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Lens choice for portrait work crop sensor camera


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Jeff Spirer , Dec 29, 2008; 10:22 a.m.

I use the 17-40 or a 50 for my portraits. This includes environmental portraits, where the wide end is really useful, through studio portaits. This is with the zoom on a 1.6 camera.

Keri Taylor, Copyright 2007 Jeff Spirer

Alan Myers , Dec 29, 2008; 11:14 a.m.

Hi Eric,

For maximum control of background, you will need to go to prime lenses for your portrait shooting. I use 28/1.8, 50/1.4 and 85/1.8. The latter two, in particular, work well for me on crop sensor cameras, but lack some of the speed and convenience of a zoom. I use the 28mm (and a 20/2.8) for full length and 'environmental' portraits. You do have to use care with any wide angle lens like these, when doing portraiture. Too close to the subject or positioning them too near the edges can result in distortions. Some good alternative choices are Sigma 30/1.4 and 50/1.4.

f2.8 is the fastest you can get with a zoom. And even that will mean a more expensive, larger/heavier and more obtrusive lens. I also use 24-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8 in my kit, but not so much for portrait shooting except when necessary (kids and animals).

Some Canon lenses use a curved-blade aperture design, to form a more perfect circle and give nicer background blur.

The 50/1.8 is a good little starter lens, but build quality is 'entry level' and there is some compromise on image quality. The out of focus highlights for any aperture other than wide open exhibit a hexagon, produced by the 5-bladed aperture. It doesn't control flare as well, and the colors aren't as rich as they can be with the 50/1.4 which also features an 8-blade aperture. Still, at the price the f1.8 lens is pretty hard to beat.

I go back and forth about using macro lenses for portraiture. On the one hand, they are often in the right focal length range and it's always great to have a lens that serves dual purpose. On the other hand, a super sharp lens is not always all that desirable for portraiture! Still, you can add various softening filters and/or do post processing work to deal with that. You have a lot to choose: Canon 50/2.5, EF-S 50/2.8, 100/2.8, Tokina 35/2.8 and 100/2.8, Tamron 90/2.8, Sigma 50/2.8, 70/2.8 and 105/2.8.

Canon also offers non-macro 100/2, 135/2.8 Soft Focus and 135/2 primes.

But, anything over 90mm, macro-capable or not, is getting pretty long for portraits on crop sensor cameras.

I don't think you indicated exactly which crop sensor camera you are planning to get. That will decide in part which kit lenses might be available to you. The Rebel series come with 18-55 I believe, while the 40/50D are often in kit with either 17-85 or 28-135.

The kit lens might be your best value to start, and you might be wise to just bite the bullet and shoot with it for a while, then decide what you are lacking, before making your next lens purchase.

Sarah Fox , Dec 29, 2008; 11:53 a.m.

IMO, the better bargains Canon offers are:

  • 18-55 IS (not the kit lens). Optics are quite good, and this is very cheap for an IS lens.
  • 50mm f/1.8 (which you're already considering)
  • 70-300 IS
  • 17-40 f/4L (really shines on full frame, but also great on a crop -- see Jeff's excellent portrait!)
  • 70-200 f/4L non-IS (a superior lens for $600-ish)

A few thoughts:

The fact that your two "nodes" of focal length preferences put you at the maximum and minimum extent of the zoom range you currently have suggests to me that you would shoot both wider and longer if you had the capability.

I would definitely not recommend limiting yourself to a smaller focal length range than you already have. The reason is that you will miss the range that you can no longer shoot, and you will eventually replace that range anyway. You might as well make plans now. You don't need to purchase all of your optics now, but you should at least have a tentative and realistic strategy for future expansion.

You will get shallower depth of field with a larger format (as you already know). It might be cheaper in the long run for you to get a used 5D (full frame) and f/4 optics than a new crop frame and f/2.8 optics, and the shallowest DoF should be similar. There are also a lot more f/4 selections than f/2.8. Besides lower cost and more choices, there are also benefits with regard to image quality.

G Dan Mitchell , Dec 29, 2008; 12:32 p.m.

Sarah wrote: "18-55 IS (not the kit lens). Optics are quite good, and this is very cheap for an IS lens."

Sarah, did you mean "not the original non-IS kit lens" perhaps? Or perhaps you meant the "EFS 17 -55mm f/2.8 IS?" The latter is a great lens on cropped sensor Canon bodies.


Sarah Fox , Dec 29, 2008; 01:12 p.m.

I guess I meant "not the crummy non-IS lens." I didn't realize the IS version was also a kit. My bad. ;-)

The 17-55 would also be good, but I don't really consider it much of a bargain. (I'd far rather throw less money at a 17-40 f/4L.) The 18-55 IS can be sinfully cheap, depending on the source. I just ordered a factory-refurb 18-55 IS for my 40D for only $100 (Ebay). Now THAT is a cheap lens! I bought the lens as a cheap, small, lightweight knock-around lens to be carried wherever there's some risk of damage or theft. The weakest characteristic of the lens would be CA -- same as for the 17-55. Here's hoping the CA isn't as bad as the data on slrgear show it to be. ;-)

Dan M , Dec 29, 2008; 08:05 p.m.

