If you’re getting serious about portrait photography, consider investing in a moderate telephoto lens. Here’s a round-up of the best.
Your lens’s focal length has an effect on the quality of the portraits you take. If it’s shorter than 70mm you risk subtle (or not so subtle) distortion of facial features (the wider the lens, the bigger the nose) and too much information in the background. If it’s longer than 135mm, visual compression can make your subjects appear flat. So, anything in the 70-135mm range is good. The 80-105mm range is even better, and will show your subject more naturally.
But there’s more to it than that. Many lenses let you manipulate the quality of the out-of-focus areas of the image via defocus control, have rounded aperture blades for more natural focus falloff, and have wider apertures, allowing you to be even more selective with your focus. This control over focus is important because the quality of the focus fall-off can subtly affect the look of your portraits. Most of the lenses here are primes, so they will give you ultra-sharp in-focus areas.
Here are five favorite lenses that are available at Adorama's DSLR Lens Department, and are either specifically designed with portrait photography in mind, or can capture portraits as one of their key features.
Nikon 105mm f/2 DC Nikkor
American photographers don’t spend enough time thinking about the quality of image blur. The Japanese have a word for it: Bokeh. A lens with good, natural-looking Bokeh is valued. Thankfully, Nikon—and others—have created lenses with good Bokeh in mind. The Nikon 105mm f/2 DC Nikkor is one of the pioneer “Defocus Control” lenses that produces excellent bokeh.
The Nikon 105mm f/2 DC Nikkor allows you to control the shape of the aperture which, in turn, changes the quality of the Bokeh. The nine aperture blades are rounded, which produces more natural-looking, rounded spectral highlights (By contrast, on typical lenses, the shape and angles of blurred spectral highlights tends to have straight edges. reflecting the shape of the aperture blades.) Very few lenses allow for this degree of “defocus control.”
The front element of the lens doesn’t rotate during focusing, which is an advantage when using polarizing or graduated filters that depend on precise positioning. At its widest aperture, f/2, the lens produces a shallow depth of field that can lead to stunning portraits, and also allows for low-light photography without flash. Spectral, blurred highlights are rounded and natural-looking.
When used on an APS-C Nikon DSLR, the lens’s field of view is equivalent to 158mm on a 35mm camera—a bit too long for portrait work as it requires you to back up farther. Until last year, that was your only choice when going digital, but fortunately, things have changed. Now that Nikon has added DSLRs with full-frame 35mm-sized sensors to its lineup, such as the D700, the 105 Nikkor can once again be used as a primary portrait lens.
With outstanding optics, defocus control and quality build, the Nikon 105mm f/2 DC Nikkor, which was introduced in 1993, is an influential lens that has has passed the test of time.
Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM
One of the most popular lenses in Canon’s impressive line of optics, the 85mm f/1.8 USM is a classic portrait lens, and an excellent companion to full-frame sensor-based DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Lightweight and relatively inexpensive, the lens has an 8-blade aperture, a quiet and fast USM autofocus motor, and offers pleasing backround blur.
While the 85mm f/1.8 is designed for use on film and 35mm-sized sensor DSLRs, it can also be used on Canon’s APS-sensor cameras such as the EOS 50D and the Digital Rebel STi as a 125mm (35mm equivalent) lens.
The 85mm f/1.8 is mostly used as a portrait lens, and is the ideal length for this both in the studio and outside. However, it is also used for low-light candid photography thanks to its wide-open aperture. Reports are that even at its widest aperture, this lens produces sharp images with pleasing focus fall-off. It focuses down to 2.8 feet—more than adequate for facial close-ups. The front elements does not rotate during focusing, which means filters whose placement is critical, such as polarizers and graduated filters.
The 85mm f/1.8 is often compared with the Canon 100mm f/2, another bargain-priced lens that is optically similar to the 85. The only downside to the 85mm f/1.8 is that a lens hood is not included and has to be purchased separately. To avoid flare, it is worth buying a hood.
Sample image: Canon USA
Olympus 40-150mm f/4-5.6
Olympus DSLR owners are a lucky bunch. Thanks to their cameras’ slightly smaller sensor, Olympus can design smaller, lighter lenses. The Olympus Zuiko Digital 40-150mm f/4-5.6 zoom is a versatile, lightweight, small lens that can handle a wide variety of photographic demands. With a 35mm equivalent of 80-300mm, the lens can handle many applications, from portraits through sports photography.
The 40-150mm lens is optimized for portrait work thanks to its seven rounded diaphragm blades, which form a circular aperture at all settings (and much like the Nikon 105mm DC lens I wrote about yesterday). This translates into natural-looking out-of-focus areas of the picture and round specular highlights—all important elements for portrait shots. However, it can zoom out to 300mm, allowing users to get up to the action in sports or when shooting wildlife.
