Photography / Buying Guide

Lenses for Fashion Photography

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Fashion photography is all about being in the right place at the right time with the right model featuring the right outfit in the right lighting. Whether it be on the street, on the runway, or in a studio, having the right lens might make the difference between getting the cover shot or filling your digital trashcan with unsightly images.

B&H Photo asked some top fashion photographers to share their favorite lenses with us and why they love them. Before I dive into some specifics, you will see that the common thread connecting all of these lenses is that they are all wide-aperture optics. There are two reasons that fashion photographers not only prefer, but almost require wide-aperture lenses: light gathering and depth of field. Let’s talk about both, briefly.

Light gathering. The larger the available aperture for the lens, the more light is let in to the sensor or film. This allows the fashion photographer to capture images at higher shutter speeds for a given lighting scenario, allowing them to freeze the runway, studio, and street action and avoid motion blur as people are always in some sort of motion—even the guards at Buckingham Palace.

Depth of field. One commonly used technique in fashion photography is the shallow depth of field where only a small segment of depth in an image is in focus and the rest is gradually lost into a creamy blur. This is sometimes used in studio photography where only the near eye is in sharp focus and out in the street where background objects and landscapes are rendered as soft shapes and point light sources become attractive bokeh.

The Nifty 50

Chicago-based Sony Ambassador and fashion photographer Manuel Ortiz uses the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55 f/1.8 ZA lens. While pushing the boundaries of the “traditional” 50mm lens, Manuel says, “[The] 50mm allows me to incorporate more environment in my shots. It's pretty much my go to lens for street portraits.”

Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens

I am a big fan of the 50mm lens, and so are many photographers in the world of fashion. Small, lightweight, huge aperture, fast to focus—there are dozens of reasons that the 50mm lens rides around on the front of many a pro’s cameras. If your DSLR and big zoom lens has been weighing you down, take your 50mm out for a stroll and fall in love with photography all over again.

The Workhorse Zoom – The 24-70mm f/2.8

The ubiquitous 24-70mm f/2.8 lens has become a staple of the pro bag regardless of their chosen subject matter. Straddling the 50mm focal length on both the mild-wide and short-telephoto ranges, the 24-70mm lens gives you a middle-of-the-road versatility that few lenses offer.

Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens

An “absolutely brilliant lens,” is how Dutch fashion shooter Frank Doorhof's describes his Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM. He adds, “Loads of people will claim that primes are more ‘pro’ but in essence, the thing most important for a pro is to get the shot and with the quality of this lens it feels like carrying several primes in one lens. Even wide open it's razor sharp. And the range is perfect for street and travel and fashion. You can go wide but also dive in for that intense portrait.”

Maryland-based runway photographer Theano Nikitas is a fan of her Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR lens. “When I'm shooting a short runway on a cropped sensor, like the Nikon D500, I'll usually stick with the Nikon 24-70mm. I can handhold it and don't have to mess with carrying a monopod, ball head, quick release plate, etc.,” says Nikitas. She adds, “It's also a good focal range for presentations, backstage and red carpet, too.”

As an alternative, New York-based Lindsay Adler uses her Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens in the studio for its versatility, but “not for tight beauty [shots].”

The Pro’s Zoom – The 70-200 f/2.8

Traditionally the 85mm was the lens of choice for portraiture. Encompassing that focal length, the 70-200mm lens (or its 80-200 predecessors) were not really known for their prowess in the portrait/fashion world, mainly due to their size and “reduced” f/2.8 maximum aperture—until photographers started using them for just that purpose. Suddenly, they became de rigueur for many fashion shooters regardless of where they were shooting. Manuel Ortiz says, “The Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS is the perfect lens for studio and a great lens to on location as well. I use this lens mainly for its compression at 200mm and for its flexibility.” He adds one downside: “Shooting environmental portraits at 200mm with this lens isn't ideal for me because I feel disconnected with the model.”

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens

Photographer Lindsay Adler is a big fan of her Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens for the runway. “I use the 70-200mm 2.8 lens for the runway because I need the narrow depth of field, fast focus, and variable focal lengths. Also it is a GREAT beauty lens,” she says.

Theano Nikitas also uses her Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR on the strip. “For longer runways when I'm shooting full-frame like the Nikon D5, I'll go with the Nikon 70-200mm. I will sometimes add the Nikon [AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II] 1.7x. The longer lens gives me enough reach to start shooting as soon as the model comes out on the runway and goes wide enough to get the beauty/head shots when the models stop in front of the photo riser, too.”

The Classic Choice – The 85mm

As I mentioned above, the 85mm lens, found in the f/1.2, f/1.4, and f/1.8 flavors, is the classic of all classic portrait lenses. Several of the pros interviewed for this article mentioned the lens, but now seem to gravitate towards the versatility of the 70-200mm zoom for their longer-range fashion work. However, if you are getting started in fashion photography, or maybe want to shake things up a bit with the wonderful image quality of a prime lens, the extreme value of the generally inexpensive 85mm f/1.8 lens is hard to beat when it comes to a lot of fashion photo needs.

Are you a fashion photographer? Or, are you a budding fashion shooter? Let’s talk lenses in the discussion section below!

4 Comments

Different runways around the world. 24-70 on one body (for the pit)and fixed 300 on a second body for back of hall pov. 

20 & 35 for airy fashion editorial or ads.

55 , 60 & 85 for tighter intimate shots

135 and 180 for more tightness and compression and 300&400 for greater compression

Thanks for the tips, Neta! Sounds like you have a lot of lenses!

I personally feel that the 35mm f2.0 gives me the field and the sharpness I need to capture the evolution of presentation.  I can define the subject and if need be, crop in post for delineazation.  

Thanks, Mark! Solid lens and good recommendation!

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