Shooting portraits with natural light can be a real challenge. Here you’ll find the best camera settings for shooting window-light portraits.
Great portraits are all about connecting with your subjects and being quick enough to capture that fleeting connection. With that in mind, the fewer menus and camera settings you have to think about in the moment, the less chance you have of distracting yourself and your subject.
Generally when you’re shooting a portrait indoors you’ll have a little more control over the light, but even natural light from a window can be unpredictable so it’s best to go into a shoot prepared.
Camera settings you can make before you leave
In an ideal world you’ll have your camera set up in advance so you can hit the ground running and start shooting straightaway. Not only will this give your subject more confidence and put them at ease, you’ll find it will make you more confident as well. The last thing you want is for your subject to get bored while waiting for you to set up your camera, and trust us, this will reveal itself in their expressions and body language.
Achieving the correct depth of field is the key to successful indoor portraits, as you want to blur details in the background, so you’ll want to set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and select a wide aperture of about f/2.8. Your camera will then adjust your shutter speed accordingly to accommodate this aperture setting
That said, shooting at f/2.8 will likely mean you’ll have a shutter speed that’s a little bit too slow to shoot handheld and avoid camera shake. To combat this you’ll want to adjust the shutter speed by pre-setting a higher sensitivity setting of about ISO 800. If the light is particularly low, you’ll want to set this higher.
Once you’ve pre-set the aperture and ISO, you’ll next want to set your camera to its single-point area mode. This will let you move the focus point around the frame, which you can place over your subject’s eye, for instance. Typically you do this using the rear control pad on your camera back.
Settings you can adjust in the field
Of course not all camera settings for window-lit portraits can be set in advance. Even though your camera’s AF system is generally spot on in most conditions, shooting portraits in a dark room could prove problematic. Your AF system might hunt for a focal point to latch onto, and when it does finally find one it could be a chin, a nose or something the background.
In low light it’s probably best to switch to manual focus, and then carefully focus on your subject’s eye, or wherever your desired focal point may be.
Also, don’t forget to check the shutter speed set automatically by your Av mode. If your camera is using a shutter speed of, say, 1/60sec or slower you’ll probably have to increase the sensitivity to give yourself a slightly faster shutter speed.
What’s more, it’s also worth checking the exposure on your subject. If your background, or the light streaming through the window, is particularly bright you may lose crucial detail in your subject’s face.
Conversely, if your background is in shadow you’ll over-expose your subject. Your camera’s exposure compensation setting is your friend in these moments. To avoid over-exposing your subject, dial in -1 EV. If the backdrop is brighter, dial in a positive exposure compensation value to avoid your subject turning out under-exposed.
Best camera settings for window light portraits
f/2.8 or wider
800 or higher
1/125 sec or faster
Try using a reflector
If you are shooting portraits with a window as your light source, of the the subject’s face can end up being shrouded in shadows. To avoid this, try using a reflector to bounce light back onto your subject’s face. This is much simpler and more flattering than using flash.