I hear people say sometimes that “you cannot shoot portraits at wide open apertures”.
So then how this available light portrait, shot on a full frame camera with a 50mm lens at f/1.2 (yes, f/1.2!)?
Well yes, it is shallow, but not too shallow. Because I have enough distance.
Remember: depth of field (“DOF”) is a function of three things: aperture, distance, and lens focal length. The closer I get, the lower my f-number, and the more I zoom in, the more I get shallow depth of field.
So portrait like this, with the person small enough like this, gives me plenty of DOF. Of course I would not want to do a full headshot at these large apertures, but in this type of portrait the shallow DOF is not too shallow, and the super blurry background makes things better.
So -get yourself an affordable 24- 35- or 50mm lens!
Everyone should own a fast 50mm lens, I keep saying. “Fast” meaning a prime, large aperture lens (like a 50mm f/1.8, or even a 50mm f/1.4, like this one:)
50mm fast lens, by Michael Willems
One student asks a good question about this:
“I recently attended your travel photography and Nikon Pt. 2 classes. You spoke about the value of a 50 mm lens. I have a Nikon D90, which is not full frame therefore I am wondering if you still recommend the 50 mm over a 35 mm.”
As you know, a small sensor camera (like most of today’s DSLRs) appears to “lengthen” the lens (search this blog for “crop factor” to see why). So a 50mm lens will work like a “real” 80mm lens.
In “real” terms,
- 50mm is a “standard” lens;
- 80mm is a great portrait lens for half-length portraits and headshots.
So presumably we should all start with a “real” 50mm lens? On a regular (non-”full frame”) DSLR, that means you need to buy a 35mm lens.
So is my advice really “buy a lens marked 35mm” or “buy a lens marked 50mm”?
Ideally, both. But if you have to choose, start with the 50, because:
- You’ll want to do headshots sooner or later;
- Sometimes you’ll use it for product or detail-shots, too;
- Above all: it is very affordable.
Most manufacturers make a 50mm f/1.8 that costs around $150 or less. A bargain, and something you just need to put in your camera bag.
Here’s an impromptu portrait I took on Tuesday, of a lovely student who kindly volunteered to be the subject, in the Flash for Pros course:
And here’s how I did this:
- Camera: The camera was a Canon 7D
- Lens: I used a 50mm f/1.4 lens. (50mm on a crop camera, even the very cheap f/1.8 version, makes a great portrait lens).
- Settings: The settings were Manual mode at 1/30th second, f/5.6, 400 ISO
- Flashes: I used two 430 EX flashes on light stands, fired from the pop-up flash (like most Nikon cameras, the 7D allows this). Other than that, the pop-up flash was disabled. (I could also have used a 580EX on the camera as master.)
And how I used those flashes:
- I used e-TTL, so I did not have to meter and set the flashes manually.
- The main flash (“A”) was on camera left: a 430EX fired into a Honl gold/silver (half CTO) reflector. It was about a foot away from her.
- The second flash was also a 430EX; this one fired straight at her from 45 degrees behind, through a Honl 1/4″ grid. This flash was also about a foot away from her.
- I set an A:B Ratio of 4:1, so the main light was two stops brighter than the hair light.
Another student that night wrote a blog post, here, where you can see a few pics with some of the modifiers I used.
So it’s actually quite simple: now you go try. It is amazing what you can do in just a few seconds with just a couple of flashes (speedlites) and some small, light, convenient modifiers.
A tip for newcomers to SLR photography.
I often hear: “Why do I need so-called “fast” lenses – like the 50mm f/1.8 lens Michael keeps talking about? Surely my 18-55 lens also covers 50mm?”
Well yes it does. But:
- Less sharply. A “prime” (i.e. non-zoom) lens is sharper.
- A prime lens is also smaller and lighter.
- And especially: the prime lens has a lower minimum “F-number” – i.e. a larger aperture. The lower the “F”-number, the better. Your kit lens is f/3.5-5.6 (meaning zoomed out it can go as low as 3.5; zoomed in it can go only as low as 5.6. The 50mm f/1.8 can go as low as 1.8).
Why is this important?
So in today’s class I took two shots of a student in available room light. One at f/5.6, and that is what you would get with your standard “kit”-lens. It looks like this:
Two things happen:
- Because of the small aperture (high “F-number”), the camera has to keep the lens open for a long time. This means that unless I use a tripod and tell the subject not to move, in indoors light I will get camera shake (the shot needed 1/10th of a second). And sure , do.
- The lower the “F” number, the shallower the depth of field, i.e. the blurrier the background. The higher the F-number, the sharper the background.F/5.6 gives a background that is somewhat blury.
Now look what happens when I use an aperture of f/1.8 (for which you need a lens that can do that, like the 50mm f/1.8 lens):
Much better – a pretty dramatic difference on both counts!
So the best way to immediately get great portrait shots is to:
- Get yourself a 50mm lens. On most cameras this is simple; do note that on a Nikon D40/D60/D3000/D5000 you need to manually focus this lens (that is why I recommend Canon cameras at the entry level).
- Learn Aperture Priority mode (A/Av) and use a low “F-number”.
- Turn the camera sideways and get close!
(Wow, three numbered lists in one blog post!)