A fast lens, i.e. one with a wide maximum aperture, is generally favored by portrait photographers because it enables the photographer to intentional throw the background out of focus and blur it out. The lens I typically use for portraits is the Canon 35mm F2 IS lens, and whilst it may not be as wide (or expensive) as the Canon 35mm F1.4 or the Sigma 35mm F1.4 ART, it is plenty wide enough for my style of portrait photography. The 35mm F2 IS isn’t a cheap lens, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just not as expensive as the 35mm F1.4 lens.
Even though most portrait photographers use wide lenses for portrait photography it is possible to capture decent professional looking portraits with a slower lens, and one with a narrower aperture.
If your lens doesn’t have a wide aperture, and by wide I mean anything of F2.5 or wider, it is still possible to take portrait shots where the subject is tack sharp and the background nicely blurred out and non-distracting.
The easiest way of getting a non-distracting background is to use a specific photography background and place the subject in front of it. You can use any aperture when taking portrait shots of a subject in front of a plain background as there are no distracting elements to blur out. So, using a plain photography background it doesn’t matter whether you shoot at F5.6 or F16 the result will be the same.
Plain photography backgrounds can look clinical and a little sterile, which is fine if that is the look you are after. There are situations when taking a photo of a model in front of a plain background is the desired effect. Think of school portraits, corporate portraits and fashion shots – all these scenarios typically involve a person (or persons) stood in front of a plain background.
The problem arises when you want to, or more likely have to include a natural background in the final portrait shots. In these circumstances you will have to use the widest aperture your lens has (remember we are talking about slower lenses here) in a bid to try and reduce the depth of field as much as possible to render the model nice and sharp and the background intentionally blurred out. When using a narrower aperture than is ideal for portrait photography you need to increase the distance from the model to the background to try and push the background elements far enough away to blur them out. Let’s put this in to context with an example….
Suppose you are photographing a model outside at the beach. In the background is the sea (obviously), some breakers and a small rock formation. If you put the model at the water’s edge just in front of the breakers and the rock formation you will not get the narrow depth of field you need to blur the water, breakers and rocks and they are likely to take the focus from the model, which is not what we want.
In order to get a depth of field sufficient to intentionally throw the water, breakers and rocks out of focus you need to pull the model further forward and away from the background. The amount of separation depends on the widest aperture you have available and also the effect you want to create. The trick is to create just enough distance so the background is nicely blurred out but still close enough in the scene to be a part of it.
So, if you don’t have a lens with a wide aperture and need to take some portraits don’t fret as you can still capture professional looking portraits. If you can get away with using a plain photography background – use one, and everything will be golden regardless of the aperture you decide to shoot with.
If you have to include a natural background you need to open you lens as far as it will go and then create as much separation as necessary to get the background nicely out of focus but still a part of the scene.
If you want to improve your portraits below are some links to other portrait photography related articles and tutorials you may find interesting/useful:-
"Basic portrait tips” is an article full of basic portrait photography tips that will get you started in the world of portrait photography.
“Advanced portrait tips” is an article with more advanced portrait tips and tricks to take your portrait photography to the next level.
“Portrait photography on a budget” is an article that proves you don’t need to spend a fortune on photography equipment to capture awesome portrait photos.
"Portrait lighting" is an article full of portrait lighting tips and tricks that will help you nail your portrait lighting.
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.