More on those lenses

Fast lenses, and why do you need them for portraits?

“Fast” lenses mean lenses with a large aperture, i.e. a low minimum “f-number”.  Like an f/2.8 lens, or even an f/1.4 lens. These lenses allow shallower depth of field, but they also allow in more light.

Imaging shooting in a studio. Like this, at today’s Imaging Show, at which I spoke about lenses again:

All sorts of lights, operated by Pocketwizards. Yes, true, you do not need a fast lens for this. A simple f/5.6 lens will do since you will shoot at f/5.6 – f/8. (Though a fast lens stopped down will be sharper than a slow lens wide open).

But. Imagine you want to shoot there using available light. Not the flashes, but the available modeling lights. Or perhaps window light in your room.

This you can do only if you have a fast lens. Set it to f/1.4 and it lets in so much light that in that situation above you can shoot at 1/100th second at 100 ISO (or if you wish,  1/400th second at 400 ISO):

Isn’t that amazing? handheld, Canon 7D, prime 35