If you’re just getting started shooting portrait photography then you’ve probably tried some outdoor portraits.
But depending on the light conditions, weather, or time of day, it can be quite tricky to dial in the right camera settings for outdoor portraits.
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The reality is that there is no single answer to what your settings should be when shooting portraits outdoors, but it’s not that hard to figure it out if you put your camera in manual mode and follow this step-by-step process…
If you’re shooting outdoors then I’ll assume it’s during the day. If this is the case then you want to start by setting your ISO.
When shooting outside in daylight, use the lowest ISO setting on your camera. For most cameras, this is 100, but for some, it is 50.
If you aren’t sure just search online for the “base ISO” of your particular camera model.
The reason you want to start here is that the lowest ISO setting will give you both the best image quality in terms of sharpness and color as well as capture the most dynamic range so that when you edit the image later, you’ll be able to make adjustments more easily.
The ability to make these adjustments later is very important for outdoor portraits because sunlight can cause parts of the image to become overexposed. So you may need to fix these in post-processing later on.
When shooting portraits outdoors (or anywhere for that matter), using a wide aperture (smaller f-number) is usually the best option.
Wider apertures create a shallower depth of field, which means that you can get your subject in focus and blur anything in front of or behind them.
This accomplishes two important things.
First, it ensures that your subject will be the focal point of the image. Someone viewing an image will naturally find their eyes going to the areas of the image that are in focus.
So by making sure the subject, specifically their eyes, are in sharp focus while the other parts of the image are not, you are keeping the viewer looking at the person in the image.
Second, blurring the background makes it easier to shoot in places where the background may not be the most aesthetically pleasing.
A busy, cluttered, or just plain ugly background can be blurred with a shallow depth of field and turned into a cleaner more pleasing background.
If you are able to create more distance between the background and your subject, creating the blur will be easier, even if you have a lens that doesn’t have a very wider aperture.
Shutter speed for an outdoor portrait can vary significantly and still give you great results.
The important thing here is to avoid slow shutter speeds that might introduce blur from either subject movement or camera shake from hand-holding it.
If your subject is standing still then motion blur shouldn’t be much of a problem, but if you find yourself needing slow shutter speeds (below 1/30 sec.) then you should check your images to ensure that any small movement by your subject isn’t causing any blur.
For fast-moving subjects and action portraits, like the image below, you may need considerably faster shutter speeds to freeze the action.
To avoid blur from camera shake, you want to use the reciprocal rule. This means that you should use a shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of your focal length (1/focal length) to prevent blur from camera shake.
One of the difficulties you may face is that even if you have a lens with a wide maximum aperture like f/1.8 or f/2.8, when using that aperture on a bright sunny day, you may need a shutter speed even faster than the maximum of your camera.
In these cases, I recommend using an ND filter. These filters will cut down on the amount of light reaching your sensor, so you can use a wide aperture and still only need a shutter speed that your camera can handle.
Most people think ND filters aren’t useful for portraits, but I use them all the time.
White balance is a setting that you can change later on while you are editing the photo as long as you shot it using the RAW file format.
But it doesn’t hurt to get it at least close to correct from the start. That way you will get a better preview of the image on your camera that is closer to what you are expecting. It also helps to have it right in the camera if you are showing your subject the photos on the camera as you go.
If you are shooting outdoors in daylight, you can either use the “Daylight” setting for white balance or set the Kelvin setting to 5000.
Either one of those options will get you a decent white balance to work with and you can make more precise adjustments in your editing software later on.
The focus mode depends on what kind of camera you are shooting with and what modes you have available to you.
Eye Auto Focus (AF)
If you are shooting a newer mirrorless camera, then there is a good chance that it has an option called “Eye AF.” This is a relatively new technology that takes advantage of the way mirrorless cameras work compared to DSLRs and uses an algorithm built into the camera to identify and focus on the eyes of your subject.
If you have this option then use it for shooting portraits. It works great and keeps getting better as the camera companies improve their detection software.
The eye AF from most camera brands will even choose the eye closest to your camera to focus on (which is almost always a good approach).
Single Point Continuous
If you are using a DSLR then you will have to use one of the older focus modes.
For shooting portraits outside, I would use the continuous focus mode with single-point area.
Continuous is best because you can set your focus point on your subject’s eyes and then keep focus even if they (or you) move. This will allow you to be more dynamic in your shooting and capture
Many tutorials online will tell you to use Single Shot and not continuous. I disagree.
Single-shot will lock focus and keep it locked as long as you hold down the focus button (which is either a half-press of the shutter or the button you’ve set for back button focus).
The problem with this is that once you lock in focus, you or your subject may move slightly forward or back. If that happens, then you will miss focus. Portrait shooting is not as stationary as it may seem, especially if you are hand-holding the camera.
Single-shot is really best when your camera is locked down on a tripod and your subject is something stationary, like a landscape.
Outdoor Portrait Settings Examples
This first image was shot near sunset. The colors in the sky were a result of shooting during golden hour (the hour before sunset).
I used a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 to ensure the sky wasn’t overexposed to bring out as much color as possible. The f/2 aperture allowed me to get the subject in focus but blur the background and foreground.
This next image was shot in the morning but a couple of hours after sunrise so I had to find areas of shade to avoid the harsh sunlight (you can see it on the man on the right).
Even in the shade I needed a fast shutter speed of 1/2500 sec. to get the right exposure. I used f/2.2 for this image mostly because that is the aperture I was using for the images I had shot right before this. Because they were close to the wall and I wasn’t trying to blur anything, I could have used a smaller aperture and slower shutter speed, but the result would have been the same.
In this photo, I used a wider focal length and got up close. It was late in the day so the sun was softer and I got the shot while he was facing the light.
The f/3.2 aperture gave me some blur of the background but it wasn’t much because of the wide focal length. The shutter speed was simply then just adjusted to get the right exposure.