What Is a Portrait Lens?

My wife Abby at Mesa Verde National Park, October 2005; I made this image with my 70-300mm at about the 135mm setting.
My wife Abby at Mesa Verde National Park, October 2005; I made this image with my 70-300mm at about the 135mm setting.

If you read photography press or internet forums, eventually you will come across talk of lens focal lengths that are regarded as “portrait lenses.” As surely as there are lenses that can provide beautiful portraits, there are caveats to that notion, the most important of which is that most lenses can produce excellent portraits of people when used by talented photographers.

The most obvious concept common to portrait lenses is that they be flattering to the subject. The person being photographed shouldn’t appear foolish or ugly, distorted or deformed (except when the editorial content calls for it). Part of achieving this “flattering” look is being able to shoot the human form from a distance that is comfortable, from a distance that is approximately the same as you would view someone in a normal conversation. We see and interact with other people at this distance all the time, and our brains understand this distance best when dealing with the human face. This distance is also not uncoincidentally a comfortable distance from which to work with your subject.

While making pictures in the front yard of a friend's house in Norman, Oklahoma, I made this portrait of my wife with the manual focus 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor from about 15 feet away, at about f/4.
While making pictures in the front yard of a friend's house in Norman, Oklahoma, I made this portrait of my wife with the manual focus 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor from about 15 feet away, at about f/4.

To that end, we need a lens that will allow us to fill up the frame with the desired amount of human form from this normal conversational distance, which most of the time is roughly five to fifteen feet. From that distance if you want to fill the frame with a human face, you need something in the ball park of a 70mm to 135mm lens. To fill the frame with head-to-waist, something in the 50-75mm range might work, and head-to-toe might call for a 35-50mm lens or so. There are a lot of variables, and each portrait will be unique (unless you go to Wal Mart, where each portrait is pretty much the same).

Portrait of Abby on our back porch made with the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 at 70mm at about f/4.
Portrait of Abby on our back porch made with the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 at 70mm at about f/4.

Another factor to consider when photographing people is the background, and how it is rendered by lens, aperture, and working distance. Much of the time we like the background to gracefully disappear into a form that sets tone and gives us a small amount of contextual information, but does not take the viewer’s eye away from the subject. We try to do this often by using large apertures, longer focal lengths, and closer focusing distance, all of which result in shallower depth of field, making the background softer and less intrusive.

Another less tangible aspect of achieving flattering, unobtrusive backgrounds is the concept of “bokeh,” which is a Japanese word that means “blur” or “haze,” and in the photographic community is used to describe the character of the out-of-focus portion of images. Some lenses are said to have “good bokeh,” while others have “bad bokeh.” I personally use the term “ratty bokeh” to describe lenses that have distracting out-of-focus areas. Certain lenses are noted for having really beautiful bokeh, like the expensive 85mm offerings from Nikon and Canon. In fact, the manual focus version of Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4 is regarded as the gold standard by which bokeh is judged.

In the end, of course, how a lens renders the out-of-focus areas of a photograph is up to the photographer to judge, and one man’s bad bokeh is another man’s perfect background.

For what it’s worth, most of my favorite portraits in my portfolio are not planned, studio-style shots, but occasions when light and lens and subject have come together and I was ready to see it and photograph it.

The first portrait I made of Abby; I shot this with the spectacular 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor of 1987 vintage. Like all of my old manual focus lenses, I sold this one years ago.
The first portrait I made of Abby; I shot this with the spectacular 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor of 1987 vintage. Like all of my old manual focus lenses, I sold this one years ago.
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2 Comments

  1. Your last sentence rang very true to me. Most of my favorite images of people were not planned. They were spontaneous and mostly candid.

    One note: When you mentioned the focal lengths, I was immediately reminded that many budding photographers are shooting with crop-sensor cameras (as I do). From the 5-15 foot range, they’ll likely be looking for lenses slightly shorter than you mentioned, say 50mm to 100mm or so. (Since the sensor crops off part of the lens’ image circle.)

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  2. Sensor size and that whole mess about crop vs full-frame vs a kick in the crotch is a topic for another day. But keep this in mind: percentage of my photography students (in four years of teaching) who use 24x15mm sensors or smaller: 100.

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