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Set up your camera for portrait backgrounds that rock!

Blurred Portrait Backgrounds

make your clients smile with blurred portrait backgrounds

Canon 85mm f1.2 1/4000sec ISO 100


Wow!  We have all seen that image, the subject took over the image and the background was just a blurred delight.  At times I have been more in awe of the background of a portrait then the portrait itself, it’s not supposed to work that way right?  But as a photographer I wanted to examine the entire image to see what works for portrait photography.


Let’s talk about Camera Settings for Portraits

Here's a link to a really helpful camera settings card.

The aperture setting controls the depth of field therefore, it’s the aperture that you use that will give you the variance in the background of your portrait.

The higher numbered apertures will give you less light and more detail in the background. i.e. f8/f11 etc

The lower numbered apertures will give you more light and more blur (or bokeh) in your background. i.e. f/2.8, f4 etc

It’s the lower aperture that you usually want to choose when taking portraits. This is called having a shallow depth of field.

Remember if you are taking portraits of more an one person who are not at the same distance from the camera, you will need to increase your aperture value to ensure that all the subjects remain sharp.  i.e. for two people you may choose f/5.6, for a group you may try f/11 or more. This is called increasing the depth of field.

outdoor portraits with hairlight and blurred backgrounds

Canon 85mm f1.2 1/5000sec ISO 100

What about shutter speed?

When you are shooting with low aperture values, keep an eye on your shutter speed as you don’t want to get too slow with this.  I have found that 1/60’ is the lowest that most people can hand-hold a camera with lens in the range 24mm to 70mm and obtain sharpness in their focus. There is a "rule of thumb" which says 'never go slower than your focal length'. For example a 200mm lens means no slower than 1/200'; or a 100mm lens means no slower than 1/100'. There is some lee-way if you have a steady hand.

Why adjust the ISO?

If the combination of the aperture and shutter speed still does not give you enough light in your image you may need to increase the ISO.  As a general rule an ISO of 100 or 200 can be used on a clear day, if the day becomes cloudy or overcast you may need to change the ISO to 400, if the light is very low you may need to move your ISO up to 800, 1200 or higher.  The quality of modern dslr can hand high ISO very well before the effects of noise ruin your image.

Here is a handy help tip about iso you can print and keep with you.

Which lenses are best for portraits?

Of course this depends on what you have in your kit.  Choose a lens that you have that has the lowest AV (aperture value).  In regards to focal length, my personal favourites are:

- 85mm, the glass is sharp and the background blur is magnificent.
- The 70-200mm is also an excellent lens for portraits.
- In the studio I love the versatility of the 24-70

camera settings for portrait backgrounds

Canon 85mm f1.2 1/6400sec ISO 100


Remember focusing on the eyes adds great impact to your photograph, combined that with blurred backgrounds and you will have an all round winner!

…I will talk more about the eyes in my next blog.

Talking about backgrounds, have you notice our brand new product?  Backgrounds Pictures that you can wow your clients with.
‘never stop learning – this is where you will find your contentment’

blurred backgrounds what camera settings to use

Canon 85mm f1.2 1/3200sec ISO 100


3 Responses to "Set up your camera for portrait backgrounds that rock!"

  • Peter
    April 17, 2015 - 6:06 pm Reply

    Very easy to read tutorial! I love the sample images too – what aperture/speed/ISO was used on them? Is it possible to show those details under each one?

    I agree 100% about the 85mm. I am referring to the Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II. It has rounded aperture rings which soften the bokeh signficantly. And of course the largest aperture of f1.2 makes it a very “fast” lens for portraits.

    But the f1.2L II is a bit pricey. For about 15% of the price, there is always the Canon EF 85mm f1.8. A good solid workhorse lens for portraits. And still very fast!

  • Kira Likhterova
    April 18, 2015 - 12:35 pm Reply

    Thank you Peter for your comment 🙂
    I agree with you. The difference between F1.2 and F1.8 effect, as good as it is, also means a significant different in price. I, for example, love my Canon 100mm f2.8L IS USM Macro and happy enough with the bokeh it creates.
    I use 24-70 F2.8 to shoot in confined spaces. Also to get closer to my subject in order to direct them in more intimate manner.
    Choice of lens will depend on the budget and also the style of your shooting.
    I absolutely loved my 200 F2.8 prime, but found that I wasn’t really using it for portraits as it was placing me way too far from my subjects and it was harder to direct. On the other hand – great lens for being “a fly on the wall” and I used to use them a lot at the weddings.

  • Cheryl Eagers
    April 21, 2015 - 12:18 pm Reply

    Thanks for your comments, I have updated the images with the camera settings.

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