What is the best lens for portrait photography ?
Over the years I have lost count of the times enthusiasts, students or even fellow professionals have asked ‘What is your favourite lens for portraits ?’ .
My usual answer is ‘long’ , but trying not to be flippant ,I also try and establish what type of portrait is required ?
Most people shall think that a portrait is a head shot ,with the subject usually engaged with the viewer . If that is the case ,then I can say that a long lens is definitely what is required . Most manufacturers such as Nikon or Canon and most other camera producer and lens manufacturer , have in their arsenal of glass ,what they describe as a portrait lens ,this is usually 85mm (on Full Frame Sensor/35mm film) but I have to disagree ,85mm is not that long . I would suggest that a 105mm or even a 135mm is the most satisfactory ,and even go longer if possible .
Assuming that you wish to flatter the subject , always remember that the nearer you are to someone, the more distorted they look . We are used to talking to someone within a metre or two, but close up ,when we are in the close personal space of someone ,something strange happens ,we usually just look at the eyes of that person .The viewer does not ‘see’ the extremely large nose that is nearer to the viewer and because of the laws of physics and perspective ensures that whatever is closer to you ,is larger - . There are many great examples of this and rather than go down the historic reference route ,I have produced a series of head shots that shows just what I mean.
From a 28mm to a 200mm ,the subject is still the same person, but do you notice how the proportions of the face become more pleasant as you move away from the subject .
If you measure the face and map out and draw the shapes and proportions ,it would look much more like the image seen through a very long lens - 200mm would be a good starting point . There is an argument that says that at that distance the viewer lacks depth and knowledge of the true proportions of the subject and even if the sitter had a very long nose , the distance would lessen the impression ,
So when considering a good portrait lens ,I would start with a 105mm Prime and even a 135mm .
The aperture is also a very important factor, the holy grail for some photographers ,limiting depth of focus (field) and operating in low light conditions, allowing the photographer to shoot at a shutter speed and ISO combination that allows a reasonable quality of sharpness & resolution .
I would agree that a good f2.8 is very desirable , but at what cost ? Rarely do photographers shoot a portrait wide open, you may get the eyes sharp ,but the nose maybe soft and even dominated the subject as the softness prevails .If the photographer is using flash ,it may be impossible to keep the aperture wide open ,in which case you maybe shooting at f8 and not ever using the qualities of f2.8 or even wider f2 and beyond . That effect though shall be more us useful when using the lens for video - and that is another subject that I hope to address in another posting !
To conclude ,
It would be great to have every lens that is made, but a good portrait lens can be a good zoom ,from 70mm - 200mm ,if you can afford a prime,I suggest that a 105mm lens will be more desirable than an 85mm . But as in all photography ,there are no rules, only guidelines and suggestions and my opinion is only one in thousands .
All images shot on Nikon D810 at 200ISO , at Barn Studio Stratford on Avon .
Lens 24mm -70mm G AF -S ED Nikon F2.8 FX & 70mm - 200mm Nikon AF-S f2.8 VR11.
Prime lens are usually employed for Advertising and most editorial Portrait work ,however I often use the 70mm-200mm for Portraits when conditions are fluid especially with corporate portraits when speed is required.
Thanks to the very talented Derrick Pearce - soon to be seen in a very interesting Ad later in 2017 .