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The Right Canon Portrait Lens - How To Shoot With The Experts

Updated on August 9, 2010
Tamrom 28-75, f/2.8 @ 75mm Notice the blurred drapes due to the wide (f/2.8) aperture
Tamrom 28-75, f/2.8 @ 75mm Notice the blurred drapes due to the wide (f/2.8) aperture
aperture f/8, focal length: 85mm You can get a good background by putting distance between the subject and the background.
aperture f/8, focal length: 85mm You can get a good background by putting distance between the subject and the background.
f/4.5 @ 63mm Again, the subjects were not close to the background.
f/4.5 @ 63mm Again, the subjects were not close to the background.

Portrait photography is one of the most popular categories of both amateur and pro photographers. Almost any lens can be used to take a portrait, but getting an excellent portrait takes some photo know-how. How do you find the best portrait lens?

You just may be surprised to find out that having the ultimate Canon portrait lens is not the most critical part of getting a beautiful portrait. On the other hand, a good lens will be a humongous help.

Being a portrait photographer can truly be a pretty glamorous career.

The problem is that not everyone who aspires to photograph the rich and famous will not be able to make the right connections, even if you are good enough. You can't just go up to Oprah and declare your intentions of taking this fantastic portrait of her.

We are not talking about the paparazzi here. In fact, those bottom-dwelling "photographers" are not even interested in portraits. They are merely interested in catching some star in an unusual situation. What they do has nothing to do with portrait photography.

While the most visible portraits are of famous people, by far, most photographers are not hanging out with the rich and famous. There is plenty of work in portraits that does not include those "lime light" individuals.

You can find satisfaction by using other portrait opportunities such as family portraits, high school senior photos, babies, and even pet portraits. There are plenty of ways to make a mark in portrait photography.

Canon 70-200 f/4 L @f/4 and 120mm
Canon 70-200 f/4 L @f/4 and 120mm

Depth Of Field - Your #1 Goal

Portrait photographers know that the lens is just as significant as the digital SLR camera it is attached to. Good portrait images have specific qualities that help to draw attention to the subject, or model. The first, and probably the easiest way to make that happen is to use a narrow depth of field. This means that the plane of focus is shallow, putting the other objects in the photograph out of focus. This brings the viewer's eyes right to the subject.

One of the reasons for this shallow depth of field is the quick speed of the shutter. This is a feature of good portrait lenses. This fast shutter is a function of the aperture (or lens opening). A good aperture for portraits is f/2.8 or wider. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture. In fact, the better lenses have apertures as wide as f/1.2. The result of using a wide aperture is that you get a depth of field that is far more sleek and sexy. This effect will really make your subject feel special when they see the final image. Plus, the feeling of accomplishment for you, the photographer, is exhilarating.

Short focal length, such as 18mm with camera very close to subject gives distorted features. Fun, but not good practice for portraits.
Short focal length, such as 18mm with camera very close to subject gives distorted features. Fun, but not good practice for portraits.

Focal Length - Key Factor #2

Yes, focal length is really important in portrait photography. There are two types of lenses, single (prime) or zoom. Many pros use only prime lenses when doing portraits. If choosing a prime lens, 50mm would be the shortest length to choose. You definitely don't want to go any shorter, because you will have to get too close to your model. A better focal length is somewhere between 75mm and 150mm. This gives the photographer a better combination of depth of field, distance from the subject, and flexibility in choosing the perspective.

If the lens does not have a long enough focal length, it could cause facial features that are out of proportion. Everyone has seen those images of the cows where the cow's nose looks way out of proportion when compared to the rest of the animal. That is done on purpose, of course, using a wide angle lens (less than 50mm) and getting too close to the subject. It's a humorous shot, but not one that a high school senior would appreciate in their final yearbook.

Lots of photographers, both advanced amateurs and pros, opt for a zoom lens instead of a prime focal length lens to shoot their portrait shots. In particular, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is used as a wonderful portrait lens. Flexibility is the key to using a lens with so much diversity in choice of focal lengths.

After all this discussion, there is good news.. Just about any lens you own can double as a portrait lens. If you know how to pull it off, you can take great portraits with you cell phone.

Longer focal length (like 200mm) can give very dramatic results.
Longer focal length (like 200mm) can give very dramatic results.

Blur Your Backgrounds With This Photographer's Trick

The blur of the background, as mentioned, is the key to an exceptional portrait. Try putting more distance between the model and the background. In other words, put as much distance as you can between the model and the background. An out of focus background will happen because of the distance factor and in spite of the aperture.

The mere fact that you tote that awesome digital SLR gives your family and friends reason to believe that you can take great portraits. In fact, you do have the ability to do this. But if you want to do even better, get yourself a great portrait lens.


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    • thewayeyeseeit profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Woodstock, GA

      jewelsofawe, it was my pleasure. Thanks for stopping by.

    • jewelsofawe profile image


      7 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks for these tips!


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