50mm 1.2 or 35mm 1.4 Which is best for Portraits

Discussion in 'Beginner Questions' started by ron_brown|6, Dec 14, 2011.

  1. I shoot with a Canon 400D, and I absolutely love to shoot people and closeup head shot portraits.
    I have been wanting to invest in a good portrait lens. Someone told me to look into a 35mm 1.4, so I did a little reading and read somewhere that it is the lens that takes the sharpest (tack sharp I think it said) portraits of any prime on the market. Of course, another article claimed it was the 50mm 1.2
    I know every lens has its pros and cons, but I would really love to get one that will make me feel I've made the right choice. I do know that both of these lenses are high quality prime lenses and shoot good images, but I do not want to center on someones nose, and have it start to blur around the outside of their hair or on their chin.
    I would really love a lens that takes tack sharp photos, and these two are close to the same price, and I know they are both excellent primes. If anyone is able to help with some experienced advice, I would truly appreciate it.
  2. Portrait photographers usually suggest 85mm-135mm (35mm equivalent) for portrait. When you use wide angle, you chance distortion of the face especially the nose which winds up being bigger than it is actually due to the angle of view. You want to stand back a bit and use a low telescope size like the 85-135mm. You could probably use the 50mm (75mm equivalent) but the mean you have to get too close for just a head shot that may cause distortion.
    Another factor is DOF. If you want the nose thought the ears to be in focus, you f stop has to be stopped down less that 1.4. So getting a 1.2 means you're paying for glass you may not need.
  3. Sorry, but both of those lenses are quite soft wide open (say, compared to their performance at f/8). If you want the absolutely best sharpness, there is no reason to be considering such fast glass. More generally, you should never shoot *any* lens wide open for maximum sharpness.
    The truth be told, stopped down to f/8 or f/11 for maximum sharpness, most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference in sharpness between any two lenses of decent quality, including these, unless they were doing some serious pixel peeping under controlled testing conditions.
    OTOH, why in the world would you want (a) tack sharpness in a portrait lens, and (b) why would you want the infinitesimally thin DoF of an f/1.2 or 1.4 lens for most portraits?
    Also, realize that a 35mm lens on a full frame body is not the combination that what most people grab to do conventional portraits. OTOH, a 50 mm lens on a cropped sensor body would be a much more reasonable choice.
    Just some things to think about.
    Tom M
  4. Save some money and get the Canon 50 1.4, it's a great lens and becomes a perfect portrait lens on a crop body like the 400D.
  5. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Portrait photographers usually suggest 85mm-135mm​
    I know plenty of great portrait photographers who suggest and/or use neither. Check out this guy, he's here on photo.net, the square ones are taken with a phone, the rest (farther down the page) are taken with a 35mm lens on 5DII. It shows that it's about the shooter, not the lens...
    I would add that if you are in fact a beginner, the lenses you reference are very expensive and totally unnecessary for portraits.
  6. Ron:
    Full frame camera user. Either is good for people pictures. A telephoto must be used for tight head shots. Telephoto focal length choice depends on the comfort level between you and the subject. Given your choice, I take the longest, the 50 - not ideal, but it's ok.
  7. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    A telephoto must be used for tight head shots​
    I didn't see anyone say these were tight head shots.
    the 50 - not ideal,​
    It's fine. Take a look at the link in my post. I know, it requires looking at photographs and nobody seems to take the time, but it shows how irrelevant this "not ideal" and uncreative the comment is.
  8. Yes to these:
    "Portrait photographers usually suggest 85mm-135mm"
    "A telephoto must be used for tight head shots"
    Question abou the best lens for portaits seems to appear frequently.
    In one old post Jeff recommended a 24 mm lens as best for portrait, and presented a picture of a "winking eye" woman.
    If I remember, in that post Jeff's opinion about the best lens brough many comments with majority of opinions different.
  9. "In one old post Jeff recommended a 24 mm lens as best for portrait . . ."

    I rather doubt that. From what I've seen, Jeff is very consistent in his view that there is no "best lens" for portraits and that great portraits can be made with any lens.

