Optic Matters: Choosing Lenses for Portraiture

2013-07-17 6

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?

Normal lenses, which many photographers prefer for portraiture because they recreate what the human eye naturally sees. Photo via Wikipedia

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.

A handful of portraits I took using my Nikon FE2 with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

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!

Credits: jandra, a_lion, marcus_loves_film, sakanikov, berndtotto, lemoni & gregoriobruning

All information for this article were sourced from Portrait photography on Wikipedia, Ken Rockwell, and Photography on Stack Exchange.

written by plasticpopsicle on 2013-07-17 #gear #tutorials #lens #tipster #lomography #portraiture #optics #portrait-photography #portrait-lenses


  1. plasticpopsicle
    plasticpopsicle ·

    Hello @mpdieckmann, @jandra, @laurasulilly, @a_lion, @marcus_loves_film, @sakanikov, @berndtotto, @lemoni, and @gregoriobruning! Can you tell us what lens you used to take your portraits shown above, and why do you think it was a good choice?

  2. mpdieckmann
    mpdieckmann ·

    the lomography motto "don't think, shoot" does not really work with a huge camera like the Mamiya RZ67. here I have used the camera with a waistlevel finder and the Mamiya Sekor Z 2,8 /110 mm at f4,0. since the RZ67 in this combination doesn't have a light meter, the exposure must be determined separately. so you have to plan a bit. the combination of medium format, normal focal length and large aperture lens gives the desired bokeh and shallow depth of field. hence this centers this picture by the means of selevtive sharpness. for my liking i achieved this in the above portrait.

  3. gregoriobruning
    gregoriobruning ·

    @plasticpopsicle, In this case i used the SMC Takumar 50mm f1.4, the lens that came originally with the Pentax Spotmatic. This is a great lens, my favorite for all my photographs, iincluding portraits. Although is not very common to use a 50mm lens for portraits, the Takumar doesn´t have any distortion, gives a beautiful bokeh and a kind of intimity that i seek when shooting people, because you have to get very close. Great article!

  4. jandra
    jandra ·

    first of all I'm sorry for my english and thank you for use my pictures.
    Then I have to say that I use the 18-55mm lens. This lens came with the camera when I bought it in 2001. Is perfect to take portraits using the focus lenght, you don't need to be close to the subject and it's esay to carry on. I have also a tele, 85-300, but I prefer this one.
    And nothing else, off course I always say "think twice and shoot once". The film is too expensive =)

  5. marcus_loves_film
    marcus_loves_film ·

    @plasticpopsicle My picture of my friend www.lomography.com/photos/18617751 was shot with a 150mm f4.0 lens on a Bronica SQ-A camera. (The 35mm equivalent of this is about 85mm). I used this medium telephoto lens over a standard lens because it (1) throws the background out of focus, (2) doesn't distort the geometry of the subject's face. and (3) you can get nice close up head and shoulder portraits from about 2 meters.

  6. sakanikov
    sakanikov ·

    @plasticpopsicle, in this photo, I used the Russian lens "Helios-44M-4" (58mm f2.0) with Zenit 11, Fujifilm Neopan 400 PRESTO 35mm. I think, this lens is not so fine like lenses of Canon, Nikon. Russian lenses have a character like we have. My Helios seems to be capricious. :)) So I left to my Helios, and then in this case it just turned out like that. Because of the soft dark light in the cafe, I shot at f 2.0. That's why this picture looks dreamy. Thank you for choosing my lomography!!!

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