Portrait basics tips – Les Ludgate


Basic lens and F stop settings

To achieve a pleasing portrait one needs to use some basic lens and F stop settings.

On a full frame camera use an 85-100 mm Lens (this will avoid distortion of the subject)
On a crop sensor camera set your lens at 50 to 60 mm assuming it is a 1.5 x crop

The effect of focal length on face shape.  Wide angle lenses  (<50mm) tends to give a fish face, whereas telephoto lenses (>150mm) give a plate face.  The natural face occurs between these focal lengths at around around 85 – 100mm.

To achieve an out of focus back ground use an F stop of 5.6 or 2.8 and have your subject a meter or so from the back ground. A neutral / plane out of focus back ground is pleasing.
Do not use the zoom on your lens to aid in framing. ”Use your feet to zoom” or you will lose the pleasing effect of “the portrait“ focal length. Zooming with a wide angle will distort the face head and body.

The shutter speed should be set to at least the focal length of the lens 100 mm use 1/125 or more. You can use A priority S priority or manual and select an ISO setting to achieve the above settings. When you use a flash on or off your camera set the sync speed at or below the sync speed of your camera. Your camera may sync between 1/250 1/200 1/125 and speeds down to 30 seconds. Set your meter to Spot or Centre weighted.

Les with Model

Framing and focus point.

Frame your portrait vertical for 1 or 2 people and horizontal for 3 or more people. With modern high pixel cameras you can leave some “wriggle room “ or space around you frame to aid in cropping and straightening in processing.

Choose your subjects best profile and face this side to the camera. Shoot with your camera at chest height of your subject (not from above or below unless you want these angles to fix a large forehead or jutting chin) Focus on the eye nearest to the camera. they Must be in focus. Avoid focusing on the eye brow.

In a profile shot try to see both eyes and do not let the nose be out from the back cheek.
Try to position eyes so that there is white either side of the pupil and in focus.

Natural Light (with some reference to fill flash)

Avoid mottled or bright sunlight on your subject or in the back ground as detail will be lost in the highlights on the subject. This will produce hot spots on or in the background. (If you were to use fill in flash this will add to the hot spots and make them worse.)
Choose a shady spot with a pleasing back ground and use a reflector to lighten up any shadows under the chin and eye sockets Low in front and from the side will be effective. A diffuser or shade can be held above the subject to reduce bright light from overhead.
Lighting from a window with a reflector will give nice results. White, silver and gold reflectors are available.

Metering. Use Centre weighted or spot. Matrix or balanced metering will even the light out all over your frame and you will lose shadows.

Les on location


  1. Try choosing your cameras picture control and select Portrait
    Try to shoot at “The golden hour”
  2. Try Active or plane D lighting on Nikon cameras to lighten background shadows if required.
  3. Possibly choose a colour temp to suit the light. Auto white balance may work effectively.
  4. Use a tripod and cable release and disable any image stabilising on lens or camera.
  5. Using flash. If you only have an on board flash when you shoot in portrait orientation you will get a shadow behind or in front of your subject. To avoid this shoot horizontal leaving enough room to crop a vertical portrait out of the shot. This also works well if you bounce the flash from the ceiling. Just increase you flash power for the added distance the light has to travel. Inverse square law!!
  6. A back lit sunset shot will be required to be shot with flash in manual. Exposing for the scene and set flash power at quarter or half power .Do a few test shots to as required.
  7. Google has lots of information.

Basic settings.

  • Spot or centre weighted metering
  • Apature priority. Set f stop required F5.6 F2.8 F1.4
  • (adjust iso to get shutter speed to suit )
  • Shutter priority speed to suit length of lens and hand holding ability. 1/125 1/250 iso to suit
  • Manual.Your choice to get correct exposure. Iso 200 / F5.6 / 1/250
  • Don’t forget Spot or centre weighted metering and
  • vibration reduction turned off on a tripod.