Read any tutorial on portrait photography or article on portrait photography and, I guarantee, that all of them will mention a “fast lens” is required. I agree that a fast lens, i.e. one with a wide maximum aperture will make life easier but it is not essential to get professional looking portrait photos. That’s right, “You can take professional looking portrait photos without using a fast lens”.
Lenses with maximum wide apertures of anything less than f2 are usually considered fast, and this includes the popular cheap and cheerful f1.8 lenses, mid-price f1.4 lenses and stupidly expensive f1.2 lenses. You do not need to shoot at apertures as wide as these to get professional looking portraits, and shooting at such wide apertures can sometimes create more problems to solve.
If you want to capture professional looking portraits apertures of f5.6 – f11 are just as useful, in the right circumstances of course, and it is worth remembering that the sweet spot of most lenses (i.e. the aperture where the image quality is at its best) is usually around f8 – f11 in most instances.
If you want to capture professional looking portraits, and don’t have a fast lens, the following tips will help you capture the type of shots I am sure you are striving to get…….
Focus on the eyes
The eyes are the gateway to the soul and as such you need to make sure they are sharp. A photo where the model’s eyes are soft doesn’t work. You need to make sure there is always a focus point over the model’s eyes (to make sure they are as sharp as they can be) before pressing the shutter button.
Learn to pose the model
The way the model is standing or posing can make or break the portrait, so it is something you need to consider. Even if you are taking head shots you need to consider the angle of the model’s head and shoulders as well as the model’s facial expressions. There are plenty of books on posing, as well as internet resources and I would recommend learning about posing in order to get professional portrait shots.
Shoot in burst mode
Burst mode is usually used for moving subjects however it is very useful when taking portrait shots. The slightest change in body position or facial expression can turn a good photo in to a great one, and if you shoot in burst mode you have a good chance of capitalizing on this. Shooting in burst mode obviously requires more memory and power so you need to make sure you have a good supply of memory cards and also a spare battery or two, otherwise the shoot is likely to end sooner rather than later.
Shooting in burst mode results in more photos to sift through and edit, which you need to consider. This extra work is a bit of a faff but the additional effort is worth it when you capture those awesome portrait shots.
Consider using props
Using the “right” props can enhance a portrait but using an inappropriate prop can look cheap and tacky. The trick is to use the right prop for the right situation, which is usually easier said than done. Think carefully before using props and you’ll be fine.
When you shoot indoors you have total control over the light, the background and what’s going on behind the model. With this in mind it is easy to see how you can get professional looking portraits with any decent lens, regardless of whether it is fast or slow.
Consider the background
If you are shooting the portrait outside you need to consider the background and make sure it isn’t distracting and likely draw the eye away from the model. When you look through the viewfinder if there is something in the background, or something about the background that catches your attention and makes you look at that instead of the model, a viewer will do the same. If this is the case you need to use a plain photography background (which requires more equipment) or move the model and change the background that way.
Pull the model away from the background
Fast lenses minimizes the depth of field and throws the background out of focus whereas slower lenses don’t. To throw the back ground out of focus using slower lenses you need to increase the model to background distance, and you do this by pulling the model away from the background and closer to the camera.
Increasing the model to background distance allows you to shoot at narrower apertures and still intentionally throw the background out of focus.
“SLOW” LENSES I USE FOR PORTRAIT PHOTOGRPAPHY
"The Canon 35mm f2 IS lens is the first 'slow' lens I use for portraits"
One of my favorite lenses for portraits is the Canon 35mm f2 IS lens. With a maximum aperture of f2 it is on the “faster side of slow”, if you get what I mean. This lens is faster than one of the lenses I use for portrait photography (see below) but it’s not fast by any stretch of the imagination.
This lens is tough and durable, although it isn’t bombproof like the L series lenses are. Given this is a mid-priced lens is it’s not unreasonable the build quality isn’t as tough as the red ring lenses. That said, I have owned this lens for several months now and have had no issues at all over the build quality.
The image quality of this lens is superb, and on par with my L series lenses. Images are crisp, clear, bight and vibrant. There is center to edge sharpness throughout, and the bokeh at wider apertures is smooth and creamy. Given the cost of this lens the image quality is awesome and exceeded my expectations in every way.
This lens has image stabilization technology which is very useful for getting sharp shots throughout the day until the sunsets. The 35mm focal length is great for portraits and means that I have to get up close to the models to get engaging shots.
A second hand or used 35mm f2 IS lens will save you a load of money which is great news if you are on a budget. For the biggest choice in used lenses, and hence the best deals I would suggest eBay as the go to site. If you want to check out the current Canon 35mm f2 IS lens deals on eBay use the search box below.
What are you waiting for? Go get yourself a bargain 35mm f2 IS lens
"The Canon 16mm - 35mm f4L IS is the second 'slow' lens I use for portraits"
Another lens I use for portrait photography is the Canon 16mm – 35mm f4L IS lens, and this is definitely a slow lens. I use the 16mm – 35mm for taking group portrait shots, and this lens has saved me several times since I bought it.
Being an L series lens the build quality of this lens is second to none. It is made from the best materials which means it is tough, durable and well made. This lens is bulletproof and one tough nut to crack. This lens is made using the best optics and glass and the image quality is absolutely superb. I guarantee you will not be disappointed with the quality of the images you can get with this lens.
This lens has 4 stop image stabilisation which makes sharp hand held shots possible as the light starts to fade.
With a constant f4 aperture this lens isn’t fast, and you do need to consider the background (and all the other issues identified earlier in this article) to get great portraits.
Buy the Canon 16mm – 35mm f4L IS lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens).
Alternatively, you may want to save yourself a wedge of cash and invest in a second hand or used lens. If you want to go down this route and buy a used lens the go to site is eBay, and there is always a large selection at good prices too. If you want to see what 16 – 35 f4L IS lenses are currently available on eBay use the search box below.
Go over and find yourself a bargain.
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.