosing the Right Focal Length

In my opinion, a 50mm lens is not ideal for intimate portraits. When you’re close enough for a half-body or headshot, perspective exaggeration makes the nose look more extensive and affects your subject’s depth. A 50mm lens is great for group shots and full-length portraits, but I do not find it a good choice for a picture of a single person. (It is not that a 50mm lens never works – consider the first photo in this article – but simply that it is not my favourite if your goal is a flattering close-up.)

Your telephoto zoom lens, on the other hand, is an intelligent choice. Start with 100mm and work up to longer focal lengths. You’ll get some perspective compression as you stand farther and farther back, which is often flattering to faces. It also increases the space between you and a subject, which puts non-professional models at ease; there’s no lens shoved right up to their face. Keep in mind that many telephoto zooms are built to be sold at low prices, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, these lenses are relatively affordable, but it is also true that they may not have the same maximum aperture as an equivalent prime.

To blur the background, you need to use the longest possible focal length, be as close to the subject as possible, and have the lens set to the widest aperture. It is entirely possible to photograph a great headshot of a child with a primary 55-200mm lens at 200mm and f/5.6. Double-check the eyes to ensure they are sharp, and – should you be unable to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion blur – try raising the ISO. There is a good chance your camera is better at noise control than you think.

Group Photography Camera Settings

It can be challenging to photograph a group. Where should you focus, and how should you frame your photo? For creative purposes, it can help to pose the group yourself, so you avoid having them line themselves up side-by-side however they choose. Also, people generally leave some space between themselves, so get them to squeeze together. Ensure the people in the back push their heads between the people in front (not just stand up taller). This reduces the need for a smaller aperture and gives you some more depth of field flexibility since all your subjects will be a similar distance from your plane of focus.

It is now time to use the 50mm lens; this is what it was made for. Unless you have had enough practice to understand your system’s depth of field fully, an excellent place to start is to focus on the closest eye of the nearest person in the group and start with an aperture of f/8. Be sure to choose the right shutter speed, which may require you to raise the ISO if the default shutter speed causes some unwanted blur.

Take a shot and review it to assess the overall sharpness, using the zoom function in your image review. If your field depth is not ideal, make any necessary adjustments to the aperture, and reshoot the photo. It might take a few test shots, but you’ll soon have the correct camera settings, and you can start the actual job: getting everyone to look like they are happy to be in the photo!

Hopefully, the tips in this article will help you pick the best camera settings for portrait photography, getting everything from shutter speed to focusing technique as good as possible. It requires some effort to take great pictures of people, but the photos and memories you capture will make it all worthwhile. At Wild Romantic, we have the best wedding photographer in Mornington Peninsula to capture every single moment on your wedding day. 

So, Which Aperture Is Best?

So, here’s what it comes down to if you ask which aperture is best. The best one is the one that you need at that moment. If you’re shooting a wedding and the sun just dropped away out of nowhere, you’re still expected to get the shot. That f1.2, crazy shallow depth of field or not, just saved your ass!

Alternatively, if you’re in the Utah desert, and aiming to capture every spectacular little detail in a wide-angle landscape shot, break out the tripod and close that puppy down! It’s what you need!

Even these are not hard and fast rules. Once you’re comfortable with using aperture in multiple settings, you’ll learn that it can be one of your most excellent artistic choices and contribute to the voice of your image and composition.

For now, practice and experiment all you can. I’ve been shooting for a long time now, and I still practice, play, and experimentation. I like to think of things in constants and variables. “What if I shoot all day in f16? I can change anything else as long as I stay in f16.” You would be surprised at what comes of things like that. Those kinds of experiments and play are the very things that have pushed me forward in my knowledge and understanding of this beautiful medium, as well as my artistic style and voice.

Final Words

Choosing the best aperture for portraits isn’t tricky, but it does take a bit of experience and practice.

If you’d like to work with professional photographers for your wedding, book with us at Wild Romantic Photography.

I recommend starting with the advice I’ve laid out here, but don’t be afraid to tweak it to suit your style. For example, you can’t go wrong shooting single-person portraits at f/2.8 – but over time, you may decide you prefer going much broader. Or perhaps your clients like the look of smaller apertures with more depth of field. The choice is yours, and as long as you like the results, then there’s no wrong option!