5 Unconventional Lenses for Wedding and Portrait Photography

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Just like any other genre of photography, portraiture is a creative field that knows no bounds. There are no rules dictating how a portrait needs to be made, how it needs to look, or more specifically, how it was shot. On the other hand, photographers love to categorize and label things based on “best” and “typical” usage situations (and I’m certainly guilty of doing this). One of the labels that bothers me is the term, “portrait lens.” I think most photographers would have a decent sense of what kind of lens I’d be referring to if I wrote “taken with a portrait lens.” Most of the time, most people would think I’d be referring to a short to medium telephoto lens or longer focal length lens; something longer than “normal” (there’s another one of those brilliant labels) but still wide enough to give a sense of environment and context. And to pigeon-hole it even further, many people would immediately think of an 85mm f/1.4. Even though I think many of us share this sense of reductionism, we also know that a portrait can be made with any focal length, or any lens, for that matter. Here’s a look at five lenses that I’d call unconventional portrait lenses.

Leica Thambar-M 90mm f/2.2

I love to be contradictory, especially with the first lens in an article like this, but I’m going to include the Thambar-M 90mm f/2.2 here because I truly believe it is an unconventional lens that excels at portraiture. It’s slower than what you’d usually look for in a lens for portraits, but it makes up for this with its unique and very distinct soft focus look and a removable center spot filter. It’s based on the original Thambar from the 1930s, in that its design makes no attempt to resolve spherical aberrations, but improved coatings do give a snappier, more contemporary look to images. Also, it has 20 diaphragm blades. That’s a lot of blades, and by using so many of them, the lens is certain to render out-of-focus specular highlights with a dreamy round shape and overall pleasing and smooth quality. The Thambar may be an obvious choice for portraits, but it’s an unconventional lens in every other regard.

Leica Thambar-M 90mm f/2.2 LensLeica Thambar-M 90mm f/2.2 Lens

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II

Now we get weird. Who would ever think of using a tilt-shift lens—a lens that’s very slow and tedious to use when photographing buildings, let alone moving subjects—as a portrait lens? Well, the master portrait photographer Gregory Heisler does. In his own words, “they're my favorites for a million reasons. For the portrait work I do, the kind of perspective control I can get is ideal—and not just with converging lines, but I can render space much more creatively with a tilt-shift lens. I also like that they are manual focus and that most focus close. They're crazy sharp and they have to be sharp over a bigger image circle. I just love those lenses.” Heisler is a big fan of the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, specifically, but states he uses them all, from the 17mm f/4 up to the unique 90mm f/2.8.

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Lens
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Lens

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G

An unconventional lens no matter to what genre you assign it, the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G is one of the more polarizing lenses in Nikon’s F-mount lineup, with many adoring its unique traits and others feeling left a bit unimpressed. It’s either spectacularly unspectacular or unspectacularly spectacular, but hardly a lens that can leave you feeling indifferent. Why it’s unconventional for portraits, though, has something to do with the 58mm focal length. By just edging slightly past that de facto standard of 50mm, there is some narrowing of the field of view, maybe a bit more sense of compression, and a bit more focus on the subject; or maybe it’s all in my head and it’s just a perfectly fine normal-length lens that puts you in the head space to focus a bit more on the subject you’re photographing.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G Lens

ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF

Along similar but opposite lines, the ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF is just ever so slightly wider than the 50mm mark I mentioned and, as such, this is a context lens. But it’s not as wide as a 35mm lens; it still retains that focus and selectiveness of a normal-length lens, but lets a bit more of the environment provide some additional context in your images. And another trick it has up its sleeve is the CF, or Close Focusing, design, which lets you get as close as 9.4" at 1:3.3 magnifications—it’s close, not macro. And this closeness could be used very creatively for some more intimate portraits, headshots, or detailed shots of a subject’s face without having the standard pulled-back sense of an 85mm or longer lens.

ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF Lens
ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF Lens

Voigtländer Heliar 50mm f/3.5

My last pick for an unconventional portrait lens is a 50mm f/3.5. Okay, you can stop smirking now. Yes, it’s an f/3.5. But it’s the Voigtländer Heliar 50mm f/3.5; one of the smallest lenses around but also one of the most character-rich lenses around. And what is a portrait, really, without character? Modern lenses and their sharpness, their APO designs, their multi-coatings… meh! This lens is a Heliar; it’s a 120-year-old optical design that was once known for its incredible sharpness, but is now also known for the smooth transition from sharpness to blurriness and, of course, the bokeh. For me, this transitional quality, the blurred quality, and the selective sharpness quality all add up to being a very useful and coveted set of features for a portrait lens.

Voigtlander Heliar 50mm f/3.5 Lens
Voigtländer Heliar 50mm f/3.5 Lens

These are my five picks for unconventional, unique portrait lenses. What are yours? Do you have a favorite lens for portraits that most others wouldn’t think to use? Let us know, in the Comments section.

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