Best lens for portraits?

By odedwagen | January, 25, 2014 | 7 comments

Best lens for portraits?

What is the best lens for portrait photography and is there such a thing as a “portrait photography lens?”

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With so much variety to choose from and with confusing concepts such as focal length, aperture and image stabilization to try to understand; no wonder many people are confused about deciding which lens to purchase to achieve high quality portrait photography. In this article I will go through some of the questions you can ask yourself that will help you to answer the big question:

What is the best lens for portrait photography?

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Question One: What is the comfortable distance I like to photograph people from?

After we have decided that we want to get ourselves a new portrait photography lens, we often tend to delve into technical terms such as aperture or lens chromatic distortions before we ask ourselves the most important question of all: What lens is right for me?

You should buy gear according to the photographer you are (or want to be) and not by which lens is the “best” on the review sites. Now, that we understood that we need to buy lenses based upon our style, let’s discuss different styles of a portrait photography work:

Some prefer to shoot portraits from a distance using the “hidden photographer technique” while others prefer to be close and connect with the subject. Each method has advantages and disadvantages.

If you are or wish to be a professional photographer who deals with family portraits, baby or wedding photography, there is no reason for shooting your subjects from a distance. Therefore, there is almost no reason for you to get a big, heavy and expensive telephoto lens. The same goes for those when doing travel photography love to approach and connect with their subjects. For this kind of photography, you might want to focus on simple prime* lenses, such a 24mm, 35mm or 50mm. alternatively, you can choose a wide focal length zoom lens such as a 24-70 (for full frame) or a 17-55mm (for crop factor), both are marvelous lenses!

*Prime refer to a fixed lens in which you cannot change the focal length (i.e., you cannot zoom in or out).

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On the other hand, you may prefer to shoot people from a distance for a variety of reasons, such not wanting people to be aware of the camera or being uncomfortable at the thought of approaching strangers. In this case, it is better for you to get a long telephoto lens. You can choose between a prime lens, such as a 85mm or 100mm or go for a zoom lens such as a 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 18-135 or 24-105mm.

Creative exercise: Get out of your comfort zone

The first lens I had when I started my photography hobby was an old fixed 28mm film lens my brother gave me. I didn’t have the money to buy a better, longer telephoto lens. So, over time, I taught myself how to work with what I had and at the same time learned how to photograph people from a close distance. The ability to shoot people up close eventually became my style and today I almost never use a telephoto lens for my portrait photography. So if you have a preference for shooting with telephoto zooms, try shooting with a 35mm prime for an entire week to expand your photographic horizons.

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Question Two: What kind of portraits would I like to create?

In order to create a good portrait, let’s start by understanding what a portrait is:

“A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person,[...] The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.” -Wikipedia.

This sort of “dry” definition is our answer to what a good portrait needs to be- A good portrait must tell a story: the story about the person in the image and you can tell a story in many different ways:

When we usually think about a portrait, we think about the “classic portrait“: close up of the face, from the chest up, as artists used to draw kings and dukes, or as the great National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry shot the world famous Afghan girl image. You can read the interview I did with Mr. McCurry on his approach to portrait photography here.

In any case, this is not the only way to tell a person’s story. For example, you can shoot an “environmental portrait” that captures the person and his environment. This method is one of my favorite. Not only does it manage to tell the person’s story, but it also tells the story of the place and the culture in which he lives.

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Another option is the “Details Portrait” in which you tell a story by highlighting a specific element of the person. You can read more about the detail shot here.

So, in terms of choosing the right lens for portraits, a prime (fixed) 50mm lens is the traditional choice for creating a classic portrait, but it will probably won’t do the job for environmental portraits as it is not wide enough to allow you to capture the environment around the person. Therefore, you can use a wide zoom lens, such as 35mm or 24mm.

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Question Three: What about aperture?

Without going into too much technical detail, the aperture in the lens affects two major elements regarding portraiture photography:

  • 1) The amount of light entering through the lens.
  • 2) The ability to create a shallow depth of field, which can be seen as the ability to blur the background (behind the subject) and the foreground (before the subject).

Therefore, if you choose to buy a lens with a wide or large aperture (small f number) you will be able to:

  • >A) Work in lower light conditions.
  • >B) Create a shallow depth of field, which for portraits is usually recommended as we want to lead our viewer’s eyes right into the sharp eyes of our subject.

