Thinking about, Just what is a Great Lens for Portraiture

Model 1,   Danielle, 24-120lens at 105mm  Ms. Perault

This past week a friend of mine dropped off his lens for me to try. After talking about the lens’ quality, he added that it was a great lens for portraiture. Now there is a lingering question, “What is a great lens for portraiture?”

Although I hadn’t given his Tokina 50 -135mm a run through yet, I expected he was right regarding it being a good portrait lens.  On my cropped sensor camera the lens would have an effective focal length of approximately 75-202mm.

I mentioned this to another photographer, and he paused for a moment, and then said, “Oh, it acts like a 75-202”. I realized he had no idea what “focal length” meant and although I didn’t go into it at that moment, I’ll mention for those few readers that aren’t familiar with the long used photographic term. A lens’ focal length refers to the distance between the imaging plane, or the sensor, and the point where all light rays intersect inside the lens. A longer focal length leads to higher magnification (telephoto) with a narrower angle of view. A shorter focal length lens has less magnification and a wider angle of view.

The longer focal length, as in my friend’s 50 -135mm will have a pleasing effect on a subject because the minimally curved surface of the lens flattens the perspective between the eyes and ears. The wider the focal length is the more the front element (lens glass) is curved making the distance or perspective between the eyes and ears more visible.  A wide angle enlarges the nose and reduces the size of the ears.

Personally, I want as much focal length as I can get. The longer a lens is the better, and my choice then depends the ratio of length to weight, as in my big 70-200mm would be a perfect lens in the studio, but it’s weight becomes a liability when following a couple around at their wedding.

I have heard photographers say that the 50mm lens is a good portrait lens. Well, that’s 70mm on my cropped sensor camera, but still has too much curve in the front element for my comfort. An actual 70mm lens acts like a 105mm on my camera and that’s much nicer.

I can remember going to a Dean Collins’ workshop. I had worked hard to get an invite to one of his limited participant sessions. Collins demonstrated his shooting techniques on both a medium format (2 ¼ in film) and 35mm cameras. He used a 350mm on the medium format, and 300mm on the 35mm, and with the addition of a slide presentation he discussed how the longer lenses flattered the features of those he made portraits.

Information on Dean Collins can be found at:

A three hundred millimeter lens is spectacular to use for portraits and I think there are lots of fashion photographers that might be using 300mm and longer lenses, but I have to use a tripod or at least a monopod when using longer than 200mm or I have camera shake, so I defer to a lens that is much easier with which to move around. I have used that 50-135mm for some staff portraits I made for a local business and I must say it was fun to use; most of my shots were at 105mm and longer.

I recently read a post by a photographer who stated that only lenses with an aperture of f2.8 or wider were good for portraits, and his reasoning is because the background should always be out of focus.  I don’t really agree with that. A wide aperture just means one can reduce the depth of field. To me it depends on how far away, or how busy the background is, and I know how to control depth of field when required. The length of the lens, and how it affects my subject, is much more important.

A longer focal length, or telephoto lens reduces the effect of lens distortion and helps keep facial features in proportion. The longer lens also creates a more shallow depth of field that helps one’s subject to stand out from the background. I think those photographers that regularly do portraiture all have their preferred lenses that they are comfortable using. Photography is a creative medium and the final answer as to what is the best is up to the photographer and, of course, whether or not the subject is happy with the result.

I always appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

Don’t Miss Photographic Opportunities

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Eagle Horses in fieldFalkland backroad

As my wife and I were rushing on a two hour drive to an appointment in Kelowna, British Columbia for which we couldn’t be late, we both lamented on the photographs we were missing – a heard of deer along the road, some coyotes hunting in an open field, eagles, a farmers field turned into a lake because of the spring run-off, and the sun glowing on white lakeside cliffs we were passing.

Linda reminded me of a long trip to Utah we made some years ago. Our route was to head east to Calgary, Alberta then turn south, follow the Missouri river as it snaked it’s way through canyons and gullies, and then head west to Salt Lake City.  We left later than we should and we were driving with as few stops as possible because I had promised my brother I would be at his house for a family event the next day. What a wonderfully scenic drive that was.  We kept realizing we should stop again and again, and we didn’t.  Linda said “We will never do that to ourselves again”, we need to leave lots of time, even days, to photograph subjects when we see them.

I think that many photographers have had the circumstance where the chance at a great photograph was missed because of the wrong lens or camera.  I remember a photograph of a moose in the hazy morning fog that I made with a little digicam because it was the only camera I had with me. At least I had a camera with me and I did get the shot, but the photo was lacking because of the limitations of the camera’s small sensor, the lack of a telephoto lens, and a tripod would have helped also. I spent time working on it in Photoshop, changing it to a black and white because I couldn’t correct the purple cast caused by the early morning’s low light on the camera’s tiny sensor.  I was able to make a passable 8×10 print, however, it lacked the quality I could have had by using a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens.

The Boy Scouts state, “Be prepared”, and I think that is a good idea for photographers. When film use was common, most serious photographers had more than one camera; one would be loaded with black and white film, the one with colour negative film, and sometimes one with colour slide film. Since digital imaging began many photographers now own only one camera, as colour, or black and white images can be manipulated in the computer.  I have my main camera, and can borrow my wife’s camera if I require a backup camera that uses the same lenses. My cameras get lots of use and I need to have a backup in case of equipment failure while I am working.

Sometimes I like the portability of a little digicam. I mainly use it for those subjects that are close to me and rarely use it for scenics. If I do, I prefer to use it with an old monopod that quietly languishes in the trunk of my car. It’s pretty beaten up, but it keeps my camera steady. Trying to take a scenic with arms extended and expecting a sharp image is asking too much of the technology.

These days it is easy to carry a camera around, and taking lots of pictures doesn’t cost anything except time, until one starts making prints.  As I began to write this article I thought about my father.  His chances of taking a good picture were pretty good because he was a prolific, dedicated photographer. As a contractor he worked all over the southwestern United States, and he usually had a beat-up, dirt-covered camera jammed under his pickup seat, or somewhere in his excavator, and he rarely missed an opportunity to photograph anything that interested him. The sheer volume of pictures he took outweighed the bad pictures. He mostly used slide film, and, as kids, my brothers and I looked forward to his evening slide shows. There were always lots of interesting (and sometimes unusual) photos and it was fun to view pictures that he hand-turned using our family’s old projector.

Like my father, photographers should be continually looking for photographic opportunities and always be prepared for them by having some kind of camera with us. And when we miss that photograph because the equipment we have is wrong, or because we aren’t using it correctly, we should at the very least learn from that so in the future we won’t have missed opportunities.

As always, I appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

Use the Right Tool to Copy Old Photos

Harvey & Violet Walch 2  Wedding Day

Using the wrong tool usually leads to unacceptable results in one way or another, for example, when a butter knife is substituted for a screwdriver.  That was what came to mind when I was asked if I could make quality copies of old photographs that a family wanted to use for a book of genealogy they planned on publishing. They required image files with enough quality for good enlargements, and usable for the intended family book.

They began by trying to copy several images using home scanners that worked great for documents, but only produced pictures that lacked detail. I suspect many of those originals photos were a bit over or under exposed in the beginning.  Some family members tried copying the old photographs with their little digicams, however, that resulted in bright white reflection spots from the flash that obscured features in their family photos. They decided to shoot from the side hoping to reduce the glare, but only got unusable foreshortened pictures; by that I mean the closest frame edge was large and distorted and the far frame edge was small.

They told me that even though their photographs had a bit better detail the results were still unacceptable.  That is what I mean by using the wrong tool. A camera with an on-camera flash will produce glare on reflective surfaces, and angled shots don’t make for good documentation of flat artwork because things close to the camera lens appear larger and those farther away become smaller, and while inexpensive document scanners are great for documents they rarely produce quality reproductions of photographs.  The result was they were having trouble all around.

The right tool for them would have been a camera attached to off-camera flashes, with the flashes set off side from the painting at a 45-degree angle. When I copy photographs I use two umbrellas to diffuse the flash, but one could get reasonable results by placing some translucent material in front of, or bouncing, the light from the flashes off large white cards.  In any case, the light needs to softly and broadly, not sharply, expose the old photograph’s surface.  The wonder of digital technology is how quickly one can review the image and retake the photo if needed. I also recommend taking several shots at different apertures.  For that, the right tool is a camera that one is able set to manual exposure.

When photographing oil paintings or other uneven reflective surfaces I prefer working with slightly under exposed image files.  That way I can bring the detail up using PhotoShop without loosing the highlights.

If the next question is, “What kind of camera?” my answer will be that it depends on what is the desired outcome.  If it is for, as in this case, faded old photographic prints for reproduction in a book, the image file needs to be large and for that I prefer a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, but for a small newspaper, or website image, a digicam that will accept an off-camera flash will do just fine.

If there isn’t access to an off-camera flash then wait for the opportunity to place the painting in “flat” daylight.  Today, as I write, I see out my window that it is cloudy and overcast, perfect for even, flat lighting. One could place the picture on any support that will allow tilting right, left, up, and down. Then as exposures are made and checked, the picture can be moved around until there is no reflection.

Two umbrellas allow me to balance the light. I lay the photographs flat and mount my camera on a copy stand that I have had for years, and use a small level to make sure the camera lens and the photographs are parallel. Then I make a test shot to check the exposure for reflection. My first and then finished image of one photo is posted ate the beginning of this article.

The final step for me is PhotoShop, which I use to color balance, then for cropping, contrast, and sharpening. I could purchase an expensive scanner, but I already have lots invested in a camera, and lenses that work perfectly well, and which I think may be faster to use.

I do appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

Another Enjoyable Event – Vancouver Camera Swap Meet

Swap 4 Swap 3Swap 2Swap 1

Another one of my favorite events, and one I look forward to attending every year: The Vancouver Camera Show and Swap Meet was held this past weekend at the Cameron Recreation Centre in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

This long-running show, put on by the Western Canada Photographic Historic Association, and organized by Siggi and Brigitte Rohde, has now reached it’s 37th year and makes the claim of being the largest (and maybe the best) in Canada with well over 1,000 people walking through the doors.

Speaking of walking through the door, participants that did walk into the large photographic-equipment-packed hall joined an amazing diversity of other photographers all looking for deals and eager to exchange information and ideas. In my opinion, there isn’t better way of spending a spring day than being surrounded by a vast array of cameras and photography equipment, all the while getting a chance to talk with other photographers.

My wife and I always make the three-hour drive from Kamloops the day before and lodge overnight so I am fresh for the early 7:30AM setup.  I enjoy the early morning scene and have come to expect an exciting buzz from other vendors who are busy setting up, talking, and buying as one sees lots of early deals before the show even begins. I walked to my table greeting people I have known for years, and organize my table quickly so I’d be ready for the swap meet’s early bird shoppers who pay a premium to shop exclusively starting at 9am.  This year there was a long line of early birds waiting at the door. That line extended all the way down the hall and stretched all the way out into the parking lot.

By the 10am regular admission I was almost out of breath from non-stop showing, demonstrating, explaining, and, of course, bargaining with photographers who were checking out what I had on my table.

Every year I go wondering what the latest trends are, or what is popular with photographers I will meet there. Last year I noted that I saw a change in the attendees in that long time sellers and attendees were absent and replaced by a much younger crowd. I could still repeat some of that this year, but my observation about the younger crowd was far from the truth this year. I’ll use the word “diversity” to describe the mixed bag of photographer types at this year’s Camera Show and Swap Meet. They were of every age, from folks using walkers for assistance, to young people accompanied by their patient parents. That included all kinds of lifestyles and interests, and specialties in photography, film, digital, past and present technology.  They all were excited, searching for some sweet deals that I am certain they got.

In my opinion, other than actually pointing a camera at some inspiring subject to make a picture, an occasion like the Vancouver Swap is the quintessential place of happiness to meet and exchange information with other photographers, and of course look at and check out the many kinds of photographic equipment that would not be so easily available anywhere else.  An interesting example would be my old friend, Hai from Calgary, who said he has become interested in taking 3D photographs and I viewed some of his 3D photos taken in the Vancouver area since he arrived.  I knew of the 3D technology, however, I had not had the opportunity to check out any of the new cameras, until his.

Overall, I had a great time talking with other photographers; the conversations were many and constantly changed depending on who joined me at my table. My day of selling was a success, as it was for most of the dealers I talked to at the end of the day.  And I even had some time to purchase a few things for myself, which is always nice.

As always, I appreciate any comments.

My website is at