How to create artistic portraits using a standard 50mm lens.

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

Welcome back to this weeks post. 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 disguard 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 ( 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 of F5.6, F8, F11 F16, you will get the same look of 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 Highlights & Shadows 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 F1.2 @ 1/500s

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.

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 @ 1/800s

Until next time, happy shooting