portrait aperture


No longer a newbie, moving up!
Oct 21, 2004
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Southwest Virginia
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When you guys are shooting portraits, what aperture do you generally use? I was always of the impression that you would tend to use a more open aperture to create a shallow depth of field, so you would stick to 2.8-1.4 maybe? Am I wrong on that? I am having a bit of trouble getting a nice sharp focus when there are 2 or more people in the picture. Specifically if they are of different heights. Would you change to a deeper DoF for that like say a 5.6 or something?
It all depends on what lens you are using, and how close you are to your subject. Look online for a depth of field scale. Generally, you would probably want to use the largest aperture you can, yet still getting everything you need sharp. This will give you the best possible background blur. If you are shooting more than one person, it's probably best to shoot at at least f/8 or f/11. I've been doing most of my recent stuff with an 85mm f/1.8 lens, and shooting at f/11 to make sure I have all the facial features and jewelry in sharp focus. Sometimes it's not even enough, if I get in real close. For most general head and shoulders portraits, f/8 should give you enough dof though.

Another thing to consider is the quality of your lens, and what you want from your portrait. Some people prefer the images to be a little soft, so that the skin and pores are softened. For my photos, I want the image as sharp as I can get it, and I'll deal with skin softening aftewards. It's for that reason that I shoot with a good sharp lens, and stop down a few stops from max to hit the "sweet spot" of the lens. My 85mm has a large sweet spot, from about f/4 ~ f/16, yet if I need, is still sharp at 1.8.
There is no right aperture to use. It all depends on what you want to do with your image. At F1.4, your DOF will be very thin, (especially close up) so it would be hard to get a person's whole head/face into sharp focus. Sometimes that can still make for a great photo.

As Matt said, sometimes you have to stop down to F8 or F11 just to get the model into focus.

Typically, for group shots...you need to stop down more than for a single person, just to get everyone's face into sharp focus.
Big Mike said:
There is no right aperture to use. It all depends on what you want to do with your image.

As always, well said Mike.

This is my "norm." First, I always use a lens that is "twice long" for individuals and couples. So, if you shooting 35mm, I'd chose a 105mm. Anyway, in the studio, I like to shoot at f8. For families on location (in home), I'd rather f11. Outdoors, I nearly always shoot wide open.

OOOhhh... thanks guys. Ive learnt heaps from this thread. Ive heard that a 50mm 1.8 or 1.4 lens is fab for portraiture.... I have a 18 - 55mm f3.5 - 5.6 & 75 - 300mm f4 - 5.6, a twin lens kit that came with my canon 350D. Im happy with the photos so far but wonder if they would be way better with a different lens? Stupid question now.... with the 50mm lens you would obviously have to get Real Close? Im a big lover of the ZOOM and cant work out how i would get great closeups with a standard 50mm?? xxxx PS. Thanks Digital Mat for the advice on getting more than one subject in focus.. my poor kiddies are certainly in for a shoot this arvo and hopefully ( fingers crossed) i may just post one if they work xx LOL sorry, one last one... is your 85mm 1.8 lens fixed? xx
Yes, Matt's 85 F1.8 is a prime lens (fixed). I'm not aware of any zoom lens that can open up to F1.8

That's the beauty of prime lenses, they often have very wide maximum apertures....which does give you the option of using a very shallow DOF, even if you don't use it all the time. Also, prime lenses are often better (optically) than cheap zoom lenses. Your 50mm should give sharper, more contrasty images than either your 18-55 or your 75-300.

Another benefit of using a fast (large max aperture) lens is that the "sweet spot" is faster as well. Most lenses are best when stopped down a bit from the maximum. IF you stop down your zoom lenses a couple of stops, you are already at F8...which will require a fair bit of light. If you stop down your 50mm a couple stops...you might only be at F2.8 or F3.5

Yes, it is less convenient to use a prime lens. You do have to use your feet rather than zooming the lens. Some people think that this helps you learn about perspective and composition because it forces you to think more...rather than just standing in one spot all the time. But for fast moving kids...it might be a problem.

There are zoom lenses that are fast [F2.8] and optically very good....but they cost twice as much as your camera. :(
To me, it's not only the lens, but the distance and DOF. A 70-200 2.8 IS is going to give you different results as will a 35 1.2 prime at the same distances.
How obsure do you want the background to be? How "tight" are you in on a subject?
For instance, if I am shooting a torso/headshot with the 70-200 2.8 IS, and I want the whole body to be in focus, but the background to be blurred, I might stand 12 feet back (or more)at 2.8 and zoom in.
With the 35 mm, I would stand within 3 -5 feet at 1.2.
If I wanted a sharp background as well as subject I would stand the same ground or out more and increase my apature.
The best way to judge this is to play with it with different lenses at different distances with different dofs. Record them. Study them. After a while you will know instinctively what you want and how to get it.
Hope that helps.
Be aware that, the more you stop, the more details you get. And sometimes, somes of those details may not be that opportunate...
You'd then better chose a 5.6 aperture, with preferably no disturbing details that are out of focus.
Rolleistef said:
Be aware that, the more you stop, the more details you get. And sometimes, somes of those details may not be that opportunate...
You'd then better chose a 5.6 aperture, with preferably no disturbing details that are out of focus.

Totally disagree. I shoot details at no more that 1.4-2.8 ap. I rarely shoot the bride and groom at 5.6 ap even during the ceremony. No way.
If you are out of focus, that is a total other thing that needs to be addressed. I only go to a 4 ap on formals. The rest are shot at the fastest (and sharpest) my camera can do for me. For instance-back of the church hand holding at 2.8, I'm at 2.8. No way higher. No way. Noise, artifacting, crap in the background just to name a few..
5.6 would be "a total lukewarm,catch it all and hope I can photoshop out all the bad crap" ap. Don't do it.
Sorry to disagree, but no way in hell to be blunt.
Thanks guys... you're so helpful! Having a 'stay-at-home' day today, no kindy drop-offs, no running around just the whole day to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Apologies now as I may just post again this arvo! I'm learning so much from TPF!! Yeah xx Thanks a million

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