    My favorite lens for portraits is a 50mm on a full-frame camera. It works well for everything from full-length shots to fairly-close headshots. I also use wider angle lenses for portraiture.
  10. Unless you've got a compelling reason to shoot at wide apertures, save the money. Get something a little more modest, and then spend the difference on lighting (or light modifiers). Composition and light will have more to do with a successful portrait than will your ability to resolve individual skin pores while shooting at f/2.

    If you want nose-to-back-of-the-head DoF, you're going to be stopping down well into the sweet spot of any number of reasonably priced lenses. But if you don't have control of your light, the whole effort is pointless.
  11. A really nice, inexpensive lens for a variety of people shots on a crop sensor camera is the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8. It goes from 'normal' to modest telephoto, which is a range that is very useful for portraits and candids. I second the comment on razor-thin DOF. Unless people are posing, it is really hard to get good shots at really wide apertures. I generally shoot candids in the range of f/3.5-5.0, which gives enough DOF for a margin of error but reasonable background blur.
  12. I am with Jeff, that there is no special good lens for portraits. It depends on your personal style. Both lenses you are asking about are very expensive and before you buy any of them you might try the following: (1) use the kit-lens you probably have with your cam and check which focal length you choose most of the time (2) look at portraits you like and find out which focal length the photographer choose (easy on photo.net) (3) buy the 1.8/50 AND the 2/35, together they are much cheaper than either lens you were asking about, and check if you really need the faster versions. If yes, sell the slower sample. If not, send me the money you saved ;-)
  13. In the sense that any picture of a person is a portrait, yes you can use any lens, including wide angle. But in the terminology of photography, most people understand a "portrait lens" to be one used to shoot a head and shoulders portrait. One of the goals is to mostly fill the frame with the head and shoulders area. If you come in close enough to do that with a wide angle or even "normal" lens, you can get big noses and other distortion as others have described. In full frame 35mm, it takes something in the 85-135 range to fill the frame properly while getting pleasing perspective without distortion. Those focal lengths also allow you to drop the background out of focus even when you stop down to say 5.6 or 8 to keep all of the face in focus. With a crop sensor camera some people try to use as wide as a 50mm, but despite the narrower field of view that isn't long enough to drop the background out of focus without opening up the aperture, sometimes to the point where you lose depth of field you need on the face. I think 70 is about the minimum I would use for a "portrait" lens, and I prefer around 100, even on a crop sensor camera. This is my own personal opinion so feel free to agree or disagree. But it's also time-tested standard practice that has worked for many, many photographers.
  14. >>> But in the terminology of photography, most people understand a "portrait lens" to be one used to
    shoot a head and shoulders portrait. ... This is my own personal opinion so feel free to agree or

