Behind the Photo – Portrait Lenses

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Portrait with 50mm lens

There are two lenses that every portrait photographer should own at least one of – the 85mm and 50mm prime lenses.

  • If you have a full-frame camera, then the 85mm lens is generally best for head and shoulder shots. The 50mm lens works well for half or three-quarter length portraits, or for a more intimate feel with a head and shoulders portrait.

  • If you have an APS-C camera, then the 50mm lens is good for head and shoulders portraits. The 85mm lens works well as a short telephoto lens, but you may find you have to stand some distance back from your model to use it, and this can make communication a bit more difficult. If you need a wider-angle lens, then consider a 35mm or 40mm prime.

These focal lengths are covered by numerous zoom lenses, but I prefer the wider maximum apertures of primes. This lets me take photos hand-held photos in low light in conditions that would be impossible with a zoom (although if the zoom has an Image Stabiliser (IS) you might get close). Another reason is that the depth-of-field is very narrow at the widest aperture settings. Used wisely, it looks beautiful.

50mm as portrait lens

I took the opening photo using my Canon 50mm f1.4 lens on an EOS 5D Mark II (a full-frame camera). It was getting dark and this was one of the last photos of the shoot. I set the aperture to f1.4 and asked my model Elizabeth to move away from the background. The further your subject is from the background, the more the background goes out of focus, no matter which aperture you use. As you can see, the depth-of-field is very narrow (look at the difference between her eyes – here’s an enlargement to help):

Portrait with 50mm lens close-up

If you look closely at Elizabeth you can see the shape of her face. It is not as ‘flat’ as it would have been if I’d used a longer focal length (such as my 85mm lens).

85mm as portrait lens

Here is a similar photo taken with my 85mm lens. See how the perspective is much ‘flatter’? (You would get a similar result with a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera). I’ve shown both photos together so you can compare them:

Portrait with 85mm lens

EOS 5D Mark II, EF 85mm f1.8 USM lens

Portrait with 50mm lens

EOS 5D Mark II, EF 50mm f1.4 USM lens

 

Which lens is best is largely a matter of opinion. I’m sure you could ask two different photographers and get three different answers.

I use the 85mm lens most (bear in mind I use a full-frame camera) but I’ve been using my 50mm lens more recently and come to the conclusion that it’s an under-appreciated focal length. There’s a little more distortion with this lens but it also creates portraits with a more ‘intimate’ feel (see? One photographer, two answers already).

Understanding EOS

Understanding EOS

If you own a Canon EOS camera and want to learn how to take photos like this, then you should take a look at my newest ebook Understanding EOS. There’s a £2 discount until the end of the month – click the link for details.

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