Ask any professional or intermediate-level photographer about taking the best portraits and you will be told that good portraiture starts with choosing the right lens. So, which is it?
Photographers agree that technically, lenses for portraiture do not fall under a specific category (i.e. portrait lenses), but they also say that there are desirable “conditions” that make a lens suitable for the job:
- Focal length within the range of 80 – 135mm for 35mm format and around 150 – 400mm for large format;
- Wide apertures/smaller f-numbers (fast lens) allow shallow depth of field that blurs the background and isolates the subject from the surroundings, and also creates beautiful bokeh; at least f/2 for 35mm film;
- Fixed focal length (prime lens), which means the lens only has one focal length, as opposed to zoom lens, which has variable focal length. This is because posed shots do not require zoom, which actually creates an unflattering barrel distortion.
All of these characteristics, they also note, were derived from the first dedicated “portrait lens” developed in 1840 by Joseph Petzval, which had a focal length of 150mm, relatively narrow field of view of 30 degrees, and a fast f-number (within the f/3.3 to 3.7 aperture range). This most likely explains why photographers back then were taking pretty impressive portraits quite effortlessly!
Putting these “ideals” into consideration, we can deduce that lenses with wide apertures, close to 80 – 85mm focal length, and shallow depth of field for bokeh are the standard qualities that you should look for when choosing a lens for portrait work.
However, all lenses can be used to take portraits, and it all depends on the kind of “look” that you want to achieve. It’s not at all uncommon for you to hear fellow photographers saying that normal lenses — those that reproduce a field of view that is essentially what the human eye naturally sees — are great for portraits. Or, that zoom lenses can also take good portraits, especially when you have to be far from your subject (paparazzi mode, anyone?). Alternatively, fisheye and wide angle lenses create unique or wacky portraits, as all of us here in the community are familiar with!
Now, why don’t we try something different and start a discussion? I have randomly selected 10 impressive portraits from the community in the gallery below. If you took the photo, can you tell us what lens you used to take your portrait, and why do you think it was a good choice? Please leave a comment below!