As an added bonus, the front of the 40-150mm lens does not rotate when you zoom or focus, so you can precisely position a polarizing lens or graduated filter without worry that focus would change your setup. With close focus to about three feet, the lens offers adequate magnification for nice flower close-ups when shooting at the maximum focal length. The lens accepts 58mm filters, and is matched with the EC-14 1.4x Tele-Converter and the EX-25 Extension Tube, for true macro photography.
If you are looking for a little more speed and a more solidly-built lens, the Olympus Zuiko 40-150mm f/3.5-4.5 is a bit bulkier and heavier but will stand up to rigorous use. But for most of us, the 40-150mm f/4-5.6 is ideally matched with Olympus’s tiny DSLRs such as the E-410, E-510, E-420 or E-520 (you can buy it in a kit with most of these models), or with Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the E-PL1 via an adapter, and you’ll have a versatile, lightweight portrait-friendly setup that you can carry anywhere.
Pentax 70mm f/2.4 pancake lens
Take a casual look at this remarkable lens and you may think that it’s a wide-angle lens. After all, it is only an inch long and weighs 4.6 ounces. But somehow, Pentax has used its legendary innovative lens design prowess to deliver a unique 70mm f/2.4 Pancake lens—a moderate telephoto that’s ideal for landscape and portrait photography. When used in any Pentax DSLR, the 35mm equivalent area of coverage is 105mm, a reasonable portrait lens length.
The lens is constructed of high-performance optics and boasts edge-to-edge sharpness. It has SP (Super Protect) coating that repels dust, water and grease from the glass elements, and a Quick-Shift Focus system that lets you instantly switch from autofocus to manual focus. Despite its diminutive dimensions, the Pentax 70mm f/2.4 Pancake lens doesn’t skimp on image quality. To the contrary, as a prime lens you can expect it to deliver outstanding sharpness.
While the 70mm f/2.4 Pancake lens is optimized for any Pentax DSLR, it may have met its perfect mate with the recent introduction of the Pentax K2000, one of the smallest DSLRs currently on the market. However, since it sports a K AF lens mount, it is backward-compatible with any K-mount Pentax camera ever made, whether it’s film or digital.
The 70mm f/2.4 is one of a series of Premium Pentax Pancake lenses, (the others are the 21mm f/3.2 and the incredibly small 40mm f/2.8 XS) and is the most surprising of the three because within its short dimensions is a bona-fide telephoto. If you like to travel light and small and shoot unobtrusively, this engineering marvel is well worth considering.
Sony 135mm f/2.8-4.5 STF Smooth Transition Focus
In 1985, shortly before the world’s first autofocus SLR camera was introduced, Minolta dazzled the photographic world by introducing the 135mm f/2.8 STF lens. When Sony took over the Minolta SLR line in 2005, the company re-introduced the lens under the Sony brand name. 20 years after its introduction, it’s still unique among lenses. The Sony 135mm f/2.8-4.5 STF Smooth Transition Focus lens, just like its storied forebear, is a highly specialized manual-focus lens that is designed to produce the best Bokeh possible. (To review: Bokeh is the Japanese word for the rendering of unsharp areas of a photograph.) As a result, out-of-focus blur is incredibly soft, natural, and smooth.
To control the quality of the Bokeh, the 135mm STF lens has a Aphodization optical element near the aperture. This element has a circular, gradated ND filter that becomes gradually darker towards the perimeter. This takes the unnatural edge off out-of-focus details but maintains extraordinary subject sharpness. The downside to this design is that while the lens is technically f/2.8 and the depth of field is consistent with that aperture, the effective amount of light actually transmitted by the lens is about ½ a stop lower, or T4.5.
Another aspect of the lens’s defocus control is the aperture. It has two aperture sets: a 10-blade aperture with rounded sides which is controlled manually, and a 9-blade aperture with rounded sides that is controlled in A (auto) mode.
Big difference: Left: Photo taken with Sony 135mm f/2.8 (T4.5) STF lens. Right: Shot with traditional 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. See how much smoother the out of focus areas are with the STF lens? Sample photos: Sony Japan.
Yes, at around $1,400 this lens is a pricey one. But it is virtually unmatched in its ability to capture natural focus. If that’s important to you, the Sony 135mm f/2.8 (T4.5) STF lens is well worth the extra expense.
Look for the entire range of portrait lenses by browsing the Adorama DSLR Lens Department.
Additional research for this article by Jena Ardell.
Do you have a favorite portrait lens that I didn’t mention? Post a comment and tell us what you use and why.