    Most people? I disagree... That may be true if one has a very limited view about photography and portraiture. I have a ton of
    portraiture photo books. Not a single one is about head-and-shoulders photos.
  15. As to what lens?
    It is customary to offer cameras with a "normal" lens. This is a lens with a focal length that is about equal to the diagonal measure of the format rectangle. In this case, the Canon 400D sports the APS-C size CMOS. This chip has a diagonal measure of about 30mm. If we set our zoom to about 30mm or mount a 30mm prime, the angle of view delivered is said to match the human experience.
    Now, if we mount a shorter than 30mm lens, the angle of view enters the realm of wide-angle. Now most consider this to be 70% of normal or shorter. That figures out to be 20mm or shorter. The realm of telephoto is considered to be 200% or longer, that figures out to 60mm or longer.
    The best focal length for portraiture is considered to be approximately 2.5x normal or in his case 75mm. This is a rule-of-thumb not something cast in concrete. Why this value? A photograph of the human face needs to get right, recognizable features such as the relationship of the size of the nose vs. size of ears. We are talking perspective. If the focal length used is too short, the nose is abnormally enlarged as compared to the ears. If the focal length used is too long, we get compression, a flattening of facial features. The use of a lens about 2.5x the diagonal forces the photographer to step back. It is this increased working distance that delivers the needed perspective not the focal length used.
  16. >>> The best focal length for portraiture is considered to be approximately 2.5x normal or in his case 75mm.
    Here are some portraits I've taken of strangers on the street. All with a 35mm lens (on a full frame body).
    With respect to a lens recommendation for someone starting out: 50mm f/1.8 or/and 35mm f/2. Both relatively affordable. Or use the kit zoom that may have come with your cam while you're figuring out what works best for you.
  17. Most often, if the lens used is too short, a close-up of the face reproduces the nose too big in comparison the other features of the face. If you make portraits and sell them for a living, you will naturally gravitate to a longer lens. Hollywood uses 3x normal for most of their close-ups.
    Photography is both art and science. You are free to use any lens your heart desires.
  18. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    The best focal length for portraiture is considered to be approximately 2.5x normal or in his case 75mm.​
    Someone forgot to tell Richard Avedon, probably the most well-known portrait photographer of all time. He used a 360mm lens on an 8x10 camera, equivalent to 52mm on full frame. I guess he got confused at the camera store.
  19. Well, Ron, I guess the discussion is not helping much in your direct query, but it is important to realise that everyone has a different style, and different styles require different tools. There is no "you must have this lens to do this"... So, nobody can really answer which lens suits you better, but you yourself.
    The lenses adviced to you are rather expensive and kind of big; with a small body as a 400D they may be a bit off-balance. And as many mentioned, there are far more affordable options that will do the job just as well.
    Maybe a bit more practical approach:
    Assuming you have the kitlens with your 400D, put it to 35mm for a while, and see how that works for you. Try 50mm, see how that suits you. Check your existing photos to see which focal length you typically use. Then you know which focal length will suit you better, and you can make a better choice for where to go next.
  20. This always causes some posters to bristle. Convention, the experts at the camera club, the local shop etc have said since before I started in '78 that a slightly longer than standard focal length is a "portrait" lens. When you use an 85mm lens at a normal distance on a ff camera for a head and shoulders shot there his no doubt that facial distortion is kept to a minimum.
    But the idea of "a portrait" has changed dramatically. For a long time, Nat Geo, for example, has included environmental portraits shot much wider, one of Joe McNally's most used lenses is the 14-24. Using perspective and juxtaposing are far more powerful tools now that wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses are so much better, indeed throughout much of street photographies history 24's and 35's have been considered de rigueur, though many would argue the definition of portrait when used like this. Conversely I know one shooter who rarely uses anything other than a 300mm for head shots.
    So the first thing you need to answer in trying to get to the bottom of this question is "What type of portrait am I trying to take?"
    If you are looking for the now classic environmental type image, 35mm on full frame (21mm on the 400D) would be a great place to start. If you are looking for the "standard" 85-135 look with full frame then a 50-85 would be the lenses to use on the 400D.
    Best advice you can be given, if you are using your kit zoom look at your twenty favorite portraits (what you consider a portrait) and check your EXIF info, look at the focal length and make purchasing decisions based on what you use.
    P.S. Sorry Wouter, I had this reply open so long you suggested the same thing without my knowledge, it really is the best advice though.
  21. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    "I shoot with a Canon 400D, and I absolutely love to shoot people and closeup head shot portraits . . . [but] I do not want to center on someones nose, and have it start to blur around the outside of their hair or on their chin. . .​
    What lens(es) do you have at the moment?
    Do you use generally use Flash or just Available Light?
    For the general shots of "people" (i.e. NOT the close up head shots): generally what type of shots are they and where are they - i.e. Full Length Shots of individuals or a Group of Twenty . . . inside or outside . . . etc. . .
    I would really love a lens that takes tack sharp photos . . . if anyone is able to help with some experienced advice, I would truly appreciate it."​
    I suggest, at the moment, you buy neither of the two lenses you mentioned: as there are too many factors unresolved and perhaps questions yet not asked and answered.
    Also, if you really want the “sharpest lens” to make the photos you describe, (and that might not be what you actually want), then (as already mentioned), you need not be considering these two very fast primes, anyway.
  22. thanks for the great link Jeff!
  23. Chris had it right on page two ...what kind of photography do you want .. the nicely proportioned semi telephoto shot or the distorted wide angle shot*. You have said you want bags of depth of field which rules out the point of getting a fast lens so you might as well continue with what you have and stop the "DSLR Malaise' affecting you ... "What new lens can I buy for my camera?" But since you have a DSLR you may be able to hire both lenses and see how they go for you?
    *And you get this effect irrespective of the distance of the camera from the subject, it is just not so obvious, so it is not a question about head and shoulder shots or not.
  24. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    distorted wide angle shot​
    Too bad you weren't able to pass on this advice to Richard Avedon while he was alive. His lens was the same as 35mm on Ron's camera.
  25. We like portraits that depict a flattering representation. We like it when Aunt Sally says, "that’s a great picture of me". We hate it if Aunt Sally says, "I don't like it; I never photograph well". Often the difference is in our ability to depict Aunt Sally in such a way that the image we make resembles a perceived self-image. This is likely a view as seen in the make-up or shaving mirror. Therefore, the question is, "how do we consistently replicate this conceived vision?
    There is no pat answer but there are rules-of-thumb. Most revolve around flattering lighting and perspective. As to perspective, we are talking about reproducing facial features that have no obvious distortions.
    Perspective as seen in the photograph is the result of many intertwining elements. The main ingredient is camera-to-subject distance. If the camera is too close, the nose reproduces too big and the ears to small. If the camera is too far, compression occurs. Both are distortions that can spoil the portrait. Don't get me wrong, often distortion due to focal length choice has little or no impact. It is fair to say, that a 50% error has little consequence.
    Now the focal length used changes the viewing distance that will deliver zero distortion. A truism: If a photographic image is not enlarged and viewed from a distance equal to the focal length of the taking lens, there will be no distortion.
    If a miniature camera is used, the image size will be tiny. Generally, the focal length will be short, thus the viewing distance will be too short, likely impossible or, at best, inconvenient. Therefore, we usually enlarge the image making at the least a wallet size print or a 4x6 or an 8x10 or 8x12 or larger. It is also a truism that we tend to view pictures from a distance about equal the diagonal measure of the image. Thus, an 8x10 is likely viewed from a distance of 13 inches or 330mm. It is no coincidence that the "normal" lens focal length for the 8x10 view camera revolves around 330mm. Stated another way, the 8x10 negative is generally contact printed, the magnification used to make the final display print is likely unity (1X). We gravitate to a viewing distance of 330mm. All this intertwines to produce an image that has little or no distortion.
    Now the 35mm full frame yields an image that is 24mm height by 36mm length. To make an 8x10 print or equivalent digital image, the minimum magnification will be about 10X. If a 35mm lens was used the math is 35 x 10 = 350mm or 13.78 inches. Such a lash-up yields zero distortion.
    If the camera sports an APS-C format, the image is 16mm height by 24mm length. The magnification to make an 8x10 is 14X. What focal length will yield zero distortion for this lash-up? Answer 14X = 350 thus X = 25. In other words, a 25mm mounted on an APS-C does the trick.
    Now the only rub is, a large portrait is most often viewed from a distance of 825mm (32 inches) as portraits are displayed hung on the wall or placed on the mantel. It is wise to take this increased viewing distance into account when we decide what focal length to use. The increased viewing distance is about 2.5x greater so this is why it is best to use a lens with a focal length that is about 2.5x the diaginal measure. Because the giant movie screen requires even more magnification, Hollywood uses about 3x the diagonal when doing close-ups.
  26. Right on Matt Laur !
    Any picture taken witout good lihting will sucks ! therfore, being technical about f/something or focal lenght is irrelevent. Any lens from 28 to 200 mm will make great portrait if lighting is well controled.
  27. " the nicely proportioned semi telephoto shot or the distorted wide angle shot*. ........
    *And you get this effect irrespective of the distance of the camera from the subject, it is just not so obvious, so it is not a question about head and shoulder shots or not."​
    I am shocked that anybody that claims to have worked as a cameraman and editor in film and TV for most of their life can say such inaccurate and incorrect rubbish.
    Lenses do not make perspective, subject distance does. You can shoot a portrait with a 3mm lens on a phone but the perspective looks the same as a 50mm on a dslr because it is shot from the same distance. You can shoot a person with a 17 mm or a 200 mm lens on a dslr and if the subject distance is the same and you crop the 17 shot to give you the same framing the perspective is identical.
    Don't believe me?....................
  28. I think the OP got the message and didn't response.
  29. While an 11 - 16 f/2.8 would not be my first choice for carefully posed portraiture, it's what I had the day this was taken. Composition sucks. It was a quick, get it while I can before the boys run off type of picture.

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