'Portrait lens'?
Newbie shooter here. I see a lot of discussion in the forums about what lenses are good for portraits. It's not something I've ever done (but would like to try) so I'm not sure what makes a lens good for that purpose vs other types of lenes. What are the characteristics of a good 'portrait lens'? As a contrast, what kind of lens ~wouldn't~ be good?.

Oh yeah, a little OT, but I see so many 'What camera should I buy?' posts around here maybe they should have their own forum! Put it right at the top, 'Choosing the right camera for You', could save people a lot of typing. ;-P'It's easier to get forgiveness than permission'..

Comments (11)

Mainly focal length and aperture..

You don't want to have to get too close to the subject which could distract or intimidate them so a moderate telephoto is helpful.

A moderate telephoto also gives an accurate perspective which neither emphasizes or diminishes the apparent depth of the image..

Focusing on the face and blurring the background is desirable for portraits. Aperture of 2.0 or faster (since you say you are a beginner that means smaller f number and larger opening for narrow depth of field)..

Also a lens that has soft creamy out of focus area free from distracting edges and highlights is desirable. Do a search on the term bokeh..

More here:.

Http:// is a portrait lens?.

Obviously any lens can be used to take a portrait of someone. However, the results can be very different depending on it's focal length..

The distance required between you and your subject, when you take a head and shoulders portrait, depends on the focal length of the lens. If you have a wide angle lens then you need to stand very close to them in order to have their head and shoulders fill the frame. But if you have a telephoto lens then you need to stand a fair distance away from them for the same effect..

This distance results in a change in perspective. Try this experiment with someone in real life without using a camera. If you stand really close to the person and look at their face youll notice that this position tends to emphasize their nose and make their forehead look like its sort of sloping away. But if youre further away from them then their face tends to look flatter. And generally speaking people find that a slightly flatter perspective on a face is usually a bit more flattering in general. Portraits taken with wide-angle lenses can, in fact, have a rather comical or grotesque effect..

So generally photographers like to use lenses of about 85mm to 135mm in length when taking head and shoulders portraits, depending on the look theyre trying to achieve. Some fashion photographers even use 200mm and 300mm telephotos for a particularly flat effect. You can take photos of people with 50mm and shorter lenses, but these lenses tend to distort the face somewhat. Such shorter focal lengths are, however, perfectly fine for waist-up or full body shots..

Canon make a number of of popular lenses used for portrait photography. Two of the more affordable ones include the compact and sharp 85mm 1.8 and the 135mm 2.8 SF which has a soft focus feature which allows you to introduce image-softening at will..

Finally, note that the lens focal lengths I list here are for 35mm film or full-frame EOS SLR. If youre using a camera with a smaller image area - digital or APS - then the ideal focal lengths for portraits are going to be shorter. For example, a 50mm lens is generally considered a bit short for most portraiture with 35mm film, but when mounted on an EOS 10D digital camera it takes photos much like those taken with an 80mm lens on a 35mm film camera...

Comment #1

AmigaJoe wrote:.

Newbie shooter here. I see a lot of discussion in the forums aboutwhat lenses are good for portraits. It's not something I've ever done(but would like to try) so I'm not sure what makes a lens good forthat purpose vs other types of lenes. What are the characteristics ofa good 'portrait lens'? As a contrast, what kind of lens ~wouldn't~be good?.

The first determinant of a portrait lens is the focal length. Most photographers like to use "medium telephoto" lenses for portraits. In 35mm film terms, this would mean 85mm to 135mm focal lengths. Medium teles flatten perspective, mostly meaning they don't make people's noses look too big. This is good, especially if it's my nose..

I like an 85mm for portraits. The longer you go, the further away your subject is. If you're shooting a portrait with a 135, it's hard to be in the same room. The picture may be fine but you've lost contact with the subject and have to shout or use hand signals..

There's some discussion regarding portrait focal lengths with crop sensors. If you just divide the 85-135 range by 1.5, you get 57-90, which is within most peoples' kit zoom range. But some photographers want the limited depth of field of the longer lenses and continue to use 105's for portraits with crop sensors. Works good, but, again, you're real far from the subject..

The next determinant is lens speed. Most of the time, you want a narrow depth of field in a portrait so the subject is sharp but the background is out of focus. With a crop sensor digital, you generally need to shoot at f/2.8 or even wider to get this effect. This puts your kit lens in the bag; f/5.6 don't make it..

The last determinant is image quality and this is the most subjective. I took film portraits with a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor. This is the sharpest lens known to man and tends to be cruel to anyone without flawless skin, even with diffused lighting. The good news is that I got to look for people with flawless skin to photograph. Nikon has seemingly acknowledged this and is willing to sell you a 105 that you can adjust for blurriness. This lets you take pictures of just plain folks without shrieking..

Leonard Migliore..

Comment #2

You "can" use any lens for a portrait. If you use a "short" or wide angle type lens and you are in close you can get distortion, such a a large nose or wide face. If you want to keep the perspective correct then your need to use something a little longer. On a 1.5 or 1.6 crop factor camera I wouldn't use anything shorter than 50mm. On a full size sensor camera nothing shorter than 70mm. This is for 3/4 or head and shoulder type portraits.

If you are going to have hands in the picture you have to be careful if you use a short lens. The hands can end up looking as larger or larger than the head..


