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Home / Tips and Tricks / Do you need a special lens to take portrait photos?

Do you need a special lens to take portrait photos?



sample image with three portraits
Snapsure

If you’ve ever tried to take beautiful portraits with your camera and a standard kit lens, you might have been disappointed that the results didn̵

7;t match the images you see on social media or in magazines. Part of this is due to the lenses most often used to capture professional portraits. Let’s see what makes them special and whether you need one to take great portraits.

What is a portrait lens?

a traditional portrait
This is a fairly traditional modern portrait: the model is in focus, while the background is blurry and indistinct. Snapsure

Portrait lenses (or rather lenses-that-are-often-used-for-portraits-but-can-also-be-used-for-many-other-things-) have two main characteristics:

This means that most portrait lenses designed for full-frame cameras have focal lengths between about 50mm and 105mm, with a maximum aperture of somewhere between f / 1.2 and f / 2.8, or so. (The equivalent focal range for crop sensor cameras is between about 35mm and 70mm, so there’s a lot of overlap.).

Some typical portrait lenses that you’ll often see recommended are the Canon EF 50mm f / 1.8 and the Nikon AF S 85mm f / 1.8, although there are much more expensive options that cost more than most cameras, such as the Canon RF 85mm f / 1.2 L.

If you compare these specs to the entry-level zoom lenses that come with the camera, you’ll find that while they often have the right kind of focal length, their maximum aperture is much smaller. The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f / 4-5.6, for example, is designed for crop sensor cameras, so at 55mm, the focal length is a good place for portraits. It’s the f / 5.6 maximum aperture that lets it down.

So, what does all this mean for portraits?

Portrait lenses give you blurry backgrounds

depth of field preview
The photo of the model was taken with a very wide aperture, so there is almost no background. For the photo of the skier, I used a much smaller aperture because I wanted the mountains to be sharp. Snapsure

Aperture is how you determine depth of field, or how much of your photo is in focus. The wider the aperture you use, the shallower the depth of field. This is what gives you the classic portrait look of a sharp subject with a super blurry background full of bokeh.

portrait with super blurry background
Unfortunately, these kinds of photos are impossible to take without some kind of portrait lens. Snapsure

If you want to make these kinds of portraits, then you must indeed invest in some kind of portrait lens. While smartphones try to fake the portrait look with extra sensors and machine learning, it’s not quite the same as doing optical.

However, it is important to note that this is only one portrait style, albeit a popular one. Portraits are photographs of people, not abstract studies of lens blur. Just having bokeh in the background doesn’t mean you have a good photo, and lacking it doesn’t mean you’re a bad photographer either.

Portrait lenses do not (very) distort your subject

example of a bad wide-angle photo
Getting too close to your subject with a wide-angle lens won’t produce flattering photos. Snapsure

Lenses bend light to project it onto your camera’s sensor. The wider the angle of a lens, the more the light has to be bent to catch it. A side effect of this is optical distortion, which can make portraits of people, and especially close-ups, taken with wide-angle lenses look so weird.

Lenses in the normal to short telephoto focal range, like most portrait lenses, produce very little optical distortion. They use a simple and reliable optical design that manufacturers have mastered. The little distortion that exists with the telephoto end of the range can actually flatter your subjects.

telephoto lens demo for portrait
This is a much nicer picture of me. Snapsure

For what it’s worth, there are wide angle lenses specifically designed to minimize distortion. However, they are mainly used by filmmakers with large budgets and professional architectural photographers. For most portrait photographers, it is easier to use a longer focal length or bypass optical distortion than it is to invest thousands of dollars in niche lenses.

Portrait lenses allow you to shoot in realistic situations

demo of adaptability of portrait lenses
This was shot under a street lamp. Snapsure

One of the great advantages of portrait lenses is that they are very easy to use in many realistic environments. You don’t need a tripod or a lot of flashes to get the best out of it.

With a 50mm or 85mm lens, you only need to be eighty to three feet away from someone to take a great photo. In theory, you can take stunning portraits with telephoto lenses, as they can blur the background even more – it’s just that you need to be too far away to target your subject or communicate in any other way, and you certainly can’t take photos. make it in a normal way. big room.

The large aperture also gives you a lot of flexibility with your camera settings. When it’s evening or you’re in a dimly lit room, you can open the aperture to the maximum, raise the ISO, and still use a shutter speed fast enough to freeze your subject – no need for a flash. When it’s bright, you can use a slightly smaller aperture or just a really fast shutter speed and the lowest ISO setting your camera supports.

This flexibility to shoot however and whenever you want is as much the reason that portrait lenses are so popular with photographers as their ability to blur backgrounds.

But portrait lenses can also limit you

three kids fishing in rockpool
This photo would be pretty meh if it was a close-up with a blurred background. Snapsure

Portrait lenses are great. Any photographer should consider buying an entry-level 50mm f / 1.8 lens to have a flexible lens they can use for street photography, travel, and other casual photography. It’s useful for those times when you inevitably get roped into shooting family events as well.

example of portrait shot with wide angle lens
I love this portrait of a fisherman threading his line. There is so much character in his face. I shot this with my wide angle lens for landscape photography. Snapsure

But if you don’t have one, it doesn’t mean you can’t take portraits. Just taking portraits with a blurred background is a pretty boring way to work. If that’s the only way to photograph someone, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities.

In particular, there are often times when the background is just as important as the subject. Environmental portraits that show the context of the image are often much more interesting. I prefer the photos I use in this section of the article to the more standard portraits I’ve shown before.

So yes, a special portrait lens is nice to have and is necessary to shoot a certain portrait style. But that’s not the only portrait style you can create – and it shouldn’t be.




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