Nikon 400mm f/2.8 as a portrait lens?

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by andy_chubb, Dec 29, 2012.

  1. Hi,
    I shoot a lot of sports at times and have on occasion rented the 300mm f/2.8 VRI lens which is great for athletics but is also very good for portraits.
    It's the big 5-0 this year and an endowment matures as well and there have been a few good paying jobs recently so....
    The 300mm lens is a big tick on the NAS check-list. At some point this year I will probably rent a 400mm f/2.8 to try for sports but was wondering if anyone had tried it for portraits as well? (I have seen guys with one also use it for medal ceremonies, but have had to back up pretty far and make sure that the subject was also well in front of any background.) Is it just a wee bit too long? Will it flatten the subject, and perhaps make them look fatter as well?
    Basically, if I go for either of these lenses then they can't be sitting in the box too much between uses, so I'm just trying to narrow down the field to buy just the right one.
  2. "Nikon 400mm f/2.8 as a portrait lens?" - Sure, if you buy a megaphone as well to direct the sitter.
  3. Think eight rooms down the hall. . .
  4. My understanding is when flattening the subject with a longer lens, it makes them look less fat. I've always used 105mm as my portrait focal length, which kept me close enough to the subject to communicate. My friend seems to prefer 135mm. I recently shot a cap and gown portrait and to get full body I was a good distance away using 105mm. Next time I'll probably go with 90mm for that.
  5. You won't be the first to use the 400 2.8 for this, Google the Brenizer Method, and see what he has done. And remember to shoot wide open.
  6. I've seen photoshoots of outdoor (highly professional) photoshoots where for sure a 300m f/2.8 was used. Yes, the "default" portrait lenses are between 85mm and 135mm but to dismiss the long lenses as being far too long is a wee bit too simple. The occassional portraits I've taken with a 300 f/4 are just fine - there is really little wrong in using a lens like this for a portrait. Working distance is still well within hearing distance.
    It will flatten the subject (more than 85-135), but I doubt whether you'll see a huge difference for them being fatter. And the difference between 300 and 400 in that respect will certainly not be huge.
    Personally, would my budget allow for either one of these two, I'd get the 300mm - not only because it's a whole lot cheaper, but with a TC14 you'll have the 400mm (be it a f/4, but that's still quite limited DoF) - making the 400mm shorter when you need it is a lot more difficult. But, since my budget never came near the money needed for these lenses, so I really cannot comment on their respective optical qualities. Just a practical consideration, I guess.
  7. Are you going to shoot it on a crop body!?
  8. I don't think of any lens as being job specific like portrait, group, candid etc. I use whatever I want to get the type shot I
    want and forgoe labels.

    Personally, I have used a 400mm ED-IF f3.5 on numerous occasions to get a certain look. About the width of an
    athletic track will get you a head and shoulders and about 1/3 into the football field distance a 1/2 body and then it goes
    from there. If you can shoot at f5.6, you can get a decent focus plane, if you're far enough for full length, I try to use f4
    because there is more DOF at that point and I can still throw out the background. In the past I used to shoot a fair amount
    if bridal fashions and 85mm, 200mm and 300mm were regulars, but had I had access all the time to a 400mm like I have
    my own now for a few years, I would have used that too.

    IMO, go for it, that's what makes different shots than the rest of the pack all running around with a 24-80. Also, I always
    want to have as much control as I can over the background, there is a big difference, as I'm sure you know shooting
    sports when you get into the long lenses.

    Why don't you look for a decent used manual one and try it out for a while. Mine isn't AF it's an old Ex. copy and does
    whatever I want at a great price tag.
  9. Andy,

    Whichever lens you chose: the 300 2.8
    (a superb optic I have experience with)
    or the 400 2.8 - bear in mind two
    important facts:

    I have talked to Nikon USA service and
    they told me point blank that so many
    years after a 300 2.8 or 400 2.8 lens
    version is no longer manufactured,
    they run out of spare parts and will
    refuse to service it due to the possibility
    the service cannot be completed to
    factory specs.

    These huge 300 2.8 and 400 2.8 are
    robust, precise optical instruments that
    WILL require service throughout their

    So this is the only case where I
    recommend buying a version soon
    after it is released. That way it will be
    serviceable throughout the time of its
    production run and an additional appx.
    10 years after that.

