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ESSAY: What Lens To Buy For Shooting Portraiture With Blurry Backgrounds?

What Lens To Buy For Shooting Portraiture With Blurry Backgrounds?
What Lens To Buy For Shooting Portraiture With Blurry Backgrounds?



04 November 2017

Someone left a message on my page inbox a while ago. I'm delighted to share some of my experience and insight as to which lens is ideal. There's no right/wrong answer, we might differ in opinions so don't be violent with me!

What Lens To Buy For Shooting Portraiture With Blurry Backgrounds?
What Lens To Buy For Shooting Portraiture With Blurry Backgrounds?

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Which Lens For Portraiture?

Hello, thank you for dropping by. The quick answer is... any lens can be used for portraiture, only your imagination is the limit. But I would like to take the time to explain a few things...

What Lens To Buy For Shooting Portraiture With Blurry Backgrounds?
What Lens To Buy For Shooting Portraiture With Blurry Backgrounds?



There is a reason that photographers prefer prime lenses with longer focal length for portraiture (telephoto). The desired range for shooting portraiture on full frame camera is 85-200mm; while on APS-C or crop sensor is 55-135mm (given the 1.5x crop factor).

Nikkor 85mm f/2 AI
Nikkor 85mm f/2 AI



The longer the focal length, the easier it is to get a thin Depth of Field, even with a small aperture. On the contrary, wide angle lenses have less capability to produce blurry background. For example, at 28mm, you can just barely get a slightly blurry background at f/2; while with a 135mm, you can still make nice blurry background around f/5.6 or even f/8.

Petri 55mm f/1.8 CC Auto (Petri Bayonet Mount)
We have here a swirly bokeh from the
Petri 55mm f/1.8 CC Auto (Petri Bayonet Mount).
This is a special effect that not all lenses can do.
It is actually the consequence of 'vignetting'.



Another way to get blurry backgrounds is to buy lenses with wider aperture. Like those with f/3.5, f/2.8, f/2, f/1.4, f/1.2, etc. The wider the aperture, the more blur and better option for shooting in dark scenes, but also more expensive. Listen to me... you don't always need wide aperture, and you will never want to use them outdoor in daytime anyway because fringing and aberration is common in wide stops (they're better suited for low light shooting). Be wise!

Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4
Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4
I only use f/1.4 in dark or low light scenes.
This scene was lit by my phone's light.



Before we forget, it might be worth mentioning that if you are buying lenses that are 85mm or longer, they should have at least 8 aperture blades. When you stop the aperture down, you will see that the shape of the bokeh balls will be affected by the number of blades in the lens. The longer the focal length, the bigger your bokeh balls will be in the background. You want them to be pleasantly rounded, not hexagonal or heptagonal. Old 1960s preset lenses, despite softer contrast, are sought after because they usually have at least 12 blades.

Sankyo Kohki Komura 200mm f/3.5
Sankyo Kohki Komura 200mm f/3.5
Can you see that the shape in the center is perfectly circular
even when the blades are fully closed?



Getting great blurry backgrounds (or 'bokeh') does not rely on the lens alone. Even 'slow' lenses are capable if you can do a simple trick by adjusting the distance between 1) you and the subject, and 2) the subject and the background. My usual setup is 2 to 3 meters from the camera, then as much as possible, a background that is far far away.

Sun Optical Multcoated 60-135mm f/3.5
Sun Optical Multcoated 60-135mm f/3.5
at 3 meters, 60mm f/3.5
uncropped, unedited


The focal length that you will buy not only depends on your situation or available space, but also on the working distance. Example, 55mm and 85mm are nice for indoor where there's limited space. If you use 135mm indoor at 3 meters, you can get half body shots. 105mm and 135mm lenses are excellent if you are shooting outdoor, you can get plenty of great bokeh with these lenses. Like this shot below using a 200mm inside my room...


Nikkor-Q C. 200mm f/4
Nikkor-Q C. 200mm f/4
uncropped, unedited
shot at f/8, 3 meters




So here is a demonstration of these lenses:

Case 1: Super Telephoto, small aperture, with special effects
> Using a 300mm mirror lens can produce unique effects that cannot be produced by any other lens or in post processing. This effect is called the 'donut bokeh'.

Soligor C/D 300mm f/5.6 Mirro Lens (KOMINE)
Soligor C/D 300mm f/5.6 Mirro Lens (KOMINE)
The lens is sharp, but here I was not able to
focus well on the walking subject.



Case 2: Telephoto prime lens, small aperture
> With longer lenses like a 85mm, I can easily get blurry backgrounds even at f/5.6 because of the razor-thin Depth Of Field.
> You don't really need to buy a 135mm f/2 because it's very expensive and you don't need f/2 since you will shoot at f/4 anyway to have more of the subject in focus

Canon FL 135mm f/2.5 (at f/2.5)
Canon FL 135mm f/2.5 (at f/2.5)
Nikon D5200, Profile - Neutral



Case 3: Normal prime, wide aperture
> A 'normal' range is about 40mm to 60mm.
> You will need a wider aperture like f/2.8 to create blurry background.
> You will also want to consider the distance between camera-subject-background to get the most bokeh possible.

Super Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (at f/2.8)
Super Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (at f/2.8)


Petri 55mm f/1.8 CC Auto (Petri Bayonet Mount) at f/2.8
Petri 55mm f/1.8 CC Auto (Petri Bayonet Mount) at f/2.8



Case 4: Wide angle lens, wide aperture
> 35mm is semi-wide but belongs here. This up to 16mm is wide angle.
> 'Wide' also depends on crop factor. Example: on full frame cameras, 18mm is ultra wide, 28mm is wide. On APS-C, 12mm is ultra wide, 18mm is wide.
> Less capable of creating blurry backgrounds
> However, you can work around it... get closer to the subject and shoot at the widest aperture.

Tamron Adaptall 2 28mm f/2.5 (02B) at f/2.5
Tamron Adaptall 2 28mm f/2.5 (02B) at f/2.5


Nikkor-O 35mm f/2
Nikkor-O 35mm f/2
At f/2 obviously. No crop, no edit.



Case 5: Ultra wide angle or fisheye lens, special distorted effect
> Anything wider than 16mm is already ultra wide.
> Who says you can't use them for portraiture? You can take advantage of the distorted effects (not much bokeh), and it is also great for group shots!

Tokina AT-X Pro SD 12-24mm f/4 (Version 1)
Tokina AT-X Pro SD 12-24mm f/4 (Version 1)
This was at 12mm f/4

Tokina AT-X Pro SD 12-24mm f/4 (Version 1)
Tokina AT-X Pro SD 12-24mm f/4 (Version 1)
This was at 24mm

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RECOMMENDATION

Once you understand the basics that I just taught you, you will never think again to need AF (autofocus) or multicoated, state-of-the-art million-dollar lenses. Any lens can be used for shooting portraiture. Any bad lens can make great results if you know how to work around their flaws.

Wide angle lenses like 28mm or 35mm with a wide aperture can be costly. 85mm is a popular choice for both full frame and APS-C, but it's also expensive. So for the newbies, it would be nice to invest in a 55mm (preferably f/2) or a 135mm (f/3.5 is fine!) because they are dirt cheap!

55mm f/2 for all around general purpose shooting, and a 135mm for more intimate portraiture (which also makes excellent bokeh!). If I were just beginning in photography and obviously on a budget, those are the ones I want to have.

If one feels that you've outgrown them or have more budget, then go for an 85mm. You might also want to consider those 90mm or 100mm lenses that can double as a macro lenses.

I hope this helps. =)

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