Your Next Lens

Our great niece Teddy Lauren Brown poses for a classic letter-jacket senior portrait Saturday evening in Duncan, Oklahoma. This image was made with one of my all-time favorite lenses, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, mounted on my Nikon D7100.
Our great niece Teddy Lauren Brown poses for a classic letter-jacket senior portrait Saturday evening in Duncan, Oklahoma. This image was made with one of my all-time favorite lenses, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, mounted on my Nikon D7100.

If you don’t have a large-maximum-aperture prime (single-focal-length, non-zoom) lens in your bag now, in the fall, before the Christmas season, it’s time to get one. Not only are the customary low-light seasons approaching, it is also time to photograph high school seniors, a growing, popular subset of photography. I had the opportunity to photograph a high school senior this weekend, my great niece (in-law) Teddy, who I have been photographing since she was five.

This is my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Lately it has been my favorite lens for everything from portraits of our dogs to commercial work. I can't say enough good things about it.
This is my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Lately it has been my favorite lens for everything from portraits of our dogs to commercial work. I can’t say enough good things about it.

I can recommend many large-aperture lenses because I have them and use them – the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and the f/1.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 – but every camera manufacturer makes great large-aperture lenses.

My 85mm has been my go-to lens for recent commercial work, low light venues like Open Mic Nyte, and for the session recently with Teddy. In addition to being in the classic frame-filling-at-comfortable-distances category, it also can deliver absolutely game-changing selective  focus, smoothly and delicately washing backgrounds and foregrounds into smooth, complimentary picture elements.

Teddy poses in a hay field east on Duncan, Oklahoma. At the risk of editorializing, our little Teddy has certainly grown up.
Teddy poses in a hay field east on Duncan, Oklahoma. At the risk of editorializing, our little Teddy has certainly grown up.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we took advantage of a characteristic of large-aperture lenses, their inclination to flare when light strikes their large front elements. This moody look was exactly what we wanted, and movie fans will laugh to learn that we called this the "Gladiator" pose.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we took advantage of a characteristic of large-aperture lenses, their inclination to flare when light strikes their large front elements. This moody look was exactly what we wanted, and movie fans will laugh to learn that we called this the “Gladiator” pose.
Even Larger Apertures...
Fellow news photographer and Oklahoman photo chief Doug Hoke and I had lunch when I was in the Metro recently to cover playoffs. Among many other topics, we talked about a lens he’s been enjoying, a Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95. He’s able to use this exotic glass thanks to the fact that his mirrorless cameras have the sensor right behind the lens mount, allowing him to use pretty much any lens in existence, albeit with limitations.

Sometimes my students ask me, “What lens should I get for…?” and the answer is often a non-zoom, or prime. That can be a hard sell sometimes, since zoom lenses are perceived as both more versatile and more fun. But I am here to say that I am often happiest and getting the best stuff when I have a prime in my hands.

Teddy and I put our heads together as we create her senior pictures Saturday afternoon into evening. My wife and I shot her brother's senior pictures four years ago.
Teddy and I put our heads together as we create her senior pictures Saturday afternoon into evening. My wife and I shot her brother’s senior pictures four years ago.
Teddy poses in one of Aunt Judy's ponds. A lot of photographers would have followed her in, but I don't like the water.
Teddy poses in one of Aunt Judy’s ponds. A lot of photographers would have followed her in, but I don’t like the water.

Nothing is without a tradeoff, though. In addition to being more expensive than the kit lens that came with your camera, a large-aperture prime is more demanding on your skills and patience. For example, when you shoot a 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, the depth of field is only a few millimeters, so if your focus is off by a couple of inches, not only is it out of focus, it’s way out of focus.

My wife Abby poses with Teddy when she was just five years old. The fact that Teddy has been comfortable being photographed by us was a big plus for our session Saturday.
My wife Abby poses with Teddy when she was just five years old. The fact that Teddy has been comfortable being photographed by us was a big plus for our session Saturday.
You can see in my subject's hair clear presence of spherochromatism, a color aberration characteristic of many large-aperture lenses.
You can see in my subject’s hair clear presence of spherochromatism, a color aberration characteristic of many large-aperture lenses.

Also, some of these lenses exhibit aberrations, optical flaws, like distortion, chromatic aberration, field curvature, and, especially in the case of my 50mm f/1.4 and my 85mm f/1.8, spherochromatism, in which objects in the near out-of-focus areas take on magenta fringing, and object beyond the focus take on green fringing.

We accept these aberrations and even learn to live with them, although shooting at a smaller aperture makes them go away (except for distortion), because we didn’t spend $1900 on f/1.2 to shoot at f/4. We could do that with our $300 lenses.

Teddy hopes to go to nursing school, so one of the outfits she brought was medial scrubs and a stethoscope. For this image, we posed her on one of the bridges at Abby's aunt Judy's pond, where we were enjoying our family reunion.
Teddy hopes to go to nursing school, so one of the outfits she brought was medial scrubs and a stethoscope. For this image, we posed her on one of the bridges at Abby’s aunt Judy’s pond, where we were enjoying our family reunion.
Teddy is a very natural model, and we always have fun photographing her.
Teddy is a very natural model, and we always have fun photographing her.

Finally is the notion that, “If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a movie,” and my session with Teddy had a strong narrative, both from our planning what to do when and where, but also from the fact that my wife and I have been photographing her since she was five.

Our great niece Teddy poses for one of her senior pictures Saturday. We were both pleased with the whole shoot, which I shot entirely with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
Our great niece Teddy poses for one of her senior pictures Saturday. We were both pleased with the whole shoot, which I shot entirely with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
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4 Comments

  1. This. We are enamored of our Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens. We use it constantly, having purchased it (wow, what a price tag) specifically to shoot weddings and engagements. We now use it almost exclusively to shoot any type of portrait photo. My wife really prizes it, and uses it far more than I do, though I have gotten my hands on it lately. On your advice, I used it to photograph a public reception (in low light, as usual) for a retired Air Force One pilot, in the lobby and foyer of our local bank. The ability of the 85mm to, as you said, fill the frame at comfortable distances, proved indispensable, as I captured some great, fly-on-the-wall images. The natural light looked great, as well. Just yesterday, I used this lens at an assignment on campus, again in low light, but the pictures turned out looking great.
    Also, I think I agree with you on using almost exclusively non-zoom lenses. I still do use zooms, occasionally, but our go-to lenses are ALL of the non-zoom, prime variety. (The 35mm, the 50mm, and the 85mm.) Just about the only zoom that I do use lately is the 10-24mm.

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