Capturing a person’s essence is something that an aspiring or professional photographer hopes to achieve with his or her shot. While any lens can help you do that, nothing beats having the right tools to get the job done. And if you’re one who takes capturing portraits seriously, then what lens to use for portraits is a subject worth delving into.
Searching for the right portrait lens is not as easy as it seems. When shopping for portrait lenses, you don’t find a particular line of them advertised as portrait lenses. Lenses are categorized as prime, zoom, telephoto, or kit lens. And all of them can be used to take pictures of people.
So how do you narrow down your options? We’d like to help you do that by looking at the focal length number for less to zero distortions, as well as the aperture values to allow low-light shooting and to get that shallow depth-of-field or blurred background effect. Moreover, we’ll show you how choosing a prime lens over zoom lens can spell a whole lot of difference in the quality of your portraits.
Besides that you also need to take into consideration the following:
- Is your camera full-frame or APS-C?
- How much of the subject’s body is included in the photo?
- What’s your preferred shooting location?
- How much is your budget?
What Lens to Use for Portraits?
Long Focal length
To take beautiful close-up portraits, you would want to steer clear from using wide-angle lenses that can cause unflattering distortions. Below is a quick guide for the range of lens that’s perfect for portrait photography.
- Full-frame camera: 40-58mm
- Crop-sensor camera: 28-36mm
- Telephoto camera: 70-105mm (full-frame); 50-70mm (crop-sensor)
As you may have already noticed, you get a different range for full-frame and crop-sensor cameras. That’s to say that the sensor size of your camera can and must influence your choice of lens. That’s because the same lens you use in a full-frame camera will act longer in a crop-sensor cam.
And while it was mentioned earlier that wide-angle lenses don’t work very well with close-up portraits, they are feasible for environmental portraits—that is, the subject and his or her surroundings are included in the composition.
Still, short telephoto lenses are ideal for producing flattering photos of people. They can take close-up portraits without distortion as well as environmental portraits without being so far away from the model that communication becomes difficult. If you can get a short telephoto lens that’s also a prime lens—meaning it has the added benefit of a wide aperture—then that’s a keeper!
But if you’re intrigued by the kind that fashion and portrait photographers use, then they are telephoto prime lenses with shorter focal lengths and wide maximum aperture. These are expensive gear and heavier, too. Zoom telephoto lenses in the 100-200mm range, on the other hand, offer a cheaper option.
Besides long focal length, a wide aperture is essential for high-quality portraits. Aperture, which works like your pupils, is the one that filters the amount of light entering the camera sensor. It is expressed in ‘f-stops’ or ‘f-numbers.’ For portrait photography, you’d want to go for a lower number which means a wider opening.
So how does a wide aperture work for portrait photography? Wide aperture translates to a shallow depth-of-field that puts your subject in focus and the background blurred. In principle, a lower f-number means a wider aperture and a shallower depth-of-field. Thus, an f/4 aperture will have a larger blurred area than say an f/8 aperture.
In choosing the aperture number, you have to consider the focal length of your lens. Basically, the same aperture will register a shallower depth-of-field in a longer lens than it would in a lens with a shorter focal lens. A maximum aperture of f/2.8, for example, in a 50mm lens will show less blur than it would in a 140mm lens.
If you’re not buying a very long telephoto lens, then lenses with at least f/2.8 maximum aperture is a good number. If you can find higher than that, then the better it is in separating your subject from the background.
But if you’re not particularly going for the blurred effect or you have more subjects to include in the composition as you would in an environmental portrait, then a smaller aperture or bigger f-number is called for.
Prime vs. Zoom Lens
As you may have already deduced from the names, prime lenses are those that have fixed focal lengths; whereas, zoom lenses are those that allow you to adjust how close you want your subject to appear in your shot. Generally speaking, prime lenses are better than zoom lenses.
If you want sharper photos, stunning bokeh, no distortion, and the ability to shoot in low-light conditions, then prime lenses are the way to go. The secret lies in the wider maximum aperture that prime lenses possess.
That’s not to say that the zoom lenses are not suitable for taking portraits. Using zoom lenses comes with its advantages. For one, you would have to carry around only one lens. This means that you wouldn’t also have to go through the trouble of swapping gears or using two camera bodies during the shoot. Two; zoom lenses are cheaper than prime lenses.
Still, if you have the budget and you’re serious about portrait photography, then a prime lens is a good investment.
What Is Bokeh?
If you’ve studied or compared portraits, then you must have noticed how some photographers have used that beautiful blur effect of the background that makes the subject stand out. That’s known in the photography world as bokeh.
Again, you get more blur as you go for a wider aperture. But does more blur necessarily mean a high-quality photo? Not really. Some bokeh can take away the focus instead of putting it on the subject.
Thus, when you shop for a portrait lens, you’d want to determine first the kind of bokeh you want to employ and weigh in all the other factors as well—camera body, location, photography style, and budget.
So, what lens to use for portraits? There’s no easy answer to that. But we’ve laid out for you the principles to guide you through your decision. All in all, you’ll need one with a long focal length and a wide aperture to go with your camera sensor type.
If you’re new to portrait photography and understandably have not made up your mind on the portrait photography style you want to go for, then a short telephoto zoom lens will buy you enough room to explore.