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portrait lenses


  • in order to minimise facial distortions (subject distance should generally be about 2-3m) while ensuring sharp eyes and a beautifully defocussed background, the classic lens for high quality portraiture is usually one with a focal length in 35mm terms of 70-120mm and a wide aperture, at least f/2.8 but in some cases, even down to f/1.2, although such lenses are big, expensive and more difficult to focus even with AF.
  • the requirement for a wide aperture usually means most zoom lenses are not as good although a 70-200mm f/2.8 is popular.
  • the requirement for shallow depth of field usually means a small sensor such as in point and shoot cameras is not as good, while a full frame 35mm or even medium format is closer to the generally accepted goal.
  • a wide angle lens usually requires one to get closer to the subject which not only can be intimidating but exaggerates and distorts relative size of facial features, making closer objects such as the nose bigger. Wide angles can be used and are often used in more creative, artistic portraits for impact where a faithful representation of the face is not required.
  • a longer telephoto requires more distance from the subject but can result in flatter facial features and a loss of intimacy as well as potentially sharpness and contrast. Glamour photographers often use these in outdoor shoots to compress the background and remove distracting features or emphasise a distant background feature.
  • if the subject image size is kept constant by moving in or away from a subject, then the degree of background blurriness is mainly dependent on the f/ratio and NOT on the focal length.
  • the aesthetics of the defocussed background (bokeh) is usually best with lenses with circular iris diaphragms so the more blades, the better as a general rule.
  • an internally focusing lens (IF) is an advantage as the front element does not keep moving in and out, distracting the subject.
  • wedding photographers often need a wider angle lens such as a 50mm f/1.2 for full length shots in addition to the usual portrait lens and perhaps a 24-70mm zoom for group shots and a 70-200mm zoom for close ups at a distance.
  • for an action portrait shoot such as indoor sports, toddlers crawling or animals, then a fast and accurate AF mechanism becomes critical.
  • for street photography, the requirements are usually different as you wish to get the subject in context with their environment and this is usually best achieved with a mild wide angle such as a 35-50mm in 35mm camera terms.
  • for social parties where group portraits in confined spaces are the priority, a lens with focal length 40-60mm in 35mm terms may be required.

Portraits with the smartphone:

  • these are very poor for classic high quality portraiture as outlined above BUT they do have a special place and this is in the domain of the “spontaneous” social portrait and the group self-portrait so loved by 21st century adolescents.
  • the advantages of such a camera are:
    • it is unobtrusive and deceptively non-threatening
    • it can be taken anywhere without it being either a burden or a social embarrassment as would be the case with larger cameras
    • it has an in-built flash and relatively sharp lens with reasonable AF
    • self-portraits of up to 3 people can be done hand held at arm's length
  • but what about the background?
    • well, there is no way you are going to get a nicely defocussed background optically, all is not lost - most photos are taken indoors with the in-built electronic flash and thus the background is usually very under-exposed so blurring as not needed as much and the latest smartphones have AI background blurring capability.
    • during the day using ambient light, its another issue so the photographer has several choices:
      • include a pleasing background - eg. travel landmarks
      • ensure the background is non-distracting eg. the ground, sky or wall
  • but what about the facial distortions and effects of an in-built tiny flash?
    • red-eyes are not such a problem at such close distances as there seems to be enough parallax between the lens and flash that the light does not reach the same part of the retina that the camera sees, and instead you get a small catchlight which is better than no catchlight.
    • as long as the subject has good makeup on, then the small light source's adverse effects on creating shiny, specular reflections from oily skin or perspiring skin can be minimised - just take the photos at the start of a party and not at the end!
    • as long as the subject is relatively good looking without a big nose, big teeth, long face or fat face, then the distortions hopefully won't be severe enough to be sufficiently unflattering to overcome the social value of the photo.

Full frame Sony mirrorless cameras

  • these are the class leaders in tracking the eye for autofocus
  • Sony bodies tend to be too small for your hand to grip the camera and hold a heavy lens - anything more than 600g becomes tiring quickly unless you use an added grip
  • best used with native lenses for best AF performance such as:
    • Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 G $AU2799
      • wide open it transmits as much light as a f/5.6 lens, but with DOF of f/2.8 and the APD filter gives much smoother than normal background blurring with bokeh balls having very blurred edges instead of the sharply defined edges one gets with an 85mm f/1.8 lens. A normal 85mm f/1.8 gives more background blurring but it is more busy.