Comment #3

Hmm. So it sounds like the Zuiko 50mm f/2, which would be equivalent to a 90-100mm 35mm lens, would be ideal. And it reasonably priced too!Thanks for the input everybody.'It's easier to get forgiveness than permission'..

Comment #4

AmigaJoe wrote:.

Hmm. So it sounds like the Zuiko 50mm f/2, which would be equivalentto a 90-100mm 35mm lens, would be ideal. And it reasonably priced too!Thanks for the input everybody..

You have got some excellent answers here. The thing to remember is it is the distance between camera and subject that is important. You then choose the lens to fill the frame with your subject at that distance..

I have heard it said that the ideal distance for portraiture is 15ft. Personally I aim for 12 ft. Obviously you need a different focal length for a full body shot and head and shoulders at that distance..

The Zuiko 50mm sounds fine given the 2x crop..

If you have to use a slow zoom for a portrait e.g for a group portrait then you can replicate the subject isolation in post processing especially if you shoot RAW. You can paint the background using Gaussian Blur to render it out of focus..

Chris Elliott.

*Nikon* D Eighty + Fifty - Other equipment in Profile.


Comment #5


Just for the record, once upon a time every maker had a lens for their 35mm film cameras that was about 85 or 90 mm and f/2 and they were called portrait lenses..

A nice view for head and shoulders, not too big a studio required and you could talk to the subject whilst taking the picture - often whilst standing in front of the camera and just out of the frame, with the cable release in your hand ready for the right moment..

Several studios had chairs fixed to the floor with a camera and tripod also fixed to the floor and a portrait lens on it. One light high and to the side of the camera but not too far away and a second light to the right or left and about halfway in between the camera and chair. Add a plain background and you were in business....

Some of them were deliberately "soft" as it made faces a little nicer without the "bite" (and re-touching easier), which is why old lenses are great for portraits, and you can enlarge/print a lot bigger than you'd expect. (Now imagine how the re-touching was done with pencils or pen and ink or a small paint brush... ).

Regards, David..

Comment #6

In 35mm terms portraits used lenses from 70-80 to 135mm. the former were the full or 3/4 body shots while the 135mm was for face only. when taking portraits the distances were always in the 10-12 maybe 15ft range in the studio. when one wanted a different type of portrait you simply changed lenses. you did not move the camera to subject distance. if you did and went closer the nose ended up as very pronounced, if you went farther then the face had a very flat one dimensional appearance..

Macro lenses are not used for portraits simply because they see too much facial features; no one is going to thank you with every wrinkle or pimple or imperfection shown in all their glory. if a macro lens is used then you should plan on plenty of pp time to get the bad features back out. it is far simpler to simply use a kit lens size, or a lens similar, that is a 16 to 50 for the 3/4 shots and if desired switch to a 70-200 zoom used at 70 for the face only if not tight enough zoom to 90 which is 135mm. but in all this keep the subject distance at the 10-12 to 15ft distance.for your info-.

Portraits were done in the studio by pros using, in 35mm terms, about 70mm to 135mm. the distance was fixed you were shooting from 10-12ft. at that distance the 70 gave the 3/4 body shot while the 135 gave a face only. in c sensor the 70mm becomes 47mm while the 135mm becomes 91mm. the distances used were to keep the face and body from distorting from a natural appearance...

Comment #7

That means a lens of a certain focal length - too wideangle would distort facial features from close range, too tele would "compress" them making the face look "flat". Ideally a portrait lens should also have wide aperture for great bokeh. For example, Canon 85/1.2 L Mark II is a great portrait lens:.


Although in principle any high quality lens may be used for portraits, a zoom lens too, in the range of 50mm - 150mm focal length..

See more at:.


Comment #8

Well, first of all you need to define portrait..

That seems to be ignored around here, with people thinking a passport photo is a portrait..

How much of the person do you want in the shot?.

Go buy Vanity FAir, and you'll see hundreds of excellent portraits taken by some of the world's best photographers..

Note how different pictures so different amounts of the person..

If all you want is head and shoulders, use a short telephoto..

If you want the whole person, with lots of background, use a wide angle lens..

The whole person, and only a little background requires a normal lens, or short telephoto, with you standing further back..

Overall... a Tamron 28-70 or any of several 24-70mm lenses for so-called "cropped" digital single lens reflexes provide lots of alternatives for portraits, perhaps the widest-ranging category of photography there is..

I'm delivering portraits to a subject this weekend, with pictures in the series taken at 20mm and 50mm on a so-called 1.6 camera. For the 20mm pictures, the foreground mattered. For the 50mm shot, we wanted waist up..



Comment #9

I personally shoot a Nikon 85mm f/1.8.

Also, a lot of folks don't care for Ken Rockwell but he has an interesting article on Portrait lenses here:

And read Tom Hogan http://www.bythom.comas well along with Fred Miranda and you can make a pretty good decision by deciding who's train of thought is most similar to yours...

Comment #10


I don't usually disagree with KR but once you've read the article ask yourself how much a lens like f/2 or so, and 300 or 400 mm costs and how it is usable in a normal sized room or a smoky bar....

When I mostly used primes on 35 mm cameras I used a 85 or 90 mm on both the Leica and the Pentax. It's difficult to say which was best as judgements about portraits have nothing to do with the equipment used....

Regards, David..

Comment #11

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This question was taken from a support group/message board and re-posted here so others can learn from it.


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