Originally Posted on the blog over at Robert’s Camera’s Blog.
Welcome to part 2 of a three part installment in what my favorite lenses for portraits are. Just in time for the the soon to be changing leaves for fall, when I know you’ll want to make some beautiful portrait images. (You can find Part 1 about lenses for Sports HERE). You may not have all, or any of the lenses I talk about in this series of blogs, but this will also help you add to your bag when you are ready to either get started, or make that jump to the good stuff. Lets get started yes?
OK, so there are lots of variables for portrait photography to consider when getting started in lens selections and there are links to ALL of the lenses listed in this blog at the bottom of the post. Do you need a specific lens, or kind of lens to shoot portraits? Simple answer is no. The more complicated answer is that if you’re looking for a specific effect, then yes. First lets get started with Depth of field. As I tell workshop attendees, or students in general Depth of field in a photo is created by three factors. Focal Length, Aperture, and distance from the camera. When shooting in a studio on bright white, none of the information about these lenses means as much. I don’t shoot with a 85F1.4 in the studio to shoot bright white because that’s shot usually at F10 or higher, which honestly I can shoot at any lens that has an 85mm Focal length. When on location though, or looking for a certain effect that means that just about any lens can be used as a portrait lens depending on what you need out of it. In fact, this shot here was shot using a 400mm F2.8.
(Nikon D4s, 80ISO, Nikon 400mmF2.8VR, 1/250th@F3.5. Paul C Buff Einstein set to 1/32nd power above Ashley shot through a 47″ Octabox. Paul C Buff Einstein unit bare bulb behind the background set to 1/16th to give a little bit of an outline. Both Einsteins fired by PockeT Wizard Plus X Units from another in the Camera hot shoe).
The 400mm lens compressed the background so that even though she was only a few feet from the background it’s nice and out of focus, along with her taped hands. The shot was really focusing on her face/eyes and I couldn’t get that with anything other than the 400mm (trust me I tried other things). If you are wondering about long lens compression, check out this example using a cat! Compression and depth of field are only two factors in choosing a lens for a portrait though. Shooting in a Studio is different than shooting for effect. As I mentioned above, shooting on bright white you can use just about any lens, at any focal length because you are generally shooting at F8 or F10. The lenses in question here are going to be more specialty, but for depth of field purposes and not low light purposes. Generally folks think of low light when they think of a 50mm F1.4 or F1.2 lens, but today I want you to think Depth of Field and backgrounds. When I want to shoot a portrait, I have a few go to specialty lenses in my bag. I have a Nikon 24F1.4, a Nikon 50mm F1.4, and a Nikon 85mm F1.4D lens. Normal lenses in my bag for studio portraits include a Nikon 24-70F2.8G, and a Nikon 70-200F2.8VR2. Quite the collection, I know. (you can actually see ALL of the gear that I own and use on my Gear Page). It took years to get them all, and there is still one lens I would love to add to that list that I haven’t yet, but I’ll get there. Each of those lenses has their own purpose, not to be abused. They aren’t the only lens options either, but I’ll get to that.
(Nikon D4, 400ISO, Nikon 70-200F2.8VR2@115mm, 1/100th@F2.8. Nikon SB900 in the Rogue XL Pro Lighting kit set to Strip softbox mode above to the right of our Nurse of the Year set to iTTL, and a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight zoomed to 105 set to fire via SU-4 Dummy slave set at 1/8th Power shot into the flags. The SB900 was controlled by a SU800 Speedlight commander on the Cameras Hot Shoe.)
