What is an "ideal portrait lens"?

Discussion in 'Medium Format' started by scott_eaton, Sep 18, 1998.

  1. In an earlier thread Stefan posted an interesting piece regarding preferences in portrait lenses.

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    I found this interesting because I'm not sure if a "potrait lens" would be considered an objective or subjective term. We all have our favorite lenses to shoot people with and personal preferences is one facet that makes this such an interesting medium. However, from a purely technical perspective wouldn't a "portrait lens" be considered a specific format and lens that gives the equivalent magnification of the human eye?

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    I believe this falls to about 90mm for 35mm and 135 for 645. My math is probably way off, but I'm interested in everybodys thoughts on the matter.

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    //scott
     
  2. Well, I was taught that a portrait lens was anything that would give you a good head shot without the nose looking distorted by being relatively closer to the lens than the eyes.

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    This seems to usually be when you use about a times 2 above the normal focal length. So for 35mm, lots of people use a 105mm and for 6x6 lots use a 150mm (160 would be better).

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    But, times change. Lots of fashion photographers use 300mm or even 500mm on 35mm (and radios to talk to the models!). And, of course, fisheyes are even used these days (ie Chip Simmons).

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    So, probably, the term is obsolete. If it looks good, it is good.
     
  3. Sorry, can't find the original post, partly because the search engine seems to be broken.
    I'm not sure what the magnification of my eye is. The focal length must be about an inch, but I'm not sure of the format. Anyway, I think it has more to do with what people deem a natural perspective. When you look at someone carefully, there's a comfortable range of distances at which you're likely to be standing. If you stand too close, you'll violate the their personal space, although if you know them well you may be able to get a little bit closer. At any rate, you probably remain a few feet from them most of the time. I think a portrait lens is one that will fill the frame with what you want from this distance.
    For example, if you want to get a head-and-sholders shot and you want to remain 4 or 5 feet from them, then perhaps you'll need at 150 mm lens. If you want a full-length shot, perhaps 60 mm. If you want a tight head shot, then maybe a 250 mm. Obviously, the actual focal length depends on the format and how tightly you want to frame your shot. The fact that these numbers may correspond to comfortable working distances for us as photographers is probably secondary, although clearly related.
    Moving to a shorter lens lets you get much closer. Perhaps the effect is particularly dramatic if the portrait is of a famous person to whom few of us are likely to get so close. Along the same line of thinking, perhaps slightly shorter portrait lenses work better for intimate shots because family members are likely to be familiar with viewing each other from shorter distances, making the photograph seem more intimate. For example, a photographer specializing in family portraits might favour a 120 mm lens over either a 150 or 180 mm.
    I think the choice of focal length also has something to do with the distance you are likely to view the final print---here, perhpas, is what you meant by the magnification of the human eye? Perhaps you are likely to view an 8 x 10 inch picture from a distance of 30 inches away. To get the same angle of view, you are likely need to use about about a 150 mm lens, assuming a 55 mm negative (remember to allow for the extension required for focusing). Sticking to this rule can make a photograph seem almost like a three-dimensional window, especially if you view the print with only one eye.
    Along that line, the final size of the print matters. You might view a print 6 feet high from a distance of 8 feet, but would you view a 6 inch print from 8 inches? Probably not. The result is that shorter lenses may well be more suited to large prints and slightly longer lenses to smaller prints.
    Remember that the focal length of the lens required to give the equivalent angle of view on a different format depends on the viewing distance. Although the effect is reasonably small at typical portrait distances with small and medium formats, it certainly is significant when comparing these to larger formats, such as 8 x 10. Even between the smaller formats, the difference may significant. Your math may be a little off, but I think it is roughly right. Where you would use a 90 mm lens on a 35 mm camera, you would probably probably choose a 135 mm for 6 x 4.5 or 150 for 6 x 6, even though these longer lenses give slightly wider angles of view at large distances, by some measures.
     
  4. s_p

    s_p

    I think M. Heal's theory of distance between photographer and subject vs. distance between observer and subject is a very interesting one. Perhaps in countries where social conventions differ people prefer different kinds of portraits? In Germany and USA most people stand three feet away while in order to talk to you. In Portugal it seems that people step up to one foot away to talk to you.<p>
    I believe that the designation "portrait lens" is a subjective one. To term a photograph a "good" photograph seems to be a subjective call. Therefore, to term a lens "good" for portraits is also subjective.<p>
    Another factor I would like to throw into the "what makes a good portrait lens" mix --- that is the most prevelently used technology by the public becomes the standard against which all other things are judged. Thirty years ago almost everyone had a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens. Today almost everyone seems to be carrying around point and shoot cameras with lenses that are 35mm or so. Wider lenses seem to be more the fashion in the past few years when I look at fashion, editorial, advertising, news photography. Has the public's apetite for wide angle photos been whetted by having wide angle lenses on their consumer grade cameras? Note that proffessionals seem to have to follow the trend by not following it, if you know what I mean. They have to go one further --- so if the public uses a 35mm lens on their point and shoot the pro might use a 20mm or a 17mm. <p>
    The longer portrait lens fits into the conventions and traditions of photography of the past and portraiture. Most people don't want their portrait or wedding photography to look like an avant garde fashion spread; they want it to look prosperous, traditional, sentimental, familiar ---- like their grandparent's photo album, or, if they don't like their grandparent's photo album, what they think their grandparent's photo album OUGHT to look like. Thus we have the longer lenses, the soft filters, the vignette masks, etc.
     
