Portraiture

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In the right hands, almost any lens—including a fisheye lens—can be used for portraiture. Wide angle, normal, even super-telephoto lenses can be used successfully for portrait work. But if you had to narrow them down to select an optimal focal length for shooting portraits, it would have to be a lens in the range of 85 to 105mm.


And this holds true for full-frame, APS-C and FourThird format digital cameras, regardless of what the "equivalency" factors indicate.

Back in the day, if you were shooting a portrait with a 35mm camera you'd reach for your "portrait lens," which depending on your personal preference, was somewhere in the 85mm to 105mm range. What makes this focal range so attractive is that tight, head-and-shoulder portraits captured with lenses in the 85 to 105mm range produce the best measure of compression when it comes to pleasingly replicating facial features photographically.

Sure, you could shoot wonderful portraits with a 50mm, 28mm, or for that matter a 300mm lens, but for lenses wider than 85mm you always ran the risk of exaggerating protruding noses and similarly unflattering distortions. Unless you're shooting in a meadow, an extra spacious studio or a bowling alley, there are often limits as to the matter of how far you can back up in order to fill the frame properly.

Along with the advent of smaller-format APS-C and FourThird digital cameras has come a rethinking of how we choose the focal lengths of the lenses we shoot with, much of which is driven by the very same folks who manufacture these compact wonders. And while they are correct in stating a 50mm lens on an APS-C format DSLR renders the same field of view as a 75mm lens (or 80mm lens on a Canon DSLR and a 100mm lens on a FourThirds DSLR), compression-wise, a 50mm remains a 50mm lens. In other words, your 50mm lens is cropped tighter, but it's still not the best choice of lens for photographing someone with a bulbous proboscis.

If however, you use an 85mm to 105mm lens on an APS-C or FourThirds-format DSLR and step back 50% further from your subject (or twice as far with a FourThird-format DSLR) you will end up with a head-and-shoulder portrait that displays the level of compression long favored by portrait photographers.

The only hole in this methodology is that while shooting with this formula maintains the compression part of the story, if you're shooting at the lens's maximum aperture for reasons of selective focus, be advised that the depth of field of an 85mm (or 90mm or 105mm) lens at 4' from the subject is shallower than the same settings at 6' (APS-C distance) from the subject, and less so from 8' (FourThirds distance) from the subject.

If your style of shooting often incorporates shallow depth of field and you are shooting with APS-C or FourThird format DSLRs, you should strongly consider purchasing the widest aperture lens available in its range for your camera.

Along with standard-issue portrait lenses, we've also included macro, tilt-shift and for Nikon shooters, DC-series defocusing optics in our portrait lens roundup. In addition to the closer focusing distances made possible by macro lenses, macro lenses also have flatter planes of focus than "normal" optics, which makes it easier to employ selective focusing in your pictures. If you choose to go this route, you should also consider using diffusion or "softening" filters in front of your lens because macros can be brutally sharp even at wider apertures, which can be less than flattering to the loveliest of complexions. Similarly, you can go in and soften rough edges post-capture using a number of photo editing applications and filter plug-ins.

Nikon's DC-series defocusing lenses (105mm and 135mm) are also well worth investigaing if you shoot with Nikon DSLRs. What makes these lenses special is that they enable you to shift the plane of focus off-center from the normally parallel focusing plane of the camera's imaging sensor (think Lensbaby), enabling interesting selective focusing when shooting at wider apertures.

Similarly, tllt-shift lenses are also interesting tools for portrait capture. Nikon's PC-E Micro Nikkor 85/2.8D and Canon's TS-E 90/2.8 tilt-shift lenses, like Nikon's defocusing lenses, can be used in all manners of tilt and shift settings to create any number of selective focusing effects. Both of these lenses are also macro lenses capable of focusing down to half life size, which adds further value to them for extremely tight portraiture.

A Selection of 85mm to 105mm Portrait Lenses
  Format Special Attributes Minimum Focus Filter Size
Canon EF 85/1.8 USM

Full-frame APS-C

f/1.8 Max Aperture

2.8' (0.85m)

Mag Ratio 1:7 

58mm
Canon EF 85/1.2L II USM Full-frame APS-C

Canon L-series lens

f/1.2 Max Aperture

3.2' (0.95m)

Mag Ratio 1:9

72mm
Canon TS-E 90/2.8

Full-frame APS-C

Tilt-Shift Macro

1.6' (0.49m)

Mag Ratio 1:2

58mm
Canon EF 100/2 USM

Full-frame APS-C

f/2.0 Max Aperture

3' (0.9m)

Mag Ratio 1:7.3

58mm
Canon EF 100/2.8L Macro IS USM

Full-frame APS-C

Canon L-series lens

Macro

Image Stabilized

 1' (0.31m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 67mm
Canon EF 100/2.8 USM Macro  

Full-frame APS-C

 Macro  

 1' (0.31m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 58mm
Nikon AF-S 85/1.4G  

Full-frame APS-C

f/1.4 Max Aperture

 2.79' (0.85m)

Mag Ratio 0.12x

 77mm
Nikon AF 85/1.8D  

Full-frame APS-C

f/1.8 Max Aperture

3' (0.9m)

Mag Ratio 1:6.6

 62mm
Nikon AF DC Nikkor 105/2D  

Full-frame APS-C

f/2 Max Aperture Defocusing control  

3' (0.9m)

Mag Ratio 1:7.7

 72mm
Nikon PC-E Micro Nikkor 85/2.8D  

Full-frame APS-C

Tilt-Shift

Micro

 1.3' (0.39m)

Mag Ratio 1:2

 77mm
Nikon AF-S DX Micro Nikkor 85/3.5G ED VR  APS-C

Macro

Image Stabilized

 10.8" (0.27m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 52mm
Nikon AF-S Micro Nikkor 105/2.8G ED-IF VR  

Full-frame APS-C

Macro

Image Stabilized

 1' (0.31m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 62mm
Carl Zeiss 85/1.4 Planar T*  

Full-frame APS-C

f/1.4 Max Aperture

 3.28' (1m)

 72mm
Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar 100/2 T*  

Full-frame APS-C

f/2 Max Aperture

Macro

 1.4' (0.44m)

Mag Ratio 1:2

 67mm
Sony SAL 85/1.4 Planar T* (Carl Zeiss)  

Full-frame APS-C

f/1.4 Max Aperture

 2.8' (0.85m)

Mag Ratio 1:7.6

 72mm
Sony SAL 100/2.8 AF Macro  

Full-frame APS-C

Macro

 1.2' (0.35m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 55mm
Bower 85/1.4 (Manual Focus)  

Full-frame APS-C

f/1.4 max Aperture  3.3' (1m)  72mm
Vivitar 85/1.4 (Manual Focus)  

Full-frame APS-C

f/1.4 max Aperture  3.3' (1m)  72mm
Sigma 105/2.8 EX DG Macro  

Full-frame APS-C

Macro

 12.2" (0.3m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 58mm
Tamron SP 90/2.8 Di Macro  

Full-frame APS-C

Macro

 11.4" (0.29m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 55mm
Pentax smc Pentax-D FA 100/2.8 WR Macro  

Full-frame APS-C

Macro

 11.93" (0.3m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 49mm
Tokina 100/2.8 AT-X AF Pro Macro  

Full-frame APS-C

Macro

 11.8" (0.3m)

Mag Ratio 1:1

 55mm

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This is useful, but leaves out some important issues.  I have both a Nikon 105mm f2.0 DC lens and a new Sigma 50mm f1.4 lens that I use on a Nikon D80 (c-chip) camera.  The 105 is an incredible lens with great sharpness and great bokeh - perfect on a full-frame camera as a portrait lens.  The Sigma 50mm is also incredibly sharp with excellent bokeh at open f-stops.  The images are actually quite comparable.  The issues:

1.  How close is comfortable?  For most portrait work on a small chip camera the 105mm lens puts you too far away to talk easily with your subject.  Shouting across the room is not conducive to a relaxed, intimate session!  The 105mm is excellent for "candid" portraits in a public place where the subjects are engaged in some activity.  The 50mm is my preference for a face-to-face session.

2.  How much do you want to spend?  The Nikon lenses listed are about $1100 and up (way up) - a lot of money for any glass.  The excellent quality (Nikon, Sigma) 50mm lenses are about $500.  Buy 2, and take your partner out for dinner!

 The two Canon 85MM lenses have an unbelievable difference in price. Does the higher priced 1.2 L lens produce unbelievably better portraits in a technical sense, given the exact same photo composition, background, subject expression, etc.? 

I found the article informative. 

Being a Four Thirds user, I am curious about the lack of any  four thirds lenses.

Are there none worthy of mentioning or is this a full size, APS-C only article.

Really enjoyed this...some great info!

What "softening filters" would you suggest for the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro for portraits?

Thanks!

It seems a bit tragic to leave out the Pentax SMC DA 70MM F2.4 LIMITED ($549.95) and SMC FA 77MM F1.8 LIMITED ($784.95).  These two lenses present a good compromise between working distance and perspective compression when used on a reduced frame DSLR. Even in the film days the SMC FA 77MM F1.8 LIMITED was marketed and used extensively as a portrait lens.

As a side note, macro lenses are frequently not well suited to portraiture because they often have harsh bokeh and relatively slow maxmum apertures (by prime lens standards).

 This was obviously written by someone who has no idea of how optics work. Compression is solely a product of distance, not focal length, so if you are framing a portrait at the same size on an APS-C or 4/3 lens it will have the identical compression. Thus, a 50mm lens on an APS-C or a 75mm lens on full frame, shot from the same place, will have exactly the same compression. Try cropping a photo taken with a wide angle lens and you will see that it, too, has exactly the same compression at the same image size and distance. Basic law of physics, people.

 The focal length/depth of field statement is also bogus. Again, product of distance and aperture, not focal length. Crop an ultrawide and you get the same depth of field. Again, physics.

Physics guy wrote:

 The focal length/depth of field statement is also bogus. Again, product of distance and aperture, not focal length. Crop an ultrawide and you get the same depth of field. Again, physics.

Sorry Physics guy, as sure as you sound of your case, I believe you are wrong and the original article is correct. Brush up on your DOF knowledge at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depth_of_field. There you will find that the DOF, in general, depends on the hyperfocal distance, which is a function of the focal length of the lens.

Unless, of course, wikipedia is also wrong - in which case I guess you better correct it.

Could you define "compression" more? It's not clear to me why this is the same for full-frame and APS-C for a given lens like a 50 mm. After all, as you say, the photographer will step back more with the APS-C camera, using a smaller angle of view, like that of a 75 mm lens on a full frame.

Thanks!

I use Canon 135 mm for portraits in my small studio.

It gives really fine results and are sharp to the corners.

I have never any kind of problems with this lense.

Why do you wants to close to the model/person? My experience tell me, that the person don't get nervous or fell, that you are comming to close to his/hers  personal limits.

Any others that use this lense and what are your opinon?

You are welcome to write to me by mail: stiga@pc.dk

Best regards Stig Andersen.

Physics guy is correct.  DOF is an absolute of aperture, not even f/ratio.  The focal length makes it more or less obvious, but if you magnify, the telecompression and DOF are revealed.

The author also doesn't understand the DC Nikon lens, at least the mechanics of the spherical aberration control.

Whatever is "compression"?

If you're talking about Perspective, then it is ENTIRELY dependent on distance of view. Thus, using a 50 mm lens on APS-C "for photographing someone with a bulbous proboscis" will produce the identical PERSPECTIVE as shooting with an 85 mm lens on a 35 mm (or full-frame) camera. (To get the same framing, you will have to shoot from the same distance, too, hence same persepective.)  That nose will look the same with both cameras.

If you're talking about depth-of-field, then this is a bit more complicated. Quoting from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depth_of_field "if photographs with the same final-image size are taken in two different camera formats at the same subject distance with the same angle of view and f-number," [e.g. head-and-shoulders portrait at f/2.8 from 3 meters distance, 85 mm lens on the Full-Frame body and 50 mm lens on the APS-C body] "the DOF is, to a first approximation, inversely proportional to the format size." i.e. small format has more DOF, large format has less DOF, even with the same subject composition. Wiki continues: "the approximation is valid only when the subject distance is large in comparison with the focal length of the larger format" [i.e. you are more than 85 mm from the subject, which you better be!] "and small in comparison with the hyperfocal distance of the smaller format" [the hyperfocal distance should be somewhere far out, at the other end of the ballpark and certainly not inside any normal-sized studio, at least with fairly wide apertures].

This seems to cover our head-and-shoulders portrait situation handily and so the above-mentioned approximation is valid.

Thus it seems that a longer lens will get you LESS DOF (often desirable) at the same f-stop, irrespective of format-size and that 85 mm lens might help there. On the other hand, the perspective (also very important for portraits, as well as for architecture) has nothing to do with format, but only with distance, and thus a 50 mm lens on a small sensor body will give you the same perspective for a portrait as an 85 mm lens on a FF body. That proboscis will look the same either way.

If 85-105 mm was an ideal focal length irrespective of format, then it be would the f.l. of choice for portraits on 8x10 cameras, too, no?  I don't think it is...

Incidentally, you should be using the same lens factor (1.5 or 1.6 or 2.0 depending on your sensor-size) for multiplying your lowest acceptable hand-held speed. The old rule of handholding no slower than 1 / focal-length (e.g. 1/60 sec for a 50 mm lens on 35 mm film body) has to be updated for smaller digital sensors i.e. 1 / (focal-length x lens-factor), e.g. for 50 mm lens, hand-hold no slower than 1/(50x1.6)=1/80 th sec.

If someone has some other information on this, I would be happy to hear about it.
 

I use one lens 24-70mm T* coat 2.8 Z the only lens you will ever need.

Physics Guy is completely correct.  "Compression" is a function of distance only.  If you are closer to the subject, the nose will look bigger than the ears, because you are closer to the nose than the ears percentage wise.  Depth of Field is totally a function of the aperture size.  A 75mm lens set to f4.2 on a full frame SLR will take exactly the same picture as a 50mm lens set to f2.8 on your APS-C DSLR.  The article is wrong.

And the final definitive answer is: ?????????????????

Baffled in Bangkok