What's the Best Aperture for Headshots and Portraits?

Although depth of field is often discussed in portrait photography, the conversation tends to center around background bokeh. In this article and the accompanying video, however, I would like to address depth of field as it relates to the face itself and attempt to answer the question as to which aperture is best for photographing faces.

Headshots Versus Portraits

The first distinction I like to make when choosing an aperture is whether I am taking headshots or portraits. For clarification, I consider a headshot as head and shoulders only, while a portrait is anything with a looser crop. I also distinguish headshots and portraits in my studio by the lighting I use and poses employed. My headshots tend towards simple and clean lighting, while my portrait work can be much more dramatic and, for lack of a better word, artistic.

As a general rule, when I am taking headshots, I prefer to keep the entire face or almost the entire face sharp, for a number of reasons. First, a headshot is primarily a tool, whether shooting corporate or acting clients. The purpose of a headshot is to show a natural expression and capture the subject at their best in that moment in time, in order to help them get noticed and grow their career. For these reasons, I don’t want my subject’s face to be partially out of focus and prefer to keep the entire face relatively sharp, with perhaps only the ears going slightly soft.

In my headshot work, I make sure that my subject is sharp throughout their face, with the only exception being the ears, which I don't mind being out of focus.

Since I often shoot head-on headshots, this is relatively easy to do and always looks good. When I angle my headshot subjects, I usually tend to do it subtlety and avoid what I jokingly refer to as “extreme posing,” which is when photographers angle people to such a degree that they look like they are falling off a cliff!

But even with subtle posing, it’s important to realize that if you are shooting with too wide an aperture, one eye will be in focus and the other eye will be soft. Before I continue, I should mention here that I always focus on the eye that’s closest to the lens or, if they are head on, the right eye. If you do this, however, and shoot wide open while the subject is at an angle, the shallow depth of field can become distracting and take away from the ultimate success of the headshot, which is something we obviously do not want to do. This is not to say that a headshot should not be creative and eye-catching, and also, I definitely don’t want to give you the impression that it’s not an artistic endeavor, but I am saying that for me personally, a head and shoulders headshot is where I like to balance form and function.

In this headshot of Wisconsin-based photographer Paul Hanon, his ears are slightly out of focus, which I think works well for headshots and does not detract from the overall image.

Because of all of this, I tend to shoot headshots anywhere between f/3.5 and f/5.6, using a 70-200mm lens at around 100mm. This way, the entire face or almost all of it is in sharp focus. As I previously mentioned, it’s fine to have my subject’s ears go soft, as I don’t think it distracts from the image, and ears are usually not where you want people to focus in the first place. It’s important to avoid things like one sharp eye and one blurry one or sharp eyes with a blurry nose. This is just going to look strange and distracting to the viewer.

When I create portraits, however, I throw all of these self-imposed “rules” out of the window and instead flex my creative muscles and do my best to give my clients images that are not only unique and eye-catching, but also heavily influenced by my artistic side. I do this for all kinds of clients, including business professionals, actors, musicians, authors, and the like, and this is where I shoot wide open much of the time, although my thoughts on this have changed recently which I discuss later on.

The Sin of Stopping Down

We photographers are strange creatures. I’m sure I’m not the only one who owns a fast, sharp, lens, or several of them, and almost feels like it’s a creative sin to stop down when taking portraits. I spent a lot of money to get that excellent bokeh, and darn it, I want to see it in my images! There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and I’ve brought this same philosophy into my portrait work, and up until recently, I’ve shot almost all of my portraits wide open.

And to be clear, I love this look for many reasons. First, in a portrait, there’s a lot more going on than in a headshot, so it’s much easier to be distracted from the subject’s unique face. Using a shallow depth of field in this instance can add to the drama of the overall image, while helping to keep the subordinate elements in the image in place as just that — subordinate. This is something I will do quite often when working with musicians who are holding instruments. Since I want the face to still be the primary focus of the image, I like having the instrument, or any other props in the photo, out of focus. Second, I use much more dramatic lighting styles when I am taking portraits and love a lot of falloff from subject to background, or even from the subject’s face to their body. This means that the elements of the image that are out of focus also tend to be in the darker areas of the frame, once again heightening the most important part of the image, the face. I will do this even in closely cropped portraits sometimes, where the eyes alone become the primary subject. I talk about this a bit in my article and video on photographing musicians, which can be found here.

In much of my portrait work, I shoot wide open, purposely throwing everything but the subject's closest eye to the camera out of focus.

A third consideration is whether your subject is looking directly at the camera or not. I find that when a subject is looking away from the camera, I don’t mind having one eye in sharp focus while another is out of focus. In some ways, I think it adds to the mystery of the portrait because the viewer is slightly removed from the scene, almost like an outsider looking in. The shallow depth of field not only heightens the drama but perhaps even adds a touch of uneasiness to the photo, which only makes it more engaging.

For this reason, one of my go-to portrait moves is what I call the “Political Poster," which is where I angle my subject and have them looking up and out into the distance, like they are contemplating their future or ready to accomplish an epic task. I absolutely love this pose, and I’ve used it for all kinds of artists, actors, and even the occasional businessperson who wants to convey a strong, powerful, message through their image. As I mentioned already, I like combining a shallow depth of field with this pose, and often color grade these images as well, which enhances the effect.

I call this the "Political Poster" pose, and as with the previous image, purposely use a shallow depth of field, which throws the far eye out of focus.

Just Stop (Down) Already

Before I make it a simple matter and tell you to stop down for headshots and shoot wide for portraits, I will take a moment to remind you that it’s not nearly that simple. As with anything related to art or creative pursuits, for every “rule” we are given, there are numerous examples of people breaking them with incredible success. This is why I always put the “R” word in quotations, and prefer to teach people guidelines over rules.

I was reminded of this recently while experimenting with mixed lighting during a mentoring session with London portrait photographer Ivan Weiss. The lighting combines both continuous and strobes, with a hard key light positioned close to the subject without any diffusion. The setup forced me to do the unthinkable and stop down my lens, something I only did because the strobe was too bright, even at its lowest power. In hindsight, I’m glad that I needed to use a smaller aperture, because I absolutely love the results. The images are extremely sharp, and almost have a 3D quality to them. I also like seeing all the detail in the backdrop, which is something I don’t get when shooting wide. Since many lenses are sharpest when stopped down, and can be slightly soft wide open, the image of my photographer friend John below which was shot at f/10 brought out a very different side of my old EF 50mm f/1.4 Canon lens.

A recent portrait of my photographer friend John where I used an aperture of f/10, resulting in a very sharp image from foreground to background.

The Answer Is Simple: It’s Complicated

For those of you who were looking for a simple “do this, not that” answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Just when I thought I had figured out what aperture works best for portraits and for headshots, I was once again challenged to rethink the self-imposed rules I had been working under. And I’m so glad that I was forced to do something that I would not have done otherwise, because it reminded me that so much of what we do as photographers and artists is subjective, and based upon not only our own artistic sensibilities but also on our subject and the goals we have for the image we are creating. Not only this, but how I shoot today is intrinsically tied to where I am on my journey as a photographer at this moment in time, which is encouraging because every photo I take is an opportunity for growth as well as reflection.

This is not to say that I will abandon the general guidelines I use in my headshot and portrait work, but it should serve as a gentle reminder to you that the most important thing is to keep experimenting, keep challenging yourself, and also try the guidelines in this article and video too, as it will no doubt aid in helping you find your own unique vision as a photographer.

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15 Comments
Sam Sims's picture

The problem with investing in expensive lenses to get great bokeh is most people simply don't care. They are looking at the subject and not staring into the blurred out background thinking how wonderful it looks.

Todd Davenport's picture

Yes, but great bokeh makes the subject pop from the background. In headshots with a flat background it doesnt matter much, but a portrait taken on the streets, stronger bokeh will keep the subject from getting lost in the background, or the viewer from getting distracted in the background.

Pete Coco's picture

I think you are both right to a point. Great bokeh is definitely important for outdoor portraits, but the average person is not looking at the size and shape of blurry lights and wishing they were more circular instead of oval or whatever, for instance. That's for photography YouTubers to obsess over lol

Sam Sims's picture

Having a subject 'pop' from the background is important but the obsession with the quality of bokeh on social media (especially newer lenses only eking out tiny improvements that the average person won't notice) is way over the top.

Pete Coco's picture

Agreed, Sam.

Hector Belfort's picture

Quite enjoyable video. I think his videos usually are. He doesn't over complicate and gives good tips. Very nice posing examples. Shooting wide open you really do have to be careful you are focusing on the eye. Mirrorless helps here with the Eye focus tracking.

Pete Coco's picture

Thank you, Hector! I appreciate your your kind words.

Rosalind Furlong's picture

Wow your lighting is incredible (and your colour grading)! Interesting that Ivan Weiss is your mentor as when I saw these I immediately thought of his work. Bravo!

Pete Coco's picture

This is high praise, Rosalind, and I so appreciate it! 🙏🙏🙏

Edo Photo's picture

So the answer is no answer. Most who take portraits kind of already know that. This is one of the series of regurgitated articles or videos that gets done by a different person every 3 months or so... It's always more or less the same information. I still enjoy learning new stuff or maybe a hint here and there so I'll check them out if I feel like it. But I feel like the value of some of these videos are overstated because they ask a question that they don't even have an answer to.

I myself find it easier to take portraits on a 50 then on a longer lens. Even my beloved 70 to 200 becomes much less flexible (well in certain environments to be honest, if you have the space you can go mad) compared to getting nice and close with my 50 regardless of the negligible distortion that only photographers for the most part will care about. But unless you're taking pictures of photographers that's a non-issue.

After 12 years since I started shooting, I'm still looking for solutions. Definitely not for questions with no answer. I feel like it's better to guide the audience in several directions because there is no best of anything. Then again look at me yelling at clouds. Ah, happy shooting and just get on with it. Cheers.

Pete Coco's picture

I'm sorry you feel this way but I did in fact give f numbers that I use for both headshots and portraits, plus multiple situations which help me choose an aperture. If you are looking for a simpler solution I don't think there is one. That's why I prefer general guidelines based on subject, lighting, and the purpose of the portrait. I can tell you to shoot everything at f/5.6 if that's what you want to hear, but I don't think that really helps anyone. You conclude your comment saying it's better to guide the audience in several directions because there is no best of anything, which I agree with, and that in fact was the purpose of the article and video.

I do disagree regarding the 50mm, which I use extensively in my studio for portrait work. If you get too close with a 50, it's easy to see distortion and even if your client doesn't understand technically what's going on, they will know their face looks weird. You don't need to be a photog to know it looks bad.

Richard Robinson's picture

the title says: "What's the Best Aperture for Headshots and Portraits?" I was waiting for the mention of he best aperture but the video went so long over angle and personal preference and I never made it to the end of the video. I think if you're going to teach then get straight to the point.

Pete Coco's picture

Just use f/5.6 for every portrait you take. Does this help?

Chris Kivi's picture

I was considering getting into portraits and wondering if the Nikkor 28-300mm lens I have collecting dust could do the trick?

Pete Coco's picture

My advice is to use whatever you have before investing in new gear.