    These 300 2.8 and 400 2.8 (and 500 f4
    and 600 f4) lenses are essentially
    "perishable goods" so plan the timing
    of your purchase carefully.

    1)Buy New, USA warranty
    2)Buy earlier in a version's production
    run rather than just before a new
    version is to be released.
  10. I have used my 300 for portraits. The good thing is that you can isolate/select the background quite easily, but I don`t like the flattening effect; it is quite noticeable.
    I`d not say subjects look fatter, but actually flatter, certainly is not the same. Eyes, nose, and head crown looks to be in the same plane, making a very odd look. Sometimes after a fast first sight, it could seem fatter. Maybe modelling with light, and/or with the fastest aperture the effect could be minimized... anyway, I dislike it.
    If a 300 force to have a too distant perspective (even for a head portrait), a 400 is even worst. If portraiture is your main goal, I`d advice you to check it by yourself before buying.
  11. A 400mm f2.8 on B&H is sitting new at $8999.99 currently. That's more than 20X what I paid privately for my near pristine
    copy of the 400mm f3.5 ED-IF AiS. If I could find a very good working copy of a 400mm f2.8 AF model that would serve
    the purpose for a lot cheaper, I would't be worried about spare parts. Some pro shop somewhere would be able to get it
    back running more than likely.
  12. Funny, but actually I've read that on some fashion shoots, very long lenses are used and in fact the crew around the subject communicates with the photographer with walkie talkies. The flatness effect of the focal length ensures that features like noses and hands do not look overly big.
  13. I have a suspicion that there are a lot of folks with too much time on their hands, hence this stuff. I have shot portraits with very long lenses. I thought they were interesting but almost nobody else agreed with me. I have a terrible idea -- why not just shoot some photos with impossible long lenses and see if they "fly" in the marketplace or wherever your photos go?Actually, a 500mm "mirror" lens makes a great "mug" shot.
    Or how about a 19mm Vivitar? If you get a good one they are awesome and there are environmental portraits, you know.
  14. Yes Barry, that's exactly the case. We have shot across small ponds or narrow sections of a river or lake from one side to
    the other. Why? Because it has a certain look shooting from the water side into the land, and the preferred direction and
    angle of the light for a specific emotion. And yes, years back the walkie talkies would be used. Anything from CBs to more
    expensive units, later the small sportsman units. I'm out of this now but with cell phones and other digital communications
    that is unnecessary, you could just talk on phones. And, the 400mm might just be the ticket to get the look.
  15. Here are some web pages showing how different focal lengths affect portraits - take a look and decide which focal length
    you like, although to be honest I think it may depend on your subject. If you are shooting skinny professional models you
    might get away with a much longer lens, since the fattening effect mentioned above will be less apparent. Having said
    that I have done some beauty work for magazines and preferred to use around 200mm, but then I have met other pro's
    who like to shoot with wide angles, although looking at the examples in these links I hate everything below 50mm.

    Edit: sorry just re- read the original question, had forgotten it was about sports. If you have to use 400mm to get the shot you need, then maybe you just have to do that.

    The second link has some three-quarter length shots that definitely shows the fattening effect.
  16. I have to say the 400 f/2.8 has always been the lens I most lusted after. I have a 200 f/2 VR that I use for candids
    (bought just as the VR2 was announced at nearly twice the price - Andre's comments make me nervous, but the current
    rate for a new VR2 makes me glad I didn't pay full whack a couple of years ago... besides, are we expecting the 400 to get
    updated any time soon?) I'm sure the 400 would get the same use - I've used a 150-500 at weddings at its long end and the
    only problem was the optics. To be honest, the 200mm is a bit longer than I'd like when I'm talking to the subject, but I hate
    the LoCA of the 135 f/2, and I wanted to make fussy backgrounds go away. While the 85 f/1.4 and 200 f/2 win up close,
    nothing loses a (semi-distant) background like a 400 f/2.8. For a fashion shoot, you probably have some background
    control and there's no need; for my amateur shooting, not so much. After trying one recently, I reckon 400mm is about the
    limit I can hand-hold (for a few shots) - my 500 f/4 is just too front-heavy for me to wedge my elbow against my body (if I
    get thinner I may be stuck with a 300mm!) and for some situations, that matters; there's not always time to place a

