One of the most common questions I get from aspiring portrait photographers is, “Can you recommend a good lens?” Learning about lenses was a huge learning curve for me, I really had no idea that I could have a really nice camera and it could do all kinds of great things and I was only limiting it by not using the best lenses I had available.
I’ll start out my story by telling you guys that I bought my first DSLR and it came with two kit lenses. Now at the time I thought myself a bit of a bad-ass with not just one, but two lenses I could change out on my camera. When I was out in public if I changed my lenses and pulled out my telephoto lens it definitely made me look like a pro because it was bigger, right? What I didn’t know about the kit lenses is that they really weren’t that great. And they were terrible in low light since the aperture didn’t go below 4.0.
I’ve learned so much from those beginning days. While I can’t speak a lot about all the different types of lenses out there I can speak about what kinds of lenses work well for portraiture and weddings because that’s what I know. I don’t do any sports photography or landscape photography so if you have questions about great lenses for that sort of thing I won’t be able to answer.
My first lens learning lightbulb was when another photographer explained what good lenses were, ones with an f-stop of 2.8 or lower. At first I just assumed these lenses were used by the pros because they were more expensive, but I quickly learned that they were sharper, able to work in lower light, and much faster. Ever since then one of my personal rules is to never buy or use a lens that can’t go lower than 2.8. Not only are they faster, sharper, and better in low light, but when you photograph wide open with the lowest f-stop with any lens that will go lower than 2.8 you get that professional quality photo where your subject is in sharp focus in the foreground and the background is bokeh and blurred out. This really changes the emotional aspect of each photo by choosing where the viewer will focus for them and it’s an effect I strive to achieve in all of my photography now.
So now if you’re a portrait photographer you know one thing, buy lenses with an f-stop of 2.8 or lower. This leads you to your next step, buying zoom or fixed (prime) lenses. A zoom lens can change its focal length where a prime lens has a fixed focal length. Each has their pros and cons, and what you decide is up to you. Neither one is right or wrong, but instead a lens choice may truly dictate your style of photography.
- More flexible and portable
- Able to get a tighter shot even when you aren’t right next to what may be happening
- Have a variety of perspectives and compositions all from one lens
- Great for weddings when you can’t get close to the couple during the ceremony (example: Catholic weddings)
- Can be quite expensive for a zoom lens with a 2.8 or lower aperture
- Sharper images
- Lighter (easier on the old neck)
- Have wider apertures (1.2, 1.4, etc.)
- Great in low light
- Can be cheaper to purchase
I tend to stick with prime lenses for my style. In fact, I don’t own any zoom lenses anymore. I’ve found they just don’t suit my style like a prime does. I have a 50mm 1.4, an 85 1.8, and a few others, but these two are my ‘go to’ lenses and they both cost around $400 a piece. They were great additions to my set and my 50mm 1.4 is on my camera 90% of my time. I love the 50mm 1.4 because I feel it is very true to the eye and enables me to get in tight (if I move my feet) and get a wider angle with more interaction between groups of people if I step back further.
When I purchased my first prime lens I purchased a 50mm 1.8 that I still have and use on occasion. This was a great step for me. I was able to get great bokeh with this lens while I started out my business and I was also able to stay in a good budget. This lens costs about $100 with any brand.
There are a few other lenses I have and utilize as a portrait photographer and they’re my ‘creative set.’ These lenses are not for everyone, but I love the Lensbaby stuff and use it on occasion when I want a specific look. I have the Lensbaby Composer Pro with several optics, including: fisheye, tilt shift, and sweet 35.
A fisheye lens gives a very distorted (almost round) wide angle view of anything. I’ve found that the fisheye is a great tool for a few fun shots of the wedding as a whole, but it’s not something I use often. They are great for panoramic views.
A tilt-shift lens was originally used to prevent distortion when photographing things like buildings and became a tool for portrait photographers to use as a selective focus lens. A tilt shift lens in portrait photography allows for a line of focus through the photo and you can move that line vertically, horizontally or diagonally and select your area of focus.
The sweet 35 optic from Lensbaby is just that, a sweet spot of focus. You can move it around in the photo plane and the rest of the image will be blurred out of focus.
There are many other types of creative lenses which can be useful for portrait photography. Depending on what your style is you’ll be able to chose from many different types.
Another important aspect of camera lenses is understanding the focal lengths and what they can achieve for you. Here is a very basic guide, which can vary a little depending on what type of camera you’re using, but the idea is the same.
Less than 21mm – Extreme Wide Angle (great for architecture)
21-35mm – Basic Wide Angle (good for landscape or wide shots of an event)
35-70mm – Normal Angle (great for portrait photography)
70-135mm – Medium Telephoto Lens
135-300mm or more – Telephoto (great for sports and wildlife)
As I said at the beginning, this tutorial is definitely geared toward the portrait photography folks. Everyone has their own style and I’ve seen people use all different kinds of lenses for portrait photography. This is just what works for me and some general information. If you have any questions about what type of lens you should purchase feel free to ask.
If you need to see some samples of portrait photography feel free to stop by my website http://carrieswailsphotography.com I’m not at all the best photographer out there, but I’ve learned a lot since I first started my business and I’m proud of what I have been able to accomplish.