Full frame Canon R mirrorless cameras

  • these have reasonably good eye AF but currently no IBIS, although IBIS is not so important for most portraits unless you are using a longer telephoto prime (eg 135mm)
  • Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 - the best 50mm f/1.2 lens ever made but expensive at $US2299
  • Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 - perhaps the best 85mm lens ever made but very expensive at $US2699

Full frame Nikon Z mirrorless cameras

  • Eye AF still a little immature (May 2019) - seems to lock onto eye lashes rather than iris when closer up
  • no native ZF portrait lenses at present but 50mm f/1.2 S and 85mm f/1.8 S are coming

APS-C Fujifilm mirrorless cameras

  • Fujinon XF33mm f/1.0 (eq. to 50mm f/1.5)
  • Fujinon XF56mm f/1.2 R (eq. to 85mm f/1.8 lens) $US999
  • Fujinon XF56mm f/1.2 R APD $US1499

Micro Four Thirds:

Full frame 35mm Canon 5D / 1Ds cameras:

  • ideal focal length 70-135mm although perhaps the 135mm is getting a bit long.
  • autofocus prime lenses:
    • Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM:
      • 1kg; $A3799 ($A2700 online); min. focus 0.95m; 72mm filter; 
      • takes 0.5sec to AF which is twice as fast as the older Mark I version but only a 1/3rd as fast as the f/1.8 version which focuses in 1/8-1/4 sec.
      • lens flare markedly reduced cw Mark I version
      • now has support for e-TTL II focus distance.
      • sharper and more contrast than the f/1.8 lens at apertures wider than f/5.6
      • “This lens weighs 2.4 times more, costs 6.2 times more and focuses only about 1/2 as fast as the EF 85mm f/1.8 lens. The greater weight and significantly slower autofocus function than the f/1.8 lens may make it a challenging tool for some action/performance photography applications such as basketball (but may be OK for gymnastics)”
      • a great portrait and wedding lens, not so good for moving toddlers, animals.
      • much better for astrophotography than the 50mm f/1.2 (flatter fields and sharper edge to edge)
      • misfocuses on IR AF but IR red spot accurate, and surprisingly for its aperture, does not show any IR hotspots.
      • standard focusing screen is not easy to manually focus with lens with apertures wider than f/2, consider getting a Focus Screen Ee S.
    • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM:
    • Canon EF 100mm f/2.0 USM (non-L):
    • Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro USM $A999
    • Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 soft focus (non-L):
      • $A749; 390g; 52mm filter; min. focus 1.3m; 
      • optionally adds 2 degrees of soft focus by adding spherical aberration, although setting 2 is too strong for most situations.
      • not much demand for this lens now that PS can produce similar results but useful for those still doing 35mm film.
      • reasonably sharp at f/4 but no USM and does not have the build quality of an L lens.
  • autofocus zoom lenses:
    • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L (112-320mm):
      • $A2600 w/o IS and $A3395 with IS weighing 1.57kg
      • closest focus 1.4m;
      • a great general purpose lens but heavy and a bit aperture-challenged for portraiture
    • Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L:
      • handy at weddings as nice bokeh and 70mm is just long enough for portraits
  • manual focus lenses:

Canon 1D 1.3x crop dSLRs:

  • ideal focal length is 55-90mm given the 1.3x crop factor although a 100mm would still be reasonable
  • autofocus prime lenses:
    • Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L:
      • expensive; image quality is better at f/2.0 and wider than the f/1.4 lens but maybe worse than the f/1.4 lens at f/2.8-11.
      • amazing flare control. not only is it free of halation, it is superb for shooting contra-jour. this is a major advantage
      • more accurate MF scale
      • CA can be an issue wide open.
      • great bokeh
      • build quality may not be as good as it looks - may break more easily than you think.
      • focus shift can occur at focus < 3m when stopping down the aperture to f/2.8-4
      • unless you are going to use it mainly at apertures f/2.0 or wider or into the light then you would be better off with the much cheaper f/1.4 lens. If you are doing lots of half-body or full-body portraits then the f/1.2 may be worth it.
    • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4:
      • middle range lens; need to use at f/2.5 or smaller for best image quality results
      • very light lens. 
      • “much more robust than it seems, provided you use the canon (rigid) lens hood always: it attaches to barrel, not front of lens, thus protects the very delicate front element housing. one good knock on that housing, and your micromotor is toast.”
      • “the inside wears down. count on having to replace the focus motor after a few years.”
      • very susceptible to flare of all kinds
      • poor bokeh due to highly corrected spherical aberration which was designed to improve sharpness: below f/4 it tends to produce choppy, nasty interference patterns, which only get worse because with the halation wide open, you are more likely to boost contrast in post.
      • the Olympus OM 50mm f/1.2 MF lens (not the 55mm f/1.2) gives better wide open performance and is easier to focus manually in low light but its bokeh can be a problem.
    • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8:
      • cheap, plastic lens but of surprisingly good image quality stopped down.
    • Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM:
      • see under Canon full frame above
    • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8:
      • a very nice sharp & relatively compact lens
    • Canon EF 100mm lenses:
      • see under Canon full frame above
    • Canon EF 135mm lenses:
      • getting a bit long but can take fantastic portraits at f/2.0 
      • see under Canon full frame above
  • autofocus zoom lenses:
    • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L (112-320mm):
      • $A2600 w/o IS and $A3395 with IS weighing 1.57kg
      • closest focus 1.4m so at 120mm will give a subject area of 22x32cm
      • a great general purpose lens but heavy and a bit aperture-challenged for portraiture but many use it well for this purose.
  • manual focus lenses:
    • Canon EF TS-E 90mm f/2.8 (tilt shift lens) $A2319 
      • minimum focus 50cm 0.5x magnification on 1.3x crop
      • this is a great lens which enables one to determine the plane of focus and selectively blur out unwanted details while ensuring components that add to the image and flatter the subject remain sharply in focus.

Canon APS-C 1.6x crop dSLRS:

  •  ideal focal length is 44-75mm given the 1.3x crop factor although a 85mm would still be reasonable at 136mm equiv.
  • the usual 100mm portrait lens is too tight for indoor work on a 1.6x crop camera.
  • autofocus prime lenses:
  • autofocus zoom lenses:
    • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L (112-320mm):
      • $A2600 w/o IS and $A3395 with IS weighing 1.47kg
      • a great general purpose lens but heavy and a bit aperture-challenged for portraiture and getting a bit long in focal length
  • manual focus lenses:
    • see under Olympus manual focus lenses

Olympus Four-Thirds dSLRs:

  • ideal focal length is 35-60mm given the 2x crop factor
  • autofocus prime lenses:
  • autofocus zoom lenses:
      • released in 2005, it is the world's 1st lens to give f/2.0 over the entire zoom range
      • now this would make a brilliant available light portrait lens with nice bokeh ~$US2500 or $A4400
      • BUT weighs 1.8kg with tripod lock which is similar to Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 IS but 1 stop faster.
      • 77mm filter; close focus 1.4m; 
      • gives beautiful out-of-focus background blurring, and a very versatile lens which is much less expensive  and lighter than the 35-100mm f/2.0.
    • Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 EX DC:
      • equiv. to 36-100mm; 67mm filter; 0.46kg;
      • would be a good lens for both street photography at its wide end and portraiture at its long end.
    • Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 macro 
      • 72mm filter; 0.52kg; £369.99
  • manual focus lenses:
    • the range here is immense as there are many legacy M lenses in the 35-60mm range with wide apertures that could be converted for use on the Four-Thirds cameras via adapters, but results wide open are variable, with many (?most) having significant purple fringing around over-exposed highlights such as reflections of light sources.
    • see my lens tests:
    • furthermore, most of the older lenses do not have circular apertures for the nice bokeh.
    • Olympus OM lenses:
      • 55mm f/1.2
      • 50mm f/1.2
      • 50mm f/1.4
      • 50mm f/1.8
    • Nikon F mount lenses:
      • see under Nikon 
    • Contax Y/M mount:
      • Carl Zeiss T* 50mm f/1.4
      • Carl Zeiss T* 50mm f/1.7

Nikon 1.5x crop dSLRs:

Nikon full frame (FX):

photo/lensportrait.txt · Last modified: 2019/05/21 23:43 by gary1

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