In the sports blog I mentioned using a 70-200mm and it can be used for quite a bit more than just sports. It’s a great range for portraits as well especially at F2.8. I own a Nikon 70-200F2.8VR2, but there are lots of options out there in the land of the 70-200. Obviously Canon has it’s Equivalent 70-200F2.8IS2, but Sigma and Tamron also have their hats in the ring with their 70-200’s. Over the last two years I’ve been incredibly impressed with Sigma’s build and image quality and when I teach I recommend Sigma when someone may not be ready to spend the big bucks on the Nikon or Canon equivalent. The point is that the 70-200 is a major staple of any photographer’s bag, and if you don’t have one then you should start there. This is why so many companies make them. This is why a Nikon 80-200F2.8 was the first big boy Pro lens I ever bought. In fact when I sold it to buy the next one, I even got as much as I paid for it. Just like for Sports, the 70-200 is great for portraits with a wide open aperture. I prefer Nikon, but whether you like Canon Sigma or Tamron check here!
(Nikon D3s, 500ISO, Nikon 50mmF1.4, 1/100th@F1.4. Nikon SB900 set to iTTL shot through a 32″ umbrella held over the models head triggered by a Pocket Wizard TT1 in the camera hot shoe, which also triggered two Dynalite 400UniJR units set to full power in the barn in the background attached to a Pocket Wizard TT5 each).
SO you have a 70-200, or you are looking for something a little more specialized but not wanting to break the bank. Then you should look into what I think EVERY photographer should own. The 50mm Prime. It’s considered a “normal” lens, and it’s a pretty standard focal length. Great for street photography, great for walking around. Anyway, you don’t buy a prime lens to shoot it at F10. No, you buy a 50mm F1.8 or F1.4 to shoot at F1.8 or F1.4. You know, the place where all other lenses can’t go? Yea. Exactly. The 50mm Can run you anywhere between $75 for a used 50mm F1.8 (in Canon OR Nikon) Or you can get the F1.4 version for a few hundred. (Nikon’s is $400 refurbished and Canon’s F1.4 is about the same.) Beyond the $400 version, the wizards at Nikon, Canon and otherwise have masterminded even better 50mm (or equivalent) lenses for public and professional Consumption. Canon makes a 50mm F1.2 lens, and Nikon makes a 58mm F1.4 lens. These lenses are supposed to be the Cream of the crop in terms of 50mm Primes. At $1600 and $1700 respectively they aren’t for the feint of heart or wallet. This is probably a good time to mention the alternatives to the Canon and Nikon lenses. Until Recently a 50mm lens was a tough thing to mess up. Sigma has proven that 50mm lenses should all be the mecca of quality considering as a lens they have been around a very long time. To prove it, they have released their 50mm F1.4 Art lens to compete with the Canon and Nikon super high end equivalents. I recently reviewed this lens for Roberts (you can read that review HERE). I love my Nikon 50mm F1.4, but Sigma has knocked it out of the park. If you’ve got the money go for the Sigma 50mm F1.4 Art lens on this one. Otherwise, 50mm F1.8’s are cheap and awesome!
(Nikon D3s, 200ISO, Nikon 85mmF1.4D, 1/4000th@F2. Nikon SB900 Speedlight with a SD-9A Battery pack shot through a 32″ umbrella held by Tom above the subject to camera right zoomed to 105mm set to iTTL +1.7EV fired by Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 unit triggered by a Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 Unit on the camera with an SU-800 in the hot Shoe.)
Why shoot at F1.4? Well it provides a very silky smooth bokeh (out of focus portion of the image) that you can’t get with any other lens. That’s why a 24-70mm at 50mm F2.8 will give you the same viewing angle, but not the same depth of field. The wide open aperture is what these prime lenses are all about. If you’re really looking for an even creamier wide open F1.4 though, you should look for the 85mm F1.4 lens like seen above. The 85mm F1.4 lens is a staple in the portrait photography world because of the incredible depth of field it provides wide open. It will provide such a shallow depth of field that when focused on someone’s eye, their nose will be out of focus in the image. The important part is the background though. Totally gone. Beautiful out of focus portions. It really draws your subject out of the background, and puts them at attention in your frame. The 85mm is expensive, but when it comes to portrait lenses, this really is the big one. Nikon and Canon both make a 85mm F1.8 and F1.4. Canon actually makes a 85mm F1.2 instead of a F1.4, and you pay a premium for it. Both Canon and Nikon’s 85mm F1.8 can be had for $4-$500 and they are beautiful copies of the lens. I actually own an older Nikon 85mm F1.4D which you can still buy for about $900. The Brand new Nikon version will set you back around $1700, but the Canon 85mm F1.2 will set you back almost $2200! Sigma also has a 85mm F1.4 lens, but it’s not of the newer Art lens variety. I’ve heard good things, but I’ve got my money waiting on their 85mm F1.4 Art lens when it’s time. The Canon or Nikon 85mm F1.4 lens is kind of a stretch in cost for a lot of folks but there are few better portrait lenses that I’ve the same depth of field. I love my F1.4, but there can be some awesome deals on 85mm F1.8 lenses out there. If you’re getting an 85 for the first time, look at the 85mm F1.8 lenses first and you might just save a ton!
(Canon 5D Mark II, 100ISO, Sigma 35mm F1.4, 1/200th@F1.4. Photogenic light shot through a 36″x36″ softbox set to minimum power pointed mostly towards the background to help diffuse the light enough to use such a wide aperture)
Ok, so not just longer lenses have fast apertures. What if you want that shallow depth of field at a wide angle? Nikon and Canon have taken care of you there too with their 24mm and 35mm F1.4 lenses. I personally prefer the Sigma 35mmF1.4 lens over the Canon and Nikon because again you get 97% of the performance of the Nikon or Canon Counterpart for 50% of the price. I said the same thing when I reviewed the Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art lens a few years ago. Nikon and canon also have 24mm F1.4 lenses, which are a lot more specialty than they are necessary, but I own one and I love it. When shooting a portrait, I regularly find a shot where I can use the nice wide angle and shallow depth of field created by these lenses. Absolutely beautiful. When it comes to the wider fast primes, I again have to say the Sigma 35mm F1.4 is by far my first choice for the 35mm version, but the Nikon 24mm F1.4 is my first for the wider because Sigma doesn’t make one of those (yet). Again, if you’re just getting into it definitely check out the F1.8 lenses too because they as usual can save you a ton if you aren’t sure if it’s for you! That said I’ve also heard incredible things about the Sigma 18-35F1.8 zoom lens. A F1.8 zoom lens? Yea, not a typo. I haven’t actually seen one, but I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about it.
(Nikon D4s, 50ISO, Nikon 24F1.4N, 1/250th@F1.4. Paul C. Buff Einstein set to 1/32nd power shot through a 47″ Paul Buff Octabox overhead held by a C Stand. Einstein triggered via Pocket Wizard Plus X unit via a Pocket Wizard X unit in the cameras Hot shoe.)
So there you have it. That’s a quick rundown of the lenses that I love for Portraiture in no particular order. yes there are Lots of lenses out there that can be used for portraits, but the Fast Aperture Primes are usually the best. A friend of mine absolutely loves his 100mmF2.8 Macro for portraits. While I don’t own a 100mm F2.8 Macro personally, I can attest that the shots he’s gotten out of it for Portraits have been wonderful. They keys are to shoot at a shallow depth of field in enough light, and your portraits will be much more pleasing. Nikon has really started filling out it’s lineup with a lot of F1.8 lenses which cost significantly less than their F1.4 counterparts. If I didn’t own a large portion of the F1.4 counterparts already, I’d probably own the F1.8 versions due to cost. They create exceptional images, and are a truly valuable piece of gear in anybody’s bag. Hopefully that helps narrow it down.
Remember, what’s the effect you are looking to achieve? What’s the angle of view you want? Those two things will determine what portrait lens is right for you, and your shots! The shot above was much much more than a bit of fast glass, but none of it photoshop. If you’re looking for something more like what’s above than you’ll just have to stay tuned, because that’s a whole other story for a whole other day. More Soon.