So is it worth to spend an extra $2,000 to buy a lens with aperture of 1.2 instead of 1.4? No one knows besides you. If you know you need or love to work in low light conditions, such as in: night photography, weding photography, etc., another stop of aperture actually means double the light entering the camera. But if you are shooting portraits mainly outside when there is enough light, you don’t really need an expensive lens due to the low F number.

Note regarding using low F number (large aperture) in portrait photography:

We all love that shallow depth of field in the background that makes the eyes of our subject look really sharp. But, it is important to note that when shooting with large aperture, even from F 3.2 or lower, focus might be tricky. Meaning that you might get the focus on the eyebrow instead of the eyes, because the larger the aperture (low f number) the shallower the depth of field, meaning that less is in focus.


Question Four: How much do I want to carry?

Weight is something people rarely consider when choosing a new lens. The weight of the lens is crucial, especially if you intend to use it for travel photography. You should choose the lens which is easy for you to carry all day long, as I know from many people that their heavy and cumbersome gear actually makes them to go out and shoot less, which is exactly the opposite of what we want.

For example, a 70-200mm lens may be amazing for studio portrait photography or fashion portraits, but less so for travel and street portraits. If you are thinking about taking a small and light lens on your travels, you may want to take a prime lens, such as a 24 mm, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm.

There are so many other considerations to take into account when buying a lens such as chromatic aberrations, perspective, image stabilization and more. In order to keep it simple I focused on the things that might not come immediately to mind when buying a new lens for portrait or travel photography.

The most important thing to take away is to fit your new lens to yourself, to your photography style and to your financial situation. And don’t forget with whatever lens you choose it’s not the end of the world. In the very near future you will most likely want a new lens and will be able to choose again…so everything will be fine.

So to answer the question, what is the best lens for portrait photography, it is what suits you, your style, and financial situation the best after asking yourself questions like the examples I’ve given. And is there such a thing as a “portrait photography lens? Well yes, it’s the lens that you can take the best portraits with!”

You can read more about my Portrait photography in my eBOOK: The Visual StoryTeller, 78-pages about creating stronger stories in your images.


ODED WAGENSTEIN

I would like the Assistant Editor for this article- Mr. Nicholas Orloff.

שלכם, עודד וגנשטיין

7 Responses to Best lens for portraits?

  • ilana malchi

    dear oded

    i like your work very much

    good luck

    ilana malchi

  • Schuler Béatrice (Focus)

    Thank you for your interesting articles and sharing your experience. For the last 3 years, I’v been used mostly my 50mm prime lense, I love it. Sometimes it is too short in small places to “catch” a portrait in his environment…

    For low light shooting, my lenses have a hard time to focus. So, I’ve been thinking to invest into a flash trigger to help me focus in low light situation. What do you think? and how do you do yourself?

    Thank you!

    • odedwagen

      Hi Schuler.
      Thank you for your question.

      The reason your lens can not focus is simple. The camera needs contrast in order to get the right focus. Without light, there is no contrast and the lens continues to “search” the subject without success.
      I’m not sure that buying a flash will give you what you’re looking for as I’m not sure that flash will fit to a non-staged portrait photography outside the studio.
      For me, I think it’s most important to invest in a fast lens= with a large aperture, that will allow sufficient amount of light into the lens.

      Oded

      Oded

  • Francisco Granadeiro

    Your article is what we call in portuguese “pick the bull by the horns”. You dismounted all the myths about lenses, not only portrait lenses. Vey interesting

    Another point I would like to ask you, is what software do you use on the ISO 1.000 portraits in order to have no noise, as it happens in some the portraits on this page

    • odedwagen

      Dear Francisco,
      Thank you and I’m glad you found this article useful.

      To your question- you are right, there are some tools for noise redocation in software like Photoshop but in this case, it is just the camera which handle the high ISO pretty nice.
      Oded

    • odedwagen

      By the way we have the same call in hebrew as well :)

  • Kaynat

    Hi Oded,

    very useful article.Thanks for sharing your experience with us.I’m a big fan of your work.I use 50 MM for portrait photography.But many times I struggle with the focus point as U said”Meaning that you might get the focus on the eyebrow instead of the eyes,” share some tips to achieve correct focus.

    Love

    Kaynat

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