Not too shallow

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!


Nifty Fifty

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, product photo by Michael Willems

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.”

Good question.

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.

Portrait using two flashes

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.

Again, why "fast" lenses?

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:

  1. Less sharply. A “prime” (i.e. non-zoom) lens is sharper.
  2. A prime lens is also smaller and lighter.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. Learn Aperture Priority mode (A/Av) and use a low “F-number”.
  3. Turn the camera sideways and get close!

Have fun.

(Wow, three numbered lists in one blog post!)

That look over the shoulder

One common sexy model look is the “look over the shoulder”.

Like here, in this shot of Nemo, a somewhat Rubenesque but nevertheless pretty model:

In an “over the shoulder” pose women can look over either shoulder, but for men, if the shoulders are angled, avoid them looking over the higher shoulder. This is a feminine look.

As so often with available light portraits, in the shot above I used my Canon 7D with:

  • a 50mm lens, which on the 7D crop camera is really equivalent to 80mm
  • 2000 ISO (on auto ISO)
  • 1/60th at f/1.4

Yes, you can take pictures on a 7D at 2000 ISO and have them look just fine.

Bright pixels are sharp pixels, but also, bright pixels are noise-free pixels.

(And you know to focus accurately, using one focus point, aimed at the closest eye, right?)


Backgrounds and sharpness and white balance: oh my!

I thought I would chat about some of the things that go through my mind when doing a portrait, like this one last night:

Questions like:

  • What camera and lens? In this case, the Canon 7D and a 50mm f/1.4 lens.
  • What settings? Well, manual at 100 ISO, 1/125th second, f/5.6 is my standard start point, as it was here.
  • What lighting setup? In this case, a standard two main lights (softbox main light on camera left, umbrella fill light on camera right) with a snooted hair light behind left, and a gridded gelled background light. Note that while the main lights were monolights, the background light was a small speedlite fired by a pocketwizard through a Flashzebra hotshoe cable.
  • What lighting ratio? In this case pretty flat, but usually more like a 3:1 key:fill ratio.
  • What body position? Usually angled, in this case toward the softbox.
  • What head position? In this case, straight on since the subject wanted it that way.
  • What colour background? In this case I used a blue-green gel from the new Honl Photo “Autumn” colour gel set.
  • What viewpoint? I carefully choose this by moving myself left and right, up and down, until the person looks best to me for the portrait wanted. If in doubt, I take multiple views and choose later.
  • What white balance? I set it to “Flash”, even when shooting RAW, just so I get OK views on the back of the camera.

That’s all there is to a quick snap like this, which took a few minutes – if that.


Photography is about composition/subject + moment + light. I reckon I got several of these right here:

From earlier this year. Using a 35mm lens on a 1.3 crop camera (meaning it’s 50mm), set to f/2.8 at 1/160th second.

Moral of the story: a “standard” lens is great. This is equivalent to a 50mm lens. Do take lots of pictures and do not forget the “moment” aspect.


Portraits? Then use a 50mm f/1.8 lens (affordable, fast, sharp) and shoot in Aperture (A/Av) mode with it wide open (preferably by window light).

Look at this recent available-light shot of a student:


This gets you the dual advantages of low-light ability (no flash needed!) and blurry backgrounds. As long as you make sure the closest eye is the sharpest.

So, set your camera to the widest aperture (the smallest F-number), use high enough ISO (indoors this might be 400-800 ISO), and use one focus spot, and aim that spot at the closest eye. Click!

Do I need a fast lens?

When students ask me “should I really buy a fast lens?” (For beginners, that’s a lens with a low “F-number”, like f/2.8), my answer is “it depends.”

What are you shooting? Landscapes (no need for a fast lens, since you will shoot at f/16 or above) or nightclubs (which need a fast lens for low-light abilities), portraits (which need a fast lens for blurry backgrounds) or sports (which need a fast lens for fast exposures)?

And if you like blurry backgrounds, does it make sense to get a pro lens like an f/2.8, or is my kit f/5.6 lens enough? That’s an easy one to answer. It depends. On whether you like this, taken yesterday during a course at f/5.6:


..or whether you prefer the same shot at f/2.8:


You decide. View them full size to really see the difference.

Know that every stop faster (from 5.6 to 4, or from 4 to 2.8) doubles the lens price. But if you like the blur (“Bokeh”) in the bottom shot, there’s no substitute for fast.

And I did not say expensive – at least not necessarily so: while some lenses like my f/1.4 35mm cost $2,000, an excellent 50mm fixed (“prime”) f/1.8 lens (a “nifty fifty”, which on a crop camera is  great portrait lens) can be had for as little as $150 or less.

So yes, low f-numbers make a difference and that’s why photographers are willing to pay lots of money for them. But don’t worry: good lenses keep their value.

f/1.8 lens, stopped down, shot with f/1.4 lens, open

I have many times recommended 50mm f/1.8 lenses, and I’ll try to inspire you once more to go out and get one right now. Most manufacturers have a cheap lens like this:


As you will have heard me say many times, this lens is cheap, small, light, fast and sharp.

Ideal for portraits or for low-light subjects or images where you want to dramatically blur the background. If this lens is not in your kit yet, I recommend you add it immediately.

As you will have seen in the previous post, I shot Prof Dawkins yesterday with just sich a lens (my 50mm f/1.4).