Portrait Lens Options; Try More Than The Mid-Range Tele

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Back in the day when most photographers were still using a medium format camera, I used to get annoyed when photographers called their 150mm lens a "portrait lens." While it's true that the majority of portraits are made with telephoto lenses, to call a particular focal length lens a "portrait lens" is ridiculous. Any lens of any focal length can be used to create portraits. But before we look at using other lenses, let's see why short to medium length telephoto lenses are so popular.

Camilla Breitholtz
© 2008, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

You want to create a flattering image of your subject and draw attention to them. By using a telephoto lens it makes it easier to accomplish these objectives. First, a longer lens creates a narrower angle of view, great for eliminating distracting backgrounds. Second, the long lens allows you a comfortable working distance from your subject; since you're not right in your subject's face, it's usually more comfortable for them to have a portrait taken. And the longer lens creates a nice perspective since you are a distance away from your subject. So it's easy to see why, when a professional is asked to make a pleasing portrait of their subject, he or she usually grabs a telephoto lens. But there are also times when other lenses are better suited to the job.

Graffiti Gallery
This image by Flint Gennari, was taken with a Hasselblad 50mm lens. It is a light painting of Hugo Martinez, the foremost authority on graffiti, in his Chelsea Gallery, New York City. I don't quite know what's going on but I'm fascinated by this great use of lens, light, and color.
© 2008, Flint Gennari, All Rights Reserved

Let's start by looking at a traditional outdoor portrait. As you can see in the portrait of Camilla Breitholtz, we've created a pleasing portrait. This shot was taken with a Nikon D200 and a Sigma 50-150mm zoom lens at 98mm and f/3.5. Our long lens is creating a narrow angle of view, giving us a comfortable working distance, creating a nice perspective because of that distance and, combined with a large f/stop for shallow depth of field, our attention is focused on our subject.

Dylan
This image by Mark Zelinski, taken with a Canon Rebel with the lens at about a "normal" 32mm, is a good example of "in your face"-type portraiture that can be created in tight shooting spaces. The background and color add a great deal to the image. (ISO 250; 1/200 sec at f/5.6.)
© 2008, Mark Zelinski, All Rights Reserved
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