What lens should I use for portrait photography?
Basic Photography
September 10, 2018

Camera gear fascinates all. The most common question received by all photography institutions is related to the camera gear required in a particular genre of photography. This leads to the question “What lens should I use for portrait photography?” There is no definite answer to this. This will depend on several factors which we are going to take a look at over the course of this blog. Portrait photography is perhaps one of the most common types of photography since no matter whichever genre you are shooting, you need to know how to take portraits.

Let us take a look at the different types of camera lenses and which type suits the portraitures

Zoom lens: Zoom lenses are lenses in which the focal lengths can be changed and they normally range between wide angle focal lengths to the low telephoto focal length range. Such a range is not exactly defined but they range somewhat between 10mm to 200mm. Zoom lenses can multitask as a result of this. You can shoot a landscape as well as zoom in to get a close portrait of your subject. Zoom lenses comprise of a lot of glass elements. This leads to a little degradation in quality as well, when compared to the prime lenses.  However, where the zoom lenses beat the primes is the flexibility they offer due to the mechanism of changing focal lengths. The problem is that a cheap zoom lens cannot compete with a cheap prime lens. The prime lens will always be favoured in portraitures due to the sharpness and the wide open apertures. These wide open apertures result in very shallow depth of field. The beautiful background blur of the 50mm f/1.8 lens is far superior than the one caused by the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens although the price difference is not too significant.

Telephoto Zoom lens: Telephoto zoom lens is also an example of zoom lens. The focal lengths are on the higher side and hence the name telephoto zoom. Lenses like the 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3, 200-500mm, 100-400mm f/4-5.6 are examples of telephoto zoom lenses. Let us take a look at the various factors that affect the depth of field:

1) Aperture: Wide open apertures result in very shallow depth of fields. So, f/1.8 will provide a very shallow depth of field in comparison to f/5.6.

2) Focal length: Greater focal lengths result in shallower depth of fields. For example, if you are shooting at 600mm, even with a small aperture of f/6.3, you will get a very shallow depth of field. However, this won’t be the case if you are shooting at 18mm with the same aperture.

3) Camera to subject distance: This is one of the most important factors that we tend to ignore. You may be shooting at 600mm at f/6.3. If the distance between the camera and the subject is too large, you will not be able to get the shallow depth of field. Thus, more the camera to subject distance, greater the depth of field.

From the above set of dependencies, we can observe that greater focal lengths result in shallow depth of fields as mentioned in Point 2. Hence a telephoto zoom lens can provide a very beautiful background blur. The point of confusion here is the fact that normally telephoto lenses don’t have very wide open apertures like f/1.8. Most of them have the apertures starting at f/4. This leads people into thinking that the background blur may not be achieved with these lenses. However as we already saw above, this is not true. Telephoto lenses can be great for portraits. The 70-200 f/2.8 is possibly the best telephoto lens for portraits.

Prime lens: Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths. A 50mm f/1.8 prime lens has a fixed 50mm focal length. There is no scope of zooming in or out. The photographer needs to move around in case he is shooting with a prime lens. The wide open apertures in prime lenses result in very beautiful background blurs. The resultant depth of field is quite shallow. Since these lenses don’t have the zooming option, the number of glass elements is quite less. This is the primary reason why the outputs of even cheap prime lenses are quite sharp and satisfactory. The prime lenses are also small in size and hence quite portable. In case of zoom lenses, the higher number of glass elements doesn’t necessarily result in high quality images unless of course it is priced at the higher end. The 85mm f/1.8 prime lens is possibly the most preferred for doing portraitures.

Wide Angle lens: As the name suggests, wide angle lenses are used to provide a very wide perspective. They are mostly used to shoot landscapes. Wide angle portraits are also quite prevalent nowadays. They offer a very unique perspective with the wide backdrop and the subject in front. Long exposure wide angled portraits are quite mesmerizing. Wide angle lenses have focal lengths mostly in the range of 8-24mm. Due to this, they have very large depth of fields. This may not be suitable for portraits but then who told that you always require shallow depth of fields in portraits?


Now we have seen all the different types of lenses. We have also made a note of the various factors affecting the depth of field. So what lens should you use for portrait photography? There is still not a definite answer. If you are shooting a portrait at low lighting conditions, use a prime lens. Neon portraits can be an example of this. If there is proper lighting and you are not able to get very close to the subject, use a telephoto lens. In case you are looking to photograph the model against a natural backdrop, use a wide angle lens. With the help of very slow shutter speeds, you can also capture the motion drama in the background. There is no limit to creativity. You, as a photographer need to decide which lens to use in order to shoot a particular portrait. Each and every lens can be used to shoot portraits and once you understand the basics, you will know exactly which lens to use and when.

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