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: http://strobist.blogspot.ca/2006/08/review-best-of-dean-collins-on.html

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 www.enmanscamera.com

6 responses to “Thinking about, Just what is a Great Lens for Portraiture

  1. I don’t totally understand why my lenses work, but I do know when and how to use them, if that makes any difference. I am not that technical, but for me the perfect portrait lens is a 24 to 70. That is my lens of choice, the problem with one with a telephoto of say 300mm, you are limited with what you can take or you have to go back too far to fit them in. But that is just my opinion.

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    • I agree when you say, “I do know when and how to use them” Leanne. I think thats what really matters. And certainly you are correct, those long lenses are restricting in some environments.
      Like you, my go-to-lens for most portraits is my 24-70mm. Although,that is on my 3/4 sensor camera – the day I move to a full frame that focal length will be to short for what I like.
      In the studio I use my 70-200mm works fine. (actually it crops to 105-300 on my 3/4 sensor)

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