Welcome back to this weeks portrait tips and techniques. Quite often photographers ask me what lenses I use for taking portraits. To their amazement, I tell them that about approximately 40% of my work is photographed with a 50mm, 10% on 24mm and the balance on a 70-200mm. In a period where the 70-200mm appears to be the most popular lens, many photographers dis-guard the long serving 50mm standard lens as boring.

My guess is the ones who found it boring were photographing at apertures that made their images look ordinary. I doubt anyone would call the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson,  the legendary photojournalist of the 20th century, boring. It is said that most of his images were created by his standard 50mm Leica lens.

If your camera is set to apertures such as F5.6, F8, F11 or F16, you will get a similar look to a point and shoot camera where everything is in focus. Also it’s worth noting that the angle of view is similar to our eyes, therefore we are used to seeing this same angle with a full focus range. So when we photograph with our big zooms, the visual impact appears greater than our standard 50mm lens.

But, if we enter the world of soft light with soft shadows and set our lenses to wider open apertures, such as F1.2 to F2.8 (F1 for Leica M users) and raise our shutter speeds to suit, we will have a whole different look. The depth of field will be shallow and the backgrounds will be heavily blurred. The way the lens renders this blurring is referred to as bokeh. All lenses render differently at different aperture settings, the wider the aperture (eg: F1.2) the more effective this will be. Also working in lower contrast light at these settings will render softer highlight and shadow transfers.

The Highlight to Shadow transfer is the area of transition where the H & S blend. Generally with soft light, the smoother this area is, the better. All the portraits in this post, demonstrate this smooth transition.

Now with these new aperture settings, try changing the way you compose, look for leading lines, use the rule of thirds, change your elevation such as ground level or higher up. Because you are now using a lens that is close to your own eyes, you can learn to see and compose without raising the camera until your ready to focus and shoot.

The above image is a good example of leading lines combined with the rule of thirds or golden triangle. The location is under a 100 year old jetty with a rusted  steel shark fence, which diminishes off into the back ground. The boy in front is placed approximately on the top left third position.

This is another advantage of the standard lens, where it contains enough environment around the subject to tell a story or show a relationship between the environment and the subject, without using a wide angle lens.

TECHNICAL  |   Canon 5D  50mm F1.2L    Camera settings  ISO 400   F2 @ 1/125s

When using wide open apertures, it’s important if you want both eyes in focus to have the front plane of the face square to the camera axis as possible. With such a shallow depth of field, this will help control focus on both eyes. In this portrait the teenage boy is slightly turned to his left, but not far enough to cause his left eye to go out of focus. The main focus is usually on the closest eye (his right eye).

As the boy is leaning slightly forward, this creates even less depth of field on his shirt and neck area, which keeps the attention on the eyes and face.

COMPOSITION TIP: His right eye was placed on the top left third position.

TECHNICAL  |   Canon 5D  50mm F1.2L    Camera settings  ISO 400  F1.2 @ 1/500s

In the next two images, the positions chosen were created to keep their heads in a clear and uncluttered area. I always try to keep the backgrounds simple so the subject stands out. By sitting the girls, this avoided the line of the jetty from appearing to pass through their bodies. This would have created intersecting lines spoiling what was a tranquil setting. The use of the 50mm lens gives no distortion and shows enough environment to make interesting pictorial portraits.

TECHNICAL  |   Canon 5D  50mm F1.2L    Camera settings  ISO 200  F1.8 @ 1/1000s

TECHNICAL  |   Canon 5D  50mm F1.2L    Camera settings  ISO 400  F2.8 @ 1/800s

Until next week, happy shooting

portrait tips and techniques

7 Responses to “50mm PORTRAIT LENS”

  1. 50mm Lens Says:

    There a lot of really good and affordable 50mm lenses out there, it really just comes down to which brand your prefer. They are all quite good.

  2. Ed Says:

    Hi. thanks for the tip. I find it hard to sometimes to focus with both eyes at 1.2. This tip helps me a lot. Thank you. Just want to ask if you focus recompose f1.2 aperture? Becoz as we all know the outer focusing points of the original 5D are weak.

  3. Red Bardes Says:

    Thanks for sharing your expertise and giving me some ideas for a shoot I am doing this weekend. I want to try various shots and your info was very helpful to me. I love the 50mm I have(Nikon 1.8) and use it a lot, but have not put it to overdrive….yet- your sharing has helped me push this lens further than I have to date. Thanks again for sharing.

  4. wayne Says:

    Hi Red,
    thanks for your comment. Any 50mm used at F1.2 – f2 has a great look, also a great travel combo to. Good luck, cheers,

  5. Robert Says:

    Question: I noticed that you used very high shutter speeds, you could have gone down in ISO and you’d have had lower shutter speeds so I’m guessing that you did it on purpose…


    Do you do this on a regular basis?

  6. wayne Says:

    Hi Robert,
    Thanks for taking the time to make a comment.
    I tend to work with iso 400 or 200, habit from film days. I work in the late pm light of the day, usually the last 1-2hours right through to sunset. Therefore don’t want to be messing around with too many changes. Working with mostly young children, I can get distracted vey easily.
    I shoot totally in manual mode and keep things very simple.
    In my medium format days I pretty much shot with a 150mm lens set at f4 – 400 tmax set at 250 iso with a yellow filter. I only adjusted the shutter speed, usually 1/250th down to 1/8th on a tripod.
    I guess I old habits die hard, but I like it that way -keep it simple.

  7. Eli Says:

    this is a great post. i will be using these tips when using my 50mm for portraits. good deal.

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