    I'm an amateur, and can't vouch for experience with this lens. For candids (essentially what sport is) I wouldn't hesitate,
    and I envy you. For staged shots, it does seem unlikely to be useful for the aperture unless you want perfect sharpness -
    sticking a TC14 on a 300mm does pretty well by all accounts.
  17. By my reckoning you'd have to stop a 400mm down to f/11 at 5 metres to get eyes, earlobes and nosetip all in acceptable focus. So I'd be interested to see a head & shoulders portrait shot at f/2.8 on a 400mm. My own 400mm lens options limit me to a maximum aperture of f/5.6, and for most subjects that only just offers enough DoF.
    For the same distance between subject and background, and keeping the aperture and subject magnification the same, the background blur does increase with focal length. Whether this is significant or not depends on the context of the image. It might just be easier to move the subject more forward from the background.
  18. RJ: I agree. For candids, I find focal length an invaluable cure to uncontrolled background (both in blur and in controlling what's in frame); I
    sometimes have to stretch to fuzzy ears to achieve this, but I realise not everyone likes the look - the extra length of a fast 400 would help
    me a lot. If you can control the subject it's much less of a problem. It depends what Andy means by "portraits" of course.

    Plus, you know, it's good for the biceps...
  19. If you need the 400/2.8 for sports then you need it, but for portraits you
    typically want close interaction between the photographer and model ...
    and on location you probably want to vary the composition and
    background. At least for me, subtle and not so suble variations in
    camera angle make a difference. Many of these would be difficult to do
    with a 400/2.8. To achieve a change in subject size in the image, you or
    the model would need to move a lot. Since the lens would be on a tripod
    or monopod, changing the height is arduous compared to a lens that you
    can hand hold. Personally the 200/2 is the longest and heaviest I would
    use for portraits; and that only on occasion. Usually I use
    35/50/85/105/135. Longer focal lengths can be used if you like to but at
    least I find it impractical and the effect due to long distance perspective
  20. What I find interesting are the "speculations" about using such a lens. I have been using 300mm and 400mm lenses since about 1986. They're just another lens that you use to accomplish your goal, whatever it is. All this fatter, thinner, wider, ears wrapped around the nose etc. is only if you allow yourself to be at the magnification and shooting distanc that causes such stuff. If that's the case and the shot won't look good, just pick a different lens. If you're shooting and need a certain reach for a certain shot than just use whatever you need. In sports, and in Andy's case sometimes you want to isolate an athlete in a portrait type shot for an editorial reason or other such consideration. I'm going to try to attach a profile shot track side from a local township track meet. The shot is not post corrected the best but it was taken using a 400mm Nikkor f3.5 ED-IF AiS at f5.6 400 ASA with a D200. Maybe some of you also have an example you could post to demonstrate your particular opinion.
  21. If you are shooting a lot of sports then the 400/2.8 is the way to go. If you happen to come across some portrait shots during an event then that's great, because it is also awesome for this. I have even used a 400/4.5 lens for candid portraits since your subject has no idea you are taking the photo. However, I would never buy a 400mm lens specifically for portraits. The 200/2 or 300/4 are much easier for handheld flexibility.
    As for medal presentations, unless there is a big podium, you will never get the view you need for a 400mm lens, just too many people and other photographers in the way.
    For sports and portraits I have used 85/1.4, 135/2, 200/2, 200/2.8, 300/2.8, 300/4, 400/2.8, and 400/4.5, with and without 1.4x and 2x converters.
  22. Dave: Hands up, I'm speculating, never having used this lens (though I've shot people at 400mm with cheaper glass). The effects that are
    shown in the links are for head shots or upper body - you'll get the same effect from a shorter lens if the subject fills less of the frame, so I'd
    say these examples are "best case" for "long lens distortion". Even so, I'd call the effect subtle compared with the benefits of controlling the
    background - with the exception of sample where I think a poofy dress and lighting combines to make the model look fat at 200mm (there's
    no way 135mm and 200mm are as different as suggested without a change of pose).

