For many 35mm full frame photographers, a wide aperture 85mm lens is the preferred tool for portraiture as the focal length allows a natural perspective without distorting facial features whilst still allowing the photographer to be close enough to interact well with the subject. Furthermore, the wider the aperture of the portrait lens means there are more options for creating shallow depth of field to ensure the subject is emphasized whilst the background is thrown into a nice blur – hopefully with nice bokeh qualities.
When it comes to shallow depth of field capabilities, Canon dSLR users reign supreme as they have access to the very expensive and heavy Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II lens – the only f/1.2 85mm lens currently manufactured.
However, all is not what it seems.
As superb as this lens is, there is one huge draw back – the autofocus is very slow and combined with the extremely shallow depth of field, this lens can be very challenging to use well wide open.
Canon users then are at a quandary, as their only other Canon autofocus 85mm lens is the excellent consumer grade Canon EF 85mm f/1.8, but this lens suffers from significant purple fringing wide open.
Nikon users don’t have access to a 85mm f/1.2 lens but they do have a good Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G lens (the 1995 D version lens was designed for film cameras and was not great on digital cameras), so perhaps they have a better compromise than Canon users.
Sony full frame dSLR users are in a similar situation to Nikon users as they have the Sony Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* lens but AF can be slow and at $1700 it is not cheap.
All dSLR lenses using phase detect AF need microcalibration of AF and this is particularly important with shallow depth of field images.
In addition, the above users have access to 3rd party lenses such as the excellent Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens although AF speed and accuracy can be an issue. For those on a budget, the Samyang/Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 manual focus lens may fit their needs.
Cropped sensor dSLR users can resort to their 50mm prime lenses although they will have less ability to gain shallow depth of field.
What do we really need?
Extreme shallow depth of field is not usually the prime requirement, and most portraits can be shot at 85mm f/2.4-2.8 on a full frame camera and get potentially even better results wide open as most portraits are best if at least the area from the subject’s ear to tip of nose is in focus.
Indeed, if one is shooting low light portraits, or using fill in flash with a slowish shutter speed without a tripod, then image stabilisation becomes very important and none of the Canon or Nikon options offer image stabilisation.
Furthermore, the most critical technical part of taking the shot is often ensuring that the closest eye of the subject is the sharpest part of the image. This can be very difficult to achieve with dSLRs using shallow depth of field.
This is where mirrorless cameras can be the BEST tool for portraiture as they can offer:
- sufficiently shallow depth of field
- sufficiently out of focus backgrounds with lovely bokeh quality of the blurring
- more depth of field wide open so you can use a faster shutter speed or lower ISO in low light if needed
- image stabilisation to ensure excellent sharpness (Olympus cameras)
- face detection autofocus with closest eye detection (Olympus cameras)
- small camera and lenses to reduce the subject being intimidated and allow them to be more relaxed
- high optical quality portrait lenses which are sharp edge to edge even wide open (full frame lenses generally lack sharpness just where you want the subject’s eyes)
- consistently accurate autofocus (no need for microcalibrations)
This week, Panasonic and Fuji have officially announced 2 new premium portrait lenses for their mirrorless cameras.
The Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 R lens:
Designed for the 1.5x crop Fuji X mirrorless system and gives an equivalent to a 85mm f/1.8 lens in field of view and depth of field terms on a full frame camera.
This lens is well built, relatively affordable at $US999, and it should be a very popular option for Fuji users.
However, there is no image stabilisation, AF of Fuji cameras still lags behind Micro Four Thirds cameras, and closest focus is 0.7m which may be limiting for some uses.
The Panasonic Leica DG 42.5mm f/1.2 Nocticron lens:
A very expensive lens designed for Micro Four Thirds (which are 2x crop cameras) and thus gives an equivalent to a 85mm f/2.4 lens in field of view and depth of field terms on a full frame camera.
It has “Power OIS” optical stabilisation built-in, and Olympus users also have the option of using sensor-based image stabilisation.
Close focus is 0.5m.
Surprisingly it is a touch bigger, and heavier than the Fujinon lens, but perhaps it will have less vignetting.
This lens should be available from march 2014 at £1,399.
Given the advantages of image stabilisation, edge-to-edge sharpness, closest eye detection AF and generally quieter, smaller, less intrusive gear, my personal preference is for an Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 or E-M5 combined with either the 42.5mm f/1.2 lens if you can afford it, or the much smaller, less expensive Olympus mZD 45mm f/1.8 lens. Having said that, I do most of my portraits with the superb Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens but this may be too long a focal length for many people.