If you want to flatter your subject, you'll probably want to deemphasize
his nose. That means you want to stand at 10 or 15 feet away from him
so that his nose isn't significantly closer to you than the rest of his
face. However, at such a large distance from the camera,
filling the frame with just your subject's face will require a high
magnification (i.e., telephoto) lens. Typical "portrait" lenses are
therefore between 90 and 135 millimeters long (for 35mm cameras). Many
professional fashion photographers use 300mm or 600mm lenses, resorting
to using a walkie-talkie or bullhorn to communicate with the model!
At right: South Beach. Miami. Fashion photography capital of the
world. Here a yuppie photographer sneers from the
back of his 600/4. He's unhappy at being on the glass end of a Rollei 6008 and 50mm lens. The model is way
down the beachfront and he's using a radio to communicate with an assistant
holding a reflector by the model (in yellow).
With a Canon or Nikon, most professionals end up using their 70-200/2.8
or 80-200/2.8 zooms as portrait lenses. These 3 lb. monsters aren't
very pleasant to handhold, though, and if you know that you're only
going to do portraits, you're better off with a prime lens. Prime
lenses are lighter and give better image quality. Unfortunately, the
prime lens in this range that a serious photographer is most likely to
own is the 100 or 105 macro. These are very high quality optically but
difficult to focus precisely since most of the focusing helical
precision is reserved for the macro range. Here are some great portrait
What if you're using a small-sensor digital SLR, such as any of the
Nikons or the Canon Digital Rebel? In that case, an inexpensive 50/1.8
will function as a very usable portrait lens, roughly equivalent to the
85/1.8 short portrait lenses that are popular on full-frame cameras.
Note that the background will not be as blurred as it would be with the
There are folks who argue that a portrait should not be clinically
sharp. For them, fuzz = glow and is flattering. Fuzz fans definitely
don't like using standard 100mm macro lenses for portraiture. They'll
start with a lower performance lens and add fuzziness with a filter
(e.g., Zeiss Softar or Tiffen SoftFX), a stocking stretched over the
lens, or digital post-processing.
Connoisseurs of soft focus insist that you must have a lens with
uncorrected spherical aberration. You can get spherical aberration
either by using a very old camera/lens or by buying a purpose-built
modern soft focus lens. The image at right was taken with
a Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus.
The lens starts as a modern prime telephoto lens, lighter than a zoom,
high in contrast, and reasonably high quality, especially stopped down
to f/5.6 or smaller. What is different about this lens is that, with
the twist of a ring, you can vary the softness from none to rather
soft. The photo at right is
luminous in a way that is tough to explain and would be difficult to
reproduce in Photoshop. Sadly, Canon has not updated this
lens with an ultrasonic motor, which would allow simultaneous manual
and auto focus. If you're only going to own one prime telephoto lens, the
100/2 USM or 135/2L USM are probably better choices.
As far as doing soft focus in other formats, Rodenstock makes an
Imagon lens for 4x5 view cameras. This unusual lens has perforated
disks that you slide into the middle of the lens. Unfortunately,
different softness and aperture settings affect the focus, which
requires focussing with the lens stopped down. In medium format,
people like the old Zeiss 150 lens for Hasselblad because it simply
isn't all that sharp.
The standard place to start is a digital single-lens-reflex camera. If
you can afford it, a full-frame digital camera, such as the Canon EOS
5D, is very nice for portraits because you get less depth of field for a
given composition than with a small sensor camera, such as any of the
Nikons or the Canon Digital Rebel.
For a serious challenge to digital SLR quality, start with a Hasselblad
and a 150mm lens. If you have a flotilla of assistants like Annie
Liebowitz, you could use the camera she uses: Mamiya RZ67. If you have
a lot of patience, a 4x5 view camera with 270mm lens isn't a bad option.
How important is the choice of camera? Consider how terrible the
pictures were that your relatives sent you back in the old days, taken with a
zoom point and shoot film camera. The lenses was far too slow at the
telephoto end. So the photo was taken at f/10 instead of f/2.8 and the
background was sharp instead of blurry. Due to the slow aperture, Uncle
Alfred had to use the on-camera flash instead of natural light. It
was a waste of film.
How much better is life in the digital point and shoot age? Sadly, not
much. The lenses are a little faster than on the old film P&S cameras,
but the sensors are so small that the focal lengths are shorter and the
depth of field is about the same, i.e., too great. The background is
sharp when it should be blurry.