Ep 222: What are the best lenses and camera settings for portrait and documentary photography

What are the best lenses and camera settings for portrait and documentary photography?

In this episode, Gina and Valerie discuss what you need to do to take your portrait shots to the next level. We break it down to the basics and then build on that if you’re ready for intermediate or advanced tips.

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Show Notes


Handheld vs tripod

  • Handheld 1/125th sec
  • Tripod 1/15th
  • Select a faster shutter speed when shooting portraits of animated subjects

Lens choice?

  • Under 50mm means you need to be very close to your model to fill the frame
  • I’m practically on top of my models when I shoot headshots at 35mm
  • Beware of distortion caused by wider lenses
  • Longer lens gives more “reach” and is more comfortable personal space
  • Longer lenses can feel disconnected
  • Shorter lenses make you feel like you are in a person’s energy
35mm focal length Fuji X100F
35mm focal length Fuji X100F
90mm focal length Canon 5DMK4
24mm Focal length Canon 5DMK4

F stop

  • The narrower the f stop ( higher number) the more detail will be visible in the skintones
  • Shallow depth of field will blur skin surface slightly so it’s a more flattering setting for beauty shots and headshots
Select a shallow depth of field if your background is not very exciting or interesting.



  • Soft open shadow
  • Garage lighting
  • Overexpose by 1 stop for correct skin tone
  • Always try and shoot with the light source behind you
  • Add reflector so there is a catchlight in the eyes


  • Shoot with as large a modifier as possible
  • Add a ¼ CTO gel to flash
  • 1 flash ( speedlight or studio flash is all you need to get good results and learn how to light)
  • Outside in full sun
  • Speedlight /Manual mode/ full power/ 3 feet(½ meter) from subject/ softbox
  • F 11 @ 1/125th sec

Documentary/street Photography

  • Documentary photography is all about capturing that moment in time. It requires a completely different approach than that of portrait photography.
  • Some of the best images in history were captured in a millisecond.
  • Portrait and landscape photography you have time to compose and focus images. In documentary photography you don’t have that luxury.
  • The best documentary photographers shoot intuitively and are not fumbling with focus, aperture or shutter speed. They don’t have time. Their camera becomes more like a point and shoot system.
  • Spend as much time as possible getting to know your camera.
  • Get to know what all the buttons and dials do.
  • Learn to read and see light
  • Learn about composition
  • Get off the train 1 stop earlier or go for a walk in your lunch hour and peel potatoes
  • Documentary photographers also use the fastest focus system in the world. It focuses in a nanosecond, no lag, in low light, no light, back lit, moving subjects. It’s amazing!
  • Moving focus points helps and I’ve taught myself to do it really quickly but using

A technique called prefocus is a game changer.

  • If you are a street photography purist then the image should be captured in one frame
  • Inconspicuous
  • Mirrorless and smaller lens works well.
  • Wider focal length allows you to capture the action and more of the scene.
  • The other advantage of using wide lenses when shooting street photography is the wider field of view and greater focus area.
  • When I first started shooting street I used my portrait photography techniques which were slow and deliberate. I often picked low ISO. longer focal lengths and shallow depth of field.
  • I could get ok shots using this technique but missed lots of great images
  • Lately I’ve been experimenting with prefocusing.
  • Moving focus points helps and I’ve taught myself to do it really quickly but using
  • A technique called prefocus is a game changer.

Pre-focus technique

  1. Set your camera to autofocus
  2. Focus on an object 2 meters or 6 feet in front of you. I use a light pole or fire hydrant or garbage bin. TIP: your arm spread is the same as your height. Carry a tape measure
  3. Once you have an image in focus switch AF OFF and don’t touch the focus ring

Depth of Field

  • A shallow depth of field is used when you want to isolate your subject from the background (portraits).
  • A large depth of field is used when you need every part of the frame in focus (products and landscapes)

A large aperture (small f-number) such as f/1.4 or f/2 will produce a short or shallow depth of field, while a small aperture (large f-number) such as f/11 or f/16 will give you focus over a longer distance.

Above: Depth of field or area of focus decreases when the aperture becomes larger
Above: The shorter the focal length the greater the depth of field
Above: The closer you are to your subject the shallower the depth of field (or area of focus). If you want a shallower depth of field move your camera closer to your subject


Depth of Field is greater behind the point of focus than in front of it.

The other important settings to ensure you nail the shot are:

  • F Stop F8-16
  • Shutter Speed 1250th -1/1000th
  • Auto ISO

When you get comfortable with this way of shooting, try experimenting with depth of field.

F11 1/8ooth sec ISO 100 35mm focal length Fuji x100F (prefocus 6ft 1.8m)
F2 1/320th sec ISO 3200 35mm Fuji x100F pre-focus 4ft

#ginachallenge #prefocus


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Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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