  5. Hey, killer thread. Thanks for all the input.

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    Ok, let's toss some variables out the window. Let's say we all have an assignment taking a classical head-n-shoulder shot fairly full frame. What are the preferences for focal length/format and the reasons why.

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    What about using a different lens/focal length for shooting men as opposed to women? The trend is (or maybe was) not to retouch photographs of men to the extent oppsed to women because facial blemishes and wrinkles are considered more flattering on males. Would different degrees of field compression also apply to shooting different sexes?

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    //scott
     
  6. I believe the use of the150mm "portrait" lens for 6x6 isn't to remove any distortion from the subject's nose vs. an 80mm lens, but it's to fill up the otherwise empty area on the frame. Theoretically, you should be able to use the 80mm in 6x6 and the same focal length lens in 135 side-by-side (same exposure), then cut out the inner 24x36mm of the 6x6 frame and it should look identical to the shot taken w/ the 80mm lens on 135 format.
     
  7. This is an interesting topic. To me the camera-subject distance determines, not how close you "feel" to subject when viewing the print, but the perspective. A portrait taken from 5 feet, say, will give the same perspective (e.g., apparent size of subject's nose) whatever lens is used. Wider lenses will just show more of the subject and background. We may take a portrait from a given distance because, at that distance, the perspective seems natural and flattering. Using a longer lens (or cropping) appears to bring the subject closer. In the final print, a subject taken at 5 feet with a 250mm lens seems closer than one taken at the same distance with a 60mm lens. On the other hand, I'm not sure that a head shot taken from close range with a 60mm (on 6x6) looks any more "intimate" than one taken from 5 feet with a 250mm; it just looks distorted.
     
  8. Sorry to butt into the Scot & Stefan big debate on the theories and practice of portrait photographer But.....when describing the 'family' portrait how do you visualise the setting is it as :
    a Clive Arrowsmith of Dame Sybil Thorndyke (1970)
    b Sally Soames of Nureyev (1978)
    c John Claridge of Chet Baker (1986)
    d Arnold Newman of Cecil Beaton (1978)
    e Youseff Karsh of Pablo Casals (1954)
    f Alexander Rodchenko of Critic Osip Brik (1924)
    g Edward Stiechen of J.P. Morgan

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    The variety of styles and use of the camera & lens combination across the ages does not predefine the equipment necessary to achieve the end product. The total difference between the portraits of Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Pablo Casals emphasis the individuality of the person captured on film ... and the ongoing debate as to how to achieve this with a 'correct' lens and/ or film permutation detracts from the original intention.
    The paramount requisite is the essential rapport necessary between the participants which will surpass the basic problem of which lens to choose.
    The list of portraits have been chosen to illustrate the disregard for the rules usually applied to portraits......the position of the person, the angle of view, the absince of the sitters facethe posture, the lack of or the use of backgrounds, the loss of detail in the clothing , focusing on the sitters eye....all considered to be criteria for the worthwhile portrait.
    I always thought that the portrait was to reflect something of the person and the photographer used the 'tools' of his or her trade to achieve that aim.....be it wide, medium, long,soft, hard, high key or....... if anyone has shot 'house front' portraits of actors and actresses will find that the character dominates the portrait not the lens or the background because of the essence of the task.....who is the thespian portraying. Whether this is achieved on stage during rehearsal or at a sitting ... and your own percieved awareness of the depicted character and how best to capture that image will decide the success or failure of the portrait.

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    Are your 'family' sittings in the sudio outsidfe of the studio, domestic setting, formal , informal or business envoiroment..???
    Are you using naturel, artifical, tungsten, flash lighting...?????
     
  9. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    A few somewhat contrary opinions:
    Regarding "rapport" Rapport is not essential, insight into the subject is. Sometimes this comes from rapport. But if you were on an assignment to photograph David Duke, I doubt that "rapport" would give you the photograph you want.
    Portraits vs head shots There is a lot of difference between a portrait and a head shot - a head shot is a portrait but not vice versa. It is hard to think of a book filled with great head shots, but there are many books filled with great portraits. And how you go about making a great portrait is very different than how you go about making almost any head shot.
    Regarding lenses Because of this prior point, the lens thing doesn't really have an answer - you can shoot a wide variety of distances with a variety of portrait styles. I prefer portraits that appear to be shot with lenses that are "normal" as there is often a balance of subject and background.
    My favorite portrait among my own work was done with a "normal" lens and the camera sitting in my lap. Because of the waist-level finder, I was able to carry on a conversation with the subject (this was one of those "rapport" occasions) and snap and wind without her noticing. This couldn't have been done with a longer lens.
     
  10. I am not a professional, but I like photography. Most of the people
    like to segment the lens like 85mm, 105mm or 135mm in small format
    as 'portrait lens'. It is just an objective term given to these kind
    of lens since the focal length has no distortion while shooting
    portrait and make you keep closer to the model for easy communication.
    But how to use lens with different focal length is depend on your
    preferences. Every lens can be a 'portrait lens' depend on how you
    use it. I like the pictures in National Geographic, a magazine with
    mang good pictures. Most of the pictures are taken with wide angle
    lens, even shooting portrait. But I understand some people like to
    take 'head and shoulder' portrait. Photography is subjective, camera
    and lens are just a tool. Develope your own style.

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    Daniel Li
     
  11. s_p

    s_p

    Regarding celebrity Portraits: There is a difference, I think, in the kinds of portraits that are made by public figures for distribution to the public and the kinds of portraits the more ordinary people have made for themselves. I am unfamiliar with most of the celebrity portraits listed above so cannot speak with authority on the appearance of all of them, but the Steichen portraits are known to me. Steichen's portraits were not made for personal consumption, they were made for public consumption --- intended to be published in magazines. That end destination would contribute significantly to their appearance. That is a very important difference from the picture taken of an ordinary citizen.<p>
    Regarding Personality, Essence of Character, etc.: Photographs can only give us a two dimensional description of physical appearance. There is no actual description of personality or any other abstract quality in any photograph. Perhaps the difference between a portrait and a headshot is that a portrait allows us to believe that we gain insight into the sitter's personality; the headshot makes no such pretensions.<p>
    Interesting discussion. Stefan
     
  12. i just want to put an amen! to jack mcvickers response above. there is no "ideal" lens for portrait, unless you work at olan mills.

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    and (without checking websters) i don't think rapport is synonymous with admiring or supportive. you can achieve a rapport with someone and be contentious at the same time, hence , i beleive, Karsh's famous portrait of Churchhill immediately after the snatching the cigar from his mouth. read Avedons story about photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor... he wanted his subjects off balance.

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    the portrait is not just about the sitter's face! not just a 2 dimensional representation. it's effectiveness is dependent also on the context the veiwer associates with the image. and here is the great challenge, to create a document that conveys THE context desired by the photographer (or painter/sculptor) regardless of the conditions existing at the time of creation. the look on the face is assumed to be established by the internal processes of the sitters psyche when in fact it can be provoked by the immediate context of the moment of exposure. that is, it can be a complete fabrication that reads as utter truth.

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    so not only is the lens you choose important, but the attitude, vocal inflections, posture and clothing you choose also establish the "perspective" the veiwer is given from which to veiw the portrait.

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    you must also consider the "lens of time". is the portrait for wide spread immediate consumption (news) or a historical record to be veiwed in the larger context of the age.

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    is this about medium format?...gotta go...tom
     
  13. Probably there is no "ideal portrait lens". I found the TLR with
    the 80mm/75mm lenses are best for half body length type portraiture.
    The square format (6x6) also add some relax and unique feeling to it.
    For non-conventional lens I've used for portraits is the Kiev 30mm (6x6) fish eye lens. I can use it for close up for head-shoulder type portraiture. Kids and teenagers like to see their faces to be distorted like cartoon characters. Not work well for pretty women though.
     
  14. Scotts' technical question relating the magnification of the human eye to specific lens and formats is, I believe, a search for the perspective on the paper that approches the vision of the photographer.
    I think most of the points of this issue are covered in this thread but one thing bears expanding. I think we all realize that shooting with different focal lenghts allows varying the camera to subject distance to keep the image size the same. This action, along with the relative enlargement of the print and the viewing distance from the print all determine the perspective that we observe.
    eg for a given enlargement, a shorter lens vs a longer lens (and the attentant varying camera movement to keep the negative image size similiar) will dictate a closer viewing distance for the shorter lens and a relatively farther viewing distance for the longer lens to keep the viewed perspectives similiar.
    Hope I was clear and shed some light on the question.
     

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