    John: For podia, I'd assume the need to teleconvert, or crop. Some events are plenty small enough, though - Wimbledon springs to mind,
    even from cheap seats. Of course, this is the good thing about the 400 f/2.8 - I've not met anyone selling focal reducers for turning a 600 f/4
    into a 400 f/2.7 (though in the context of DX cameras I'm slightly surprised I haven't).

    Would I buy this as a portrait lens? No way - even my 200mm is pushing it, and even then mostly for candids; I speak as someone with an
    admitted unreasonable tendency to worship high end kit like this, but even I sometimes pick my objects of desire. If I had this lens, would I
    sometimes point it at people? You betcha. I got the impression that this was the question?

    Now, about the Sigzilla 200-500 f/2.8...
  23. Here is a picture of Norah Jones made with an FX camera and a 400mm f/4 lens.
    If the viewer assumes it was taken at a distance typically between two people when they communicate with each other, i.e. 1-3 meters, which they implicitly often do, then the viewer would think her torso is maybe an inch or two thick and very wide shoulder-to-shoulder. I don't like this effect and this is why I prefer to photograph people with shorter lenses, so that I can keep the distance within the normal range and have the viewer feel the person in the picture is within communication distance. It makes the portrait more engaging and the viewer feels like they are involved instead of looking at the subject with binoculars or a telescope from the other side of town.
    However, if you are a long distance away, and need to take the shot, then you use whatever lens will do the job, that is obvious. This was the case here; I was as close as I could get without special permissions given only to photographers with a press pass. I don't mind the perspective in the picture since there was nothing I could do about it but in actual portrait shooting circumstances, 400mm would not be my choice of focal length. I want to be within communication distance from my subject both to communicate while the shoot is going on, and to create the feeling to the viewer that they are close to the subject and could almost speak to them. Eye contact is important to create this impression as well.
    If I were to buy an actual 400mm f/2.8 lens (mine is a 200/2+2X TC, have used 300+1.4X) the main reason would be to wipe out the advertisements that clutter backgrounds at sports events and concerts. Portraits, 35/1.4 and 85/1.4 work great for me thank you very much, and are a lot easier on my back.
  24. There is already a thread with a clear sample of the results with different perspectives, what I was talking in my post above.
    Check the second (400mm lens) and third (85mm lens) portraits by Charles Griffin (Mar 31, 2010; 10:01 a.m.); it is quite clear, and -exactly- what I have experienced in my own photos. The flatening effect of too much long lenses is (to my taste), simply ugly.
  25. That thread compares apples to oranges. They are completely different shots in completely different lighting. The 400mm shot is not well lit at all. The shot above by Dave Wilson is much more indicative of what a long lens can do in terms of isolating the subject from the foreground/background.
    I think Ilkka must have linked to the wrong shot because it does not seem to fit the description.
  26. Also dont forget about haze in the
    atmospher. When you get out to
    400mm you start to really notice in the
    photos whether the air was clear
    (uusually) or not.
  27. Jose: good example thread, I'll admit that the apparent effect on the visibility of the subject's ears in Charles's image is more than I expected.
    That is with a 1.6x crop sensor (640mm equivalent), though. I've been assuming that Andy's shooting full frame, but I now think maybe I need
    to be sure. Perhaps this thread is teaching me not to shoot people head-on with a long lens - I'm not sure the "big ears" (but small nose)
    effect is such an issue in profile.
  28. My closest focusing 400 must be my 400/5.6 UC Hexanon. If I remember the specs it focuses down to 13 feet by itself. To get closer I use an odd close-up lens. It is the one which came with the old (very old) 80-160mm Rokkor zoom. Many early zooms did not get very close so some were sold with close-up lenses. Sigma did this at one time and Tamron did it later. I also have fractional diopter close-up lenses. In any case, my combination is good for a tightly cropped portrait. You get a lot of flattening with the set-up and that kind of portrait does not suit every person. If you are just looking to throw the background out of focus then you can look at an 85/1.8 or 105/1.8 and get something even faster if you think you need it.
  29. John, my intention was to show the effect of perspective in the subject, related to the flatness... it`s a fact that longer lenses, with their shallower viewing angle, help to keep the background under "easier" control or higher isolation.
    Maybe is the light, or the atmosphere, or the DoF transition but, actually, the images taken with longer lenses use to look flatter.
  30. Jeff: Depending on the geometry of the scene (how far the subject is from the background), a 400 f/2.8 can make the background go away
    much more effectively than a short telephoto f/1.8, and do it with more depth of field at the subject - just as my 85 f/1.4 is I competitor to my
    200 f/2 in this task. Not that removing the background is everything, but it's the big advantage of these lenses for portraiture.

