Best Prime Lenses to Own for Portrait Photography
I'm back! Writing has never been my strongest suit and I try to avoid writing if at all possible. Quite obvious with just three posts over 3 years. However, late last year I started working on a project teaching photography to investigators and it requires quite a bit of writing. So I think I've gotten more comfortable with writing on my own blog.
Anyway, I recently traded in my Nikon 45mm 2.8 Tilt Shift lens for a 135mm f2 Defocus Control (DC) lens. Haven't been using the 45mm T/S much so decided it was time for a change. I figured this would be a good topic to write about since I have a history with the 135mm F2 DC lens.
Last time I used the 135mm DC was in the late 2000s when I rented it and used it on my then new Nikon D3S. The outcome of that was I ended up buying the 85mm 1.4G which I still own now. I picked the 85mm because it was a 1.4 and it looked badass on a Nikon pro body.
In comparison, the 135mm DC looked vintage with it's aperture ring, black/silver design and the defocus control ring. Modern Nikon lenses don't have the mechanical aperture rings anymore - the apertures are all electronically controlled. I didn't dig the retro look back then. Times have changed and I'm now loving the look of the 135mm.
Not to get into too much technical detail, DC or defocus control refers the ability to change the spherical abberation produced by the lens. This affects the softness of the out of focus foreground or background. This is also more commonly refered to as "bokeh". The default setting for DC is the center dot and there are F (front) or R (rear) options for controlling the amount of blurring or defocus. For portait work, I've found that the R defocus is best and setting of R2 and R2.8 are useable. Anything higher affects the sharpness of the image in focus.
Nikon 135mm f2 DC mounted on a Nikon D3X body. The defocus control mechanism can be seen in the middle photo. The 135mm was released in 1990 while the D3X was released in 2009.
I never had any regrets with the 85mm 1.4. But after 10 years as a full time pro and with the 135mm showing up again it made me look back and write about what I think are the best lenses a portrait photographer should own.
"In hindsight everything is much clearer" - B.Cummings
Looking back, the 35, 50 and 85mm lenses were my most used lenses for portraiture. I've used them for coporate, editorial and advertising photography with good results (i.e. I got paid).
So after adding the 135mm F2 DC to my kit, what do I think about it?
I'll be comparing the 50mm, 85mm and 135mm lenses and it's usefulness to a portrait photographer.
L-R 50mm 1.4D, 85mm 1.4G and 135mm F2 DC. These lenses are also called fast lenses because of their wide apertures.
For lack of anything to shoot the other day at the studio, I did a series of self portraits comparing the three lenses.
Image was lit by a single Profoto D1 strobe with a beauty dish mounted overhead. No post cropping was done, s-curve and a bit of sharpness and clarity were added. I kept still and used the Nikon app to trigger the shutter.
All the self portraits were shot with the same camera to subject distance. This is to show the field of view (FOV) of each lens.
Self portrait tip: I found it easier to keep still if I'm looking somewhere else instead of looking directly at the camera.
The Nifty 50mm
The 50mm is the most versatile lens among the three, you can have just this lens in your bag and shoot almost anything. The 50mm is also called a standard lens since it's field of view is the same as how the human eye views a scene. It's not wide nor tight, it's just right.
Masked self portrait, new normal. Nikon D750 with 50mm f1.4 Shot at 1/200sec at f1.4.
The 50mm gives a wider view of the subject and can show the outfit. Normally in practical use, the optimum aperture for this lens is anywhere from f4 to f5.6 which will render even sharpness throughout the image. Moving farther or closer to the subject will give you options on doing a fully body, a head and shoulder or even just a head shot. And you can just crop the image in post if you want the FOV tighter. This is where the 50mm's versatility comes in.
Also if the camera were to be shot in vertical orientation, the 50mm easily does a full body view of the subject. And being a small lens, mounted on a D750 or even a pro body, it's quite easy to handle which is a big advantage for whole day shoots.
The 85mm 1.4G lens was the lens that made me fall in love with portrait photography. One can shoot in any lighting condition (indoor, dusk or dawn) and get some really cool shots. It turns distracting background into creamy out of focus blobs. But shooting at f1.4 does have it's risks. If your camera happens to lock focus on the subject's nose or ears, you're bound to have eyes that are out of focus. The shallow depth of field can work against you. This is true for any fast prime lens.
Notice on the photo below that the ears and the shoulders are already out of focus. I tried carefully to place the focus point over the eyes, but I think the sharpest point is still the leather mask (shout out to https://www.bagsbyrubbertree.com/). Subject movement can easily throw the focus off at F1.4. Telephoto lenses also tend to have shallower depth of field compared to wider lenses.
Masked self portrait, new normal. Nikon D750 with 85mm f1.4 Shot at 1/200sec at f1.4.
The 85mm 1.4G is stout and front heavy, it just goes to show how much glass there is in the front element. It also feels more balanced on a pro body or than a regular body (no built in battery grip). Working whole day with this lens can be tiresome. So if you're not using any support, chances of fatigue and out of focus images (at F1.4) gets higher as the shoot goes on. So for long shoots, I'd recommend you have a monopod or tripod on standby or just shoot at F8 and don't worry about it. Regardless don't underestimate the weight of this lens.
Once you've got everything locked down from your lighting to your focusing technique, this lens can produce stunning images.
The 135mm DC F2
So now for my new lens. I'm loving the images shot with this lens. I also feel that the working distance, which is longer compared to the 85mm, can work in the model's favor because the photographer is not going to be in her or his face while shooting. The 85mm offers good shooting distance but doing a head and shoulder shot with that lens still requires you to come close to the subject. In this day of social distancing, I'm sure that's frowned upon.
Masked self portrait, new normal. Nikon D750 with 135mm f2 DC. Shot at 1/200sec at F2 C. Notice the more pronounced out of focus ears and shoulders, compared to the 85mm image.
The handling of the lens mounted on a Nikon D750 feels good. There's some weight to it but it's lighter than the 85mm, not front heavy. It just feels more balanced. Have yet to test on a whole day shoot but I think having a monopod on standby will still be a good idea.
This lens has a screw type AF module compared to the newer 85mm G lens, but I don't think the AF is slow. Not as fast as the 85mm but still very good. I would love to use this lens for street photography as I'm sure it'll get some really interesting shots. A plus is the size which is not that big and will not attract attention unlike the 70-200mm 2.8 which is massive.
I'm not a stickler anymore for sharpness the way I was many years ago but I think the 135m, 85mm and 50mm are the sharpest lenses in my tool bag. Especially compared against my 2.8 zooms. The fact that the primes are lighter will always make me choose these lenses over the zooms for most jobs as long as it's not sports photography.
So if you're a portrait photographer or plan to become one, you should start off with a 50mm lens. And as you get serious with portraiture you can add an 85 or a 135mm prime lens. The 85 and 135mm each have their uses and you can decide which to buy based on your style of shooting - i.e. if you like to direct and be close to the subject or if you prefer more working distance. And with regards to factors like sharpness or image quality I think the both 85 and 135mm produce excellent images. It's all down to personal preference.
Tune into my next post on bokeh or out of focus area comparison between the three lenses.
Thanks for reading! J