George Wilson: Aperture Settings for Portraits

Jgiardino Aperture 51 Pp B

Capturing the human likeness has been an artistic endeavor since the dawn of civilization. From small sculptures in Mesopotamia to paintings in Middle Ages and everything in between, we humans have immortalized each other in a variety of mediums. Today the role of the portrait photographer once highly regarded is now diminished, unappreciated and under-valued – that being said; the selfie you just made probably will not become a family heirloom and may not even survive into the next upgrade of your mobile device.

The portrait, whether a simple headshot or a complex image, is about the person being photographed and how that person wishes to be seen. We, as photographers, are charged with finding the emotion, the hidden story and often the personality hidden within a nervous subject not comfortable on “that side of the camera”.

It is the use of aperture – one of the three pillars of photography – that assists us in creating focus on our subject. For my headshot work, I tend to use a longer lens, typically an 80-200mm f2.8 to place a little distance between my subject and I. With a nervous subject, being “on top of them” with a 50mm or even an 85mm, is a less than favorable way to start a session. From my experience, the shorter lens lengths are best worked into as my subject gets comfortable with the portrait process.

Recently, I was working with a neighbor shooting a straightforward headshot. I started out with a wide aperture – f2.8 – which creates a very shallow depth of field.

This means that the areas in front of and behind Jeanne are thrown out of focus. The wide aperture allows the light rays to scatter a bit except in a very narrow plane at the point of focus. The resulting image shows her without a distracting background to draw your eye away from her. In other words – the background does not compete with Jeanne for the viewer’s attention.

The limited depth of field can create focusing challenges at wider apertures such as f1.8 and even f1.4, so I tend to stay at a maximum of f2.8 to f4 for my 50 year-old eyes.


If my background is at a great distance – at least 50 feet – from my subject, I may opt to bring the aperture up to f8. In the image above, I have not changed Jeanne’s position, only the lens aperture. By making the aperture smaller, light rays are slightly more defined and therefore, less out of focus. Her distance from the background still maintains a good amount of bokeh in the image, but I find the background does start to compete with her for the viewer’s attention. The aperture -f8 – can give you both good separation from the background and a slight amount of detail for location information.

Even with a distant background, using an aperture of f22 changes the image again. The background is now in focus. We can see it is a park, in fact looking in the bottom right of the image the basketball court can now be seen.

In each of these images the “feel” of the image has changed solely based upon the use aperture. This raises a question – does the background add or detract from an image. This is answered solely upon your own shooting preferences and you will get a different answer from each photographer you ask. In portraits, there are times when I want the background of environment to fill in some information for the viewer. There are also times, when I do not.

In Jeanne’s case, by shooting at f8 and wider, I was able to hide the fact that her shots were made in our neighborhood park near the basketball court.

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