    Jose: I believe you about the effect of perspective (and thanks to the examples in this thread I believe the effect is more visible than I'd
    expected). Still, it's subtle, and I'd trade a better perspective for an unobtrusive background. I guess a big lens is no substitute for a studio.
  31. "All this fatter, thinner, wider, ears wrapped around the nose etc. is only if you allow yourself to be at the magnification
    and shooting distance that causes such stuff. If that's the case and the shot won't look good, just pick a different lens."

    About 1/8 of the frame or less head size and the rest body, clothing, wedding gown, background etc. whatever and the
    shot will look fine. 400mm is not a good choice for head shots, that's when you get what Jose is talking about.

    Just use something 85-135 and all will be happy. Just like a 18-24 would be a
    bad choice for head shots, but if you back up for a full length type environmental portrait, think Al Gilbert, all is good.
  32. NMF = nose magnification factor
    I just made this up, but maybe it will help. Maybe not.
    Suppose you are taking a tight shot, with a magnification (minification really) of 15, such that (on DX) the subject frame is approximately 240x360 mm (roughly 9x14 inches). If you shoot at 12 mm focal length, the subject distance will be 12*15 or 180 mm, and assuming the nose is 25 mm in front of the eyes and the ears are 100 mm behind the eyes (I just made those up but bear with me), then the nose will be imaged with a 80% larger scale than the ears, hence the caricature-type result (distance to ears = 180+100, distance to nose = 180-25, 280/155 = 1.80). As you go to 85 mm, I get a NMF of 10%, suggesting (if we take as a given that 85 mm on DX gives a pleasing result) that we are used to a perspective with that kind of NMF. A 180 mm lens gives an NMF of 5%, and 360 mm gives only 2%.
    But if we do a wider type of shot, say double the minification (subject frame is now 480x720 mm or 19x28 inches), then the NMF of 85 mm is only 5%, 180 mm 2% and 360 mm 1%, yielding a smaller difference in how the face is rendered based on focal length.
    I believe all the examples I've seen online (including the ones mentioned in this thread) are flawed by using human models who can't stay perfectly still during the lens and shooting position changes. For a better test, one should use a life-size bust, fix the lighting and carefully keep the optical axis the same throughout. I don't have a bust laying about though.
    My practical take has been that I use the longest lens that is convenient if I want to reduce the background to a smooth blur of color, and for me that's a 180/2.8. But next time I'm going to shoot a few tight head shots with the doubler (360mm!).
  33. David: I love the terminology, but it's more the ear minification factor that worries me - from longer distances, you can see more of the sides
    of the head so the ears stick out. I've no objection to shrinking noses with a long lens, but I may just be, er, projecting my own.

    Dave: If you're not doing a tight head crop, you're even farther away, meaning the effect of perspective will be even more pronounced (or as
    if you'd used a longer lens still). Of course, slightly enlarged ears that are only a tiny part of the image are going to be less visible - perhaps
    this is what you mean? I can also imagine that if you have a full body shot, the eye will expect the perspective of being farther away, which
    might make the ears look right. Isn't psychology fun?
  34. If you search 400mm 2.8 fashion shoot, model shoot etc. on "the popular video site", there are a few pretty cool videos of various shoots to watch and the resulting images from using one. I honestly never have a problem using the bigger lenses as long as you leave space and are careful with your technique. They definitely take practice and really getting used to what they can and cannot do. Happy New Year!!
  35. mm If i would buy ( be able to afford & justify) a lens like either the 300mm f2.8 or 400mm f2.8, id still carry my 135mm f2.0, 85mm 1.4 and or 50mm 1. something lenses with me for portrait use, just because its much more convenient to use one of the latter ones..
    A 400mm, would also require a tripod ( in my hands it would) and weigh far to heavy to move around for a good portrait in many situations ( not always but many..) , and on that amount of money i would not notice the difference when adding a good portrait lens either..

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