Advice for portrait lenses

Started Mar 14, 2014 | Discussions thread
Leonard Shepherd
Leonard Shepherd Forum Pro • Posts: 16,217
Re: It is an interesting thread BUT

sapralot wrote:

I currently own a Nikon 85/1.8.

In some ways the question is similar to "I have outgrown my childhood - what do I do buy next?".

The 85mm f1.8 D can take superb "portrait" images.

Looking at the images posted in the thread they range from a decent dog shot through "snapshots" in not very complimentary light to good foreground from background separation lifestyle type portraiture. There is a lack of "classical portraiture" concentrating on head and shoulders with controlled backgrounds - which is what specialist portrait lenses were designed for.

The first question is what does the OP mean by portraits?

For natural facial perspective in a head and shoulders portrait (the traditional concept of portraiture), about twice the focal length of format diagonal (85 mm on FX) is "about right" though there are plenty of 105 mm FX portrait lenses and in Nikon the 135 DC used by some for more background blur utilising the narrower angle of view.

Most will remember the "big nose" portrait era when many parents only had a 35 mm fixed lens film camera. Going in "portrait" close with these cameras resulted in distortion to big noses and small ears. The 2013/14 even more exaggerated effect is a "selfie". The results are important as snapshots and for memories but anyone able to afford FX (or good DX) and money for an appropriate portrait lens has the world at their fingertips as regards high quality portraiture.

Having the ability to produce good quality portraits (or any other type of photograph) involves a little more than buying appropriate equipment.

Control of lighting (not yet mentioned) is key to top quality portraiture. Often it is soft and directional. At the "expensive and slightly complex" end of the spectrum is studio lighting. At much less cost there is outdoors in soft daylight with "direction" estimated by looking at how the light illuminates your hand. Another possibility is indoors with daylight through a single window. If you cannot find soft light outdoors the shade of a tree or building when  there  is harsh sunlight is a possibility. There are some images in  the thread taken in harsh light that I do not think do the subject or the equipment used full justice and I think they are best classed as snapshots.

There is a particularly good outdoor environmental shot in this thread of mom holding up her child at arms length in clothing complimentary to the background with a lovely out of focus effect of autumn colour and sunlit highlights. It looks like quite a bit of time and effort went into "making" that shot happenand producing a result worthy of good equipment

Bokeh next - that shot needed a lens which handled the out of focus highlights well (good bokeh) but if the photographer works hard to control the background to place emphasis on the portrait subject (no 2 of good portraiture after light quality) if there are no out of focus highlights you do not need a lens with good bokeh.

Getting the subject to accept YOU can take good photos (by showing good work) and arranging the subjects in the right way to achieve good portraits is the third requirement. Digressing slightly I saw a presentation about 3 weeks ago by a photographer using a D3, mainly a 135 DC and B&W post processing earning around £5000 ($7500) from a good shoot. He had no better (and in terms of MP less able) equipment than most of the suggestions so far.

My advice to the OP is go back to basics.

If you have learned about good light for portraiture, how to "recognise" a good portrait setting, and got credibility based on the quality of your work you are likely to appreciate anything better than an 85 mm f1.8 D has as much relevance as what brand of petrol (or diesel) you usually buy to drive from A to B.

By all means upgrade if you want to, but also consider how to achieve results similar to the best posted in the thread. The best in the thread would look just as good taken with your 85 mm D as with most comparable quality lenses.

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Leonard Shepherd
We all aspire to take great photos but may not always achieve this perhaps due to a lack of application, a lack of knowledge, or even a lack of talent.
The best photographers probably work quite hard at their photography.

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