I can only add that I bought one of the lenses you are considering, the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8, several months ago, and I could not be happier. I use it on an XTi. I put it through quite a number of tests, and it shines. It is extremely sharp if you close it down a few stops and pretty sharp even wide open. Some people complain that it is soft in the corners on a full-frame camera, but on a crop-sensor camera, I did not detect any noticeable problem in the corners, even under extreme enlargement. I tested for back- and front focus, and it is right on the mark. Colors are good. The consistent fast speed is great, and it has the right focal length range for portraits--equivalent to 45-120mm on a full-frame camera, which ought to be plenty long. (The old rule of thumb was that 90mm is a good default). The build quality is pretty good. The only drawback is the flip side of the constant f/2.8: it is big and a little heavy. And the price is certainly right.

Good luck.


Eric Eisenstein , Dec 30, 2008; 10:13 a.m.

thank you!

I would like to thank all of you for the advice. I remain undecided, but less so than before.
Some thoughts:

  1. Regarding suggestions to shoot with the kit lens that several people made. I am curious what it is that I am likely to learn from shooting with the kit lens. I know what I want, which is largely (but not exclusively) pictures of people with blurred backgrounds. This seems unlikely to be possible with the kit lens, and I'm not 100% sure that the IQ will be better than with my wife's new P&S (digital Elph). I am, of course, sensitive to the issue of trying to get everything at once before practicing/trying the camera, etc. At the same time, Hendrik's post seems quite relevant to my situation.
  2. A number of posters have mentioned using the 50 mm/1.8 on a crop sensor as a good portrait lens. Can anyone tell me how close they need to stand to their subjects to get a good picture with good background blur? Jeff, in particular, you mention the 17-40. But you posted a studio portrait. As I understand it, even at 40 mm & f/4 you cannot get more than a slight background blur -- am I wrong?
  3. What is an "environmental" portrait? Does this mean, a picture of someone not in a studio? If so, that would be all that I am going to ever shoot, as I don't have anything resembling a studio. (unless you count a relatively monochromatic wall in my house)
  4. Alan's comment: "I also use 24-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8 in my kit, but not so much for portrait shooting except when necessary (kids and animals)." - my issue is that my daughters are 3 & 5 years old -- and all of my nieces and nephews are under the age of 10. My wife is also a veterinarian, and we do tend to shoot more than our share of animals.
  5. Several people have mentioned the 17-40 f/4L. Is the quality on that lens worth it compared to the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, which adds IS, length, and the 2.8?
  6. Sarah, thank you again for the excellent point about the two nodes. I suspect that you are correct (I could use both longer and shorter). But, I do need to decide what to buy first... see final comments below.
  7. Sarah made a very interesting suggestion, and one that I had never considered (buying a used 5D or similar full-frame, and then using slower/cheaper lenses to achieve similar background blur). That is a fascinating idea, and one that I'll consider after my first dSLR. At this point, I'm not willing to go that route, I don't think. First, I am still trying (in spite of the physics) to reduce the total weight that I need to lug around. The 5D and similar cameras are all very big, but in addition, the full-frame lenses are also heavier than dedicated crop-sensor lenses. But I think that the biggest problem is that I'm not sure that f/4 is sufficient for just shooting without flash in many of the circumstances in which I shoot. I do want a fast lens for control of DoF, but I also want a fast lens to stop blasting the flash.

Here is what I am currently considering:
Canon Xsi body with the kit lens 18-55 IS ($80 extra for the lens, it is IS, gives me the wide end, and is cheap)
Tamron 28-75 f/2.8
Canon 50mm/ 1.8
Later, get a faster/better wide lens in the 10-28-ish range.
At some point (possibly now) the Sigma 50-150 f/2.8. Has anyone used this lens? I tried it out in a local store attached to an Xsi. Seems to hunt a little bit on focus (which could be the Xsi for all I know, their 40D didn't have a battery in it for comparison), but it has full time manual focus, it was quiet, it's fast, the lens gets good reviews, and it is over 1 pound lighter and 1/2 the price of a full frame 70-200.
If I purchased all of the above at once, cost would = $1700 or so. Without the 50-150, it would be right around $1050. Gear weight of the above (sans 50-150) is just under 3 pounds (no flash, tripod or bag included...). The 50-150 weighs 27 oz.
I would love to know what the community would think of this. Photo.net is an amazing community! Happy New Year!

Jeff Spirer , Dec 30, 2008; 10:50 a.m.

Jeff, in particular, you mention the 17-40. But you posted a studio portrait.

Yes, my mistake, posted a photo that didn't meet your criteria. Maybe this one, taken with the same lens, comes closer:

I don't know if that is sufficient background blur for you, but it is blurred.

Eric Eisenstein , Jan 27, 2009; 10:16 p.m.

Just to update everyone, I decided on buying an Xsi rather than a 40D. I also found out that Tamron has an educational rebate program, which discounts lenses to those in education (I'm a professor). So I took the savings from not buying the 40D and put it into an extra lens. I got a Tamron 17-50/2.8, Tamron 28-75/2.8, Sigma 50-150/2.8, and the Canon 50/1.8.
Overall, I've been incredibly happy with this set. After shooting about 1000 pictures, I have concluded that 28-75 is my walkaround lens. I don't seem to miss the short end much, and I can take very natural pictures of my kids and relatives from reasonable distances with it. The longer end also allows for selective focus if I want it. The 17-50 has proven very nice when I know that I'll be indoors, and for shooting a few shots of landscapes (which are generally not my thing). The 50-150 is fantastic. We were on vacation two weeks ago, and it allowed me to get many, many shots that I would not have been able to get without it. Beautiful portrait lens, and acceptable for some wildlife as well. I like the prime, but I have to say that it doesn't work nearly as well for children.

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