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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials In Focus: Aperture Settings for Various Scenes- Part4

f/2.8: Great for Capturing Facial Expressions

A human face is three-dimensional. When taking a close-up portrait shot at an angle, if the aperture used is too large, significant parts of the face might fall outside the shallow depth-of-field, making facial expressions unclear. Learn why many photographers recommend f/2.8 as a rule-of-thumb in this situation. (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)

Headshot of lady


Watch your bokeh when you shoot close-up portraits from an angle!

Shooting portraits using the maximum aperture on your lens can be fun, especially if you own a fast lens that has a very wide maximum aperture (such as f/1.8 or wider). It's amazing how creating some creamy background bokeh can make your subjects stand out much better, even against a busy background.

However, did you know that in some shooting situations, using the maximum aperture can actually weaken your portrait?

One such situation is when you are shooting a chest-up shot or headshot and your subject is facing the camera at an angle.

Why is this so?

How a wider aperture affects your close-up portraits

At a wider aperture, the depth-of-field is more shallow.

Angling the subject's face diagonal to the camera creates depth. This means that at wider aperture settings, there are more parts of the face that fall outside shallow depth-of-field and become out of focus. This can make it hard to see the subject's facial expressions clearly.

You will want to use an aperture that is:
- Narrow enough to ensure that more of the subject's facial features are clearly in focus
- Wide enough to create an obvious background bokeh effect.

In this situation, a good rule-of-thumb to try is f/2.8. This gives you an in-focus area that extends all the way to the nose, mouth and eye that is further away from the camera, which should be enough to capture facial expressions in sharper detail.


Shot at f/2.8

Close-up portrait of lady
FL: 85mm/ f/2.8/ 1/25 sec/ ISO 400

The eyes, nose and mouth are all in proper focus. The facial expression is quite clear.

Shot at f/1.2

Close-up portrait of lady with front eye blurred
FL: 85mm/ f/1.2/ 1/125 sec/ ISO 400

This shot looks less sharp, and this is especially obvious in the back eye and the lips. This makes the facial expression look different.


The finer details: Using f/2.8 effectively

Scene 1: If your photo turns out awash in white…

In well-lit scenes such as outdoors in broad daylight, an f-number of f/2.8 could allow too much light to enter the lens, resulting in overexposure. Try shooting somewhere with more shade, or using a faster shutter speed. If you need to use a slower shutter speed for creative purposes, you might want to attach an ND filter to your lens to restrict the amount of light entering it.

Want to level up? Try using an external flash and high-speed sync technique. Learn how to do it in:
How Do I Capture Portraits With Background Bokeh Under Backlit Conditions?


Scene 2: If you want more obvious bokeh…

After reviewing your shots, if you decide you need more obvious bokeh, try shooting with a smaller f-number such as f/2.5 or even f/2. This decreases the in-focus area of the image (i.e. gives a shallower depth-of-field). However, with this comes the risk where being even the slightest bit off-focus results in a shot that is completely out-of-focus. Make sure that your camera is held stable and secure. To prevent overexposure, make the necessary adjustments to shutter speed and/or ISO speed.


Bonus technique: Focus on the eye in front

When your subject is facing the camera at an angle, remember to focus on the eye in front. If you do so, the facial expression will look good in the resulting shot, even though the eye at the back will be a little blurry.

Tip: If your camera has Eye Detection AF, make sure that it is enabled. It automatically detects and focuses on the eye nearer the camera, helping you to get your shot faster.

Focus on the front eye

Head-shot of lady with back eye blurred
FL: 50mm/ f/1.8/ 1/125 sec/ ISO 250

The overall shot looks in-focus and lively even if the background is a little blurry.

Focus on the back eye

Head shot of lady with front eye blurred
FL: 50mm/ f/1.8/ 1/125 sec/ ISO 250

The blur in the front area is evident, and makes the overall shot look soft.


Not sure how to change your aperture settings? Click here for step-by-step instructions.


f/2.8 is one of the three go-to aperture settings that portrait photographers use. Find out about the other two in:
Portrait Photography: 3 Aperture Settings Favoured by Professional Photographers

Going travelling, or out photographing someone for the entire day? Here are 5 ideas that you can try. For most of them, you just need your kit lens!
5 Portrait Photography Techniques to Take You from Day to Night


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Teppei Kohno

Teppei Kohno

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.