What’s the Best Aperture for Portraits?


the best aperture for portraits

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 with you my favorite apertures for different types of portraits – so that you can confidently pick the perfect aperture whenever you’re out shooting!

Let’s get started.

Why is aperture important in portrait photography?

Aperture matters for several reasons:

First, aperture is one of the three components of exposure. If you don’t get your aperture right, you might end up with a too-dark or too-light image.

And, because of its effect on exposure, your aperture limits your shutter speed and ISO.

The right aperture also puts your viewer’s attention squarely on your subject and regulates your depth of field to get just the right amount of background blur.

Now, the best portrait lenses have wide apertures of f/2.8 to f/1.2. With these lenses, you can capture photos in virtually any lighting condition, plus you can create dreamy bokeh behind your subject.

As you consider what aperture to use when shooting portraits, you also need to pay attention to the focal length of your lenses, as well as how close you’ll get to your subjects.

A wide aperture on a 35mm lens won’t blur the background as much as a wide aperture on an 85mm lens. Also, longer focal lengths require fast shutter speeds to reduce vibration, unless the lens or camera has built-in stabilization. Wide apertures can help get those fast shutter speeds without requiring a high ISO (and a high ISO might result in unwanted noise or grain).

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.

They’ll help ensure your portraits are sharp and your subjects are all in focus.

Best Aperture for Portraits woman headshotBest Aperture for Portraits woman headshot
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/350s | f/4 | ISO 2000

Apertures in portrait photography: A detailed breakdown

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 start a bit smaller than your lens’s maximum aperture value, simply 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!

Best Aperture for Portraits senior graduationBest Aperture for Portraits senior graduation
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/250s | f/2.8 | ISO 100

Note that, when using a wider focal length, you can shoot at larger apertures, because the depth of field 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 wider 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.

I like to take a two-pronged approach when shooting portraits.

First, I always use Aperture Priority mode paired with Auto ISO. This lets me specify the aperture while my camera takes care of the shutter speed and ISO.

Since the aperture is my primary consideration, I need to get that right. As long as my camera doesn’t drop below a certain shutter speed or go beyond a specific ISO value, I know my photos will be fine.

Second, I always start by taking several shots with a smaller aperture. It’s how I cover my bases; that way, I know I have at least some shots where everything is in focus and the depth of field isn’t too shallow.

Then, like stepping on the gas pedal of a sports car, I spin my camera dial and widen the aperture. This lets me turn my portraits up to 11, and clients love the results – but I know that, if my depth of field does turn out too shallow and something isn’t in focus, I can always rely on the narrow-aperture shots I started with.

Best Aperture for Portraits senior closeupBest Aperture for Portraits senior closeup
Nikon D750 | Nikon 85mm f/1.8G | 1/180s | f/1.8 | ISO 250. I took lots of shots at f/2.8 and then went all the way to f/1.8, knowing I had a fallback plan if the wide-aperture photos didn’t turn out sharp. Fortunately, the f/1.8 shots were great!

The best aperture for small group photos

Selecting the right aperture for small groups depends on a number of factors.

Though you can’t go wrong with f/4, there are variables to consider that will help you get the best shots possible.

(One reason f/4 works well is that it gives you depth of field wiggle room while still producing great results.)

When photographing a single subject, it’s essential to get the eyes in focus, or at least the one eye 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 wider, which requires a smaller aperture.

Fortunately, when shooting groups, you’ll be positioned farther back from your subjects, and this will deepen the depth of field.

An f/4 aperture strikes a great balance between blurring the background, sharpening your subjects, and giving your clients frame-worthy photos.

parents and childparents and child
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/250s | f/4 | ISO 900

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.

In fact, if your subjects are too far out of alignment, even f/4 won’t do the trick. Look at the photo below; the mother is holding her son on her lap, and his eyes are sharp while her head is blurry. She is only a few inches behind her son, and f/4 resulted in her being out of focus:

mother and childmother and child
Nikon D750 | Nikon 85mm f/1.8 | 1/250s | f/4 | ISO 800. The mother’s eyes are just a bit blurry, which could have been fixed by using a smaller aperture of f/5.6.

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 shots, and only after you load your images in Lightroom will you realize that you didn’t get everyone in focus.

This has happened to me more than I care to admit! For that reason, 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 wider, too. Just be aware that, as the number of people increases, you are far less likely to get everyone in focus.

husband and wifehusband and wife
Nikon D750 | Nikon 85mm f/1.8 | 1/250s | f/3.3 | ISO 500. I opened up the aperture after getting several great shots at f/4, and I ended up with some beautiful images.

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/or higher ISO values.

Plus, shrinking the aperture keeps the background sharp – so you won’t get the creamy background that many clients love.

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

Best Aperture for Portraits family walkingBest Aperture for Portraits family walking
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 130mm | 1/180s | f/5.6 | ISO 1100

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 somewhat 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!

Best Aperture for Portraits family standingBest Aperture for Portraits family standing
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/180s | f/4 | ISO 1250

When doing large group shots, you are usually standing much farther away, so depth of field 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 simply need to let in a lot of light and a wide aperture is the best option.

When shooting the image below, I was losing daylight as a light drizzle came on. I lined everyone up on my homemade photo benches and shot this picture at f/4.

family sittingfamily sitting
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/500s | f/4 | ISO 2200

After getting a couple of shots at f/4 and f/5.6, I went all the way down to f/2.8. The result is okay, but the adults in the back row are just a bit out of focus. The image isn’t worthy of printing; let it serve as a cautionary tale about the importance of using smaller apertures like f/5.6 for large groups.

family sittingfamily sitting
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/400s | f/2.8 | ISO 1100

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 aperture 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 depth of field breathing room.

baby closeupbaby closeup
Nikon D750 | Nikon 50mm f/1.8 with a close-up filter | 1/180s | f/5.6 | ISO 6400

The best aperture for portraits: Final words

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

I recommend starting with the advice I’ve laid out here, but don’t be afraid to tweak it to suit your own 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 wider.

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 bad option!

husband wife portraithusband wife portrait
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/500s | f/2.8 | ISO 800
Q: Is f/2.8 enough for portraits?

A: Certainly! Many lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and this is a great middle ground for letting in enough light while still keeping the depth of field under control.

Q: I only have a kit lens. Can I use it for portraits?

A: Kit lenses work just fine for portraits, though they typically don’t have apertures that go as wide as prime lenses. I recommend zooming in as far as your kit lens will go and using your maximum aperture, even though it might only be f/5.6. This will blur the background as much as possible.

Q: Can I shoot large group portraits with very wide apertures?

A: Yes, but make sure everyone is lined up so your depth of field is under control. I shot this group photo at f/2, and it only worked because everyone was in a straight line:What's the Best Aperture for Portraits?

What's the Best Aperture for Portraits?

Q: I want to use a very wide aperture in bright sunlight, but my photos always turn out overexposed. How can I prevent this?

A: You’ll either need a very fast shutter speed or an ND filter.

Q: Do I need to get an expensive f/1.4 lens to shoot portraits?

A: Absolutely not! F/1.8 prime lenses are outstanding for portraits and won’t break the bank. Canon and Nikon make affordable 50mm f/1.8 lenses, and many other manufacturers have relatively inexpensive options, as well. Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking you have to spend thousands of dollars to get great portraits!

Q: My camera has a Portrait mode. Should I use that for portrait photography?

A: You can, though I recommend using Aperture Priority mode; it lets you select the exact aperture you want to use. Portrait mode tries to make decisions based on available light and can give you apertures that are wider or narrower than what you might want.


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