If you want to have a go at capturing professional looking portraits you need a suitable lens. Arguably, you can use any camera lens for portrait photography but not all of them will result in a professional, or flattering, portrait shot. If you want to capture awesome portraits you need to get yourself a lens that is suited to portrait photography.
There are plenty of lenses out there that are suitable for portrait photography, and all of them will result in professional looking portraits that are flattering and show the model at its best. This is all well and good, but what makes the best portrait lens (i.e. the most suitable for the way you shoot)?
Choosing the best portrait lens isn’t easy and jumping straight in without doing at least a little reading is going to end up being a costly mistake. Before you pull the trigger on a portrait lens you need to consider a few key things, such as:
The first thing to consider when choosing a portrait lens is the focal length. Portrait lenses need to be wide (for those group shots) but not so wide distortion creeps in. Shoot too wide and you will find that facial features become out of proportion, which is not only unflattering but also looks weird and plain wrong.
You won’t have any problems using lenses with focal lengths of 28mm or more, but wider than this and you may find yourself running in to a few issues especially when taking individual portrait shots. There are some photographers I know of who use a 24mm lens for nearly all of their individual portrait shots, and these photographers manage to avoid distortion problems, however I seem to struggle with lenses this wide. I have managed to get some great portrait shots using a 24mm lens, but I am not consistent and I throw more than I keep. The worst thing is I have no idea where I am going wrong or how to rectify it, which is most frustrating. Rather than faffing around with a 24mm lens (or wider) for portraits I would suggest leaving them well alone and going for one of 28mm or above in the first instance.
Popular focal lengths for portrait lenses are 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 100mm. None of the focal lengths has better image quality than the others, and the best focal length depends on the type of portraits you take, your individual style and how you want to frame the model.
The longer the focal length the further away you can be from the model and still get a frame filling image of the model. If the model is a little camera shy and doesn’t like a lens stuck right in their face (and there are a few out there) a lens with a longer focal length is best. Similarly, if you can’t get very close to the model (for whatever reason) a lens with a longer focal length is best. If the model doesn’t mind you getting up close and personal a lens with a shorter focal length is best.
The model is obviously the focal point in portrait photography and it is important there is nothing to draw the eye from the model. The model must stand out and be the first thing the viewer notices, and the best way to achieve this is to intentionally throw the background out of focus leaving the model nice and sharp. This type of shot requires a narrow depth of field, which requires a wide aperture.
Many people seem to be of the opinion the wider the aperture the better, however this is not always the case as it is possible to shoot too wide. If you use an aperture that is too wide the depth of field will be so narrow that some of the models face is face and other parts (typically the ears and/or nose) are a little soft. Just how wide you can shoot before some of the model’s face becomes soft depends on the camera and lens combination you use, and the only way to find out just how wide you can go is to practice.
There are some portrait lenses you can use as wide as f1.2 and still get the entire model sharp, such as the Canon 50mm f1.2L, but these are stupidly expensive and you need deep pockets to buy one. There are a few lenses with maximum wide apertures of f1.4 (which are of course cheaper) but even these lenses need stopping down because they are a little soft wide open. When using very wide apertures, such as those wider than f2 you do need to be careful with the narrow depth of field and making sure everything that should be sharp is indeed sharp.
If you use plain backgrounds there really is no need to shoot at very wide apertures because there is no value to be had in throwing the background out of focus. If you’re not, or can’t, use a photography background you may need to use wide apertures to blur the background although there are ways around this, such as getting as much distance between the model and the background.
So what is the best aperture for portraits? The answer to this depends on your own specific circumstances and you need to identify these before pulling the trigger on a new portrait photography lens. You need to think about the type of portrait shots you want to take, how wide you want to shoot and whether you plan to use photography backgrounds or not among other things.
Sharpness is top of the list for most photographers, and the opinion “sharper is better” is a common one. This opinion is fine with most types of photography, but it doesn’t apply to portrait photography. Portrait shots should be flattering and make the model look their best, and you can’t do this with a super sharp lens, such as a macro lens.
Super sharp lenses record too much detail, and will show every spot, pimple, blemish and variation in skin tone, which is not at all flattering. There is a fine line between sharp and too sharp, and it is important to identify this.
When taking portrait shots of ladies and children I actually adopt a soft focus technique because I think it is more pleasing to the eye, however this is down to personal preference of course. Whenever I take portrait shots of men I make the photo sharper, however I still won’t use a macro lens or any other lens that is ultra-sharp.
My portrait photography lenses
First off I have to point out that I shoot a Canon, and I only shoot Canon branded lenses. That said, there are Nikon equivalents of the lenses I use for portrait photography, but I confess that I know absolutely nothing about them and can’t comment on how good the lenses are, although if they are Nikon branded I am sure they will be top drawer and worth a look. Anyway, without further ado here are the lenses I use for portrait photography……….
Canon 35mm f2 IS
The awesome Canon 35mm f2 IS lens
I never used to be a fan of prime lenses, however since I borrowed a Canon 35mm f2 IS lens, and subsequently bought my own, I have to admit that I am a total convert. Compared to most of my other lenses this 35mm lens is small, light, discreet and a pleasure to use. The f2 maximum aperture is perfect for throwing the background out of focus, even when I’m outside and not using a photography background, and the image stabilization is useful for ensuring consistently sharp shots.
I am a fan of the 35mm focal length and it suits the way I frame portraits and the type of portrait shots I want to take. The 35mm focal length means I have to get up close and personal to the model, which allows me to communicate with them, direct them and capture more engaging shots than if I were standing further back with a lens of a longer focal length.
The Canon 35mm f2 IS lens is not a Canon L series lens, which means it doesn’t have the weather sealed body or the “bombproof” build quality but it is still very well made and put together. This lens does not have the “superior” optics of the L series lenses, but the image quality is still exceptional and I find it provides the perfect sharpness for portraits, i.e. sharp but not so sharp it highlights imperfections.
The Canon 35mm f2 IS lens is priced at the lower end, which not only means it is affordable but gives a lot of bang for the buck.
Canon 24 – 70 f2.8L
The Canon 24 - 70 f2.8L is another awesome lens
The Canon 24 – 70 f2.8L lens is a workhorse lens, and has been for many years. This L series lens is weather sealed, tough, durable and able to withstand anything I (and Mother Nature) decides to throw at it. Compared to my 35mm prime lens the Canon 24 – 70 f2.8L is a big and heavy lens, which some models do find a little intimidating. Whenever I find a model that feels uncomfortable with the size of the 24 – 70 the longer focal length allows me to step further back, hence giving the model more space and room, and still capture frame filling shots.
Since the Canon 24 – 70 is a zoom lens with a wide range of focal lengths it is versatile, flexible and there are plenty of framing options available. It is this flexibility and versatility, among other things, that I like about this lens. Being an L series lens the Canon 24 – 70 is made using superior optics and whilst it is a super sharp lens stopped down it is slightly softer used wide open, making it perfect for capturing flattering portrait photos.
Being and L series lens the Canon 24 – 70 f2.8L isn’t cheap, but it is worth every penny and as it will provide years of trouble free photography (provided you look after it of course) it is awesome value for money. If I had to choose just one portrait lens I would, without a shadow of a doubt, choose the Canon 24 – 70 f2.8L lens.
Buy the Canon 24 - 70 f2.8L lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.