Focal Length Matters
Prime is Primary
Creating with Available Light
The Advantage of Soft Image Sharpness
Some photographers may argue the point, but shooting portraits may be the most challenging, intriguing and rewarding type of photography. Even if you shoot casual portraits, you still want to portray your subjects (who may be family members, friends or significant other) in as pleasing and attractive manner as possible. You want them to be happy you took their picture. A landscape, wild animal or flower doesn’t care how you captured it, but, boy, you’ll receive an earful of your subjects don’t like their portrait photos.
In addition, you’re trying to record an image that helps to describe/define an individual: his or her personality, behavior and point of view. Portrait photography is a bit like shooting into a mirror, as your subject is another human being; and what you see and capture is also a reflection of you.
For these reasons, and many others, the lens you use to shoot portraits is critical to how well you’re able to create an image that pleases both you and your subjects. The professionals have it somewhat easy, in that they can justify purchasing the best portrait lenses, but for the vast majority of photographers, the prices of those lenses are generally too expensive. The following 6 tips should help you understand what kind of lens to purchase to shoot the best portraits your budget will allow.
The best portraits are typically shot at an 85mm focal length. The slight telephoto length causes just enough compression to reduce the size of larger-than-average noses or chins. A wide-angle lens, of course, distorts any object, including a subject’s face and facial features. Most people don’t like how this distortion makes them look, although, wide-angle portraits can be fun and unusual, if you have the right subject who appreciates the creative effect. The “normal” focal length of 50mm on a full-frame camera also causes distortions. These are less pronounced than with a wide-angle lens, but still result in unpleasing portraits…and unhappy subjects.
If you’re camera has an APS-C sensor, then you can save yourself a few bucks by purchasing a 50mm lens instead of an 85mm. That’s because a 50mm lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor actually works like a 75mm–80mm lens, so no distortions are evident in the image.
Another benefit of the 85mm focal length is that you don’t have to crowd your subject and position the camera close to his or her face. You’ll be able to frame half the body from approximately 10 feet (3m). If an 85mm lens is in your budget, then it will give you even more telephoto focal length on an APS-C camera of approximately 127mm. At the same 10-foot distance, you can now achieve a tighter framing, of just the head and shoulders.
If you’re like most hobbyists and enthusiasts, then your first DSLR lens was probably a zoom lens, maybe the kit lens that was bundled with your camera. Zoom lenses are certainly versatile and convenient; however, if you’re serious about improving your portrait skills…and results…then a prime lens is your best choice (A prime lens has a fixed focal length). In most cases, a prime lenses deliver better image quality than zoom lenses, but the one feature of a prime lens that is essential for excellent portraits is a wide maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8, for example. Even the most expensive zoom lenses with focal length ranges appropriate for portraits only have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or f/3.5. Zoom lenses at an affordable price for most photographers will be even narrower, at f/4 or f/4.5.
A wide maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8 puts you in control of depth-of-field. You can make the in-focus depth of your portrait image very narrow, so the background is sufficiently blurred. A busy, identifiable background is a distraction, plus it will make your portrait and subject look flat. Narrow the depth-of-field and the background becomes nicely blurred, so your subject is given more three-dimensionality.
For other types of portraits, such as lifestyle, you’ll want a greater depth of the image to appear in focus. For example, you’re photographing a potter in his or her workshop at the wheel shaping an object. You want to show the environment and all the accouterments of their hobby or profession. Depending on your camera position and the size of the space, you’ll want to choose a narrower aperture, f/8, for example, to make most of the shop appear in focus.
A portrait lens with a wide aperture also means you won’t have to resort to your flash whenever the light is low. Many of the nicest indoor portraits are taken at a window, illuminated just by light coming from that angle. Shooting outdoors during twilight, the 30 minutes after sundown, also makes for very pleasing and creative portraits. Plus, you’re more likely to be able to handhold your camera for these photos and not require any exposure assistance with the selection of a higher ISO setting.
One of the sacrifices of a lower-priced portrait lens is that it won’t produce as sharp an image as a pro-quality lens, but that actually works to your advantage. A very slight lack of sharpness may actually soften the facial features of your subject, which could help some of them look younger and reduce the effect of blemishes, wrinkles, etc.
If you’re considering the purchase of your first prime portrait lens, then the smart first choice is to rent a few of them during successive weekends to determine which fits your style and the type of portraits you want to shoot. It’s worth the investment of a very affordable rental charge before you pay hundreds of dollars (or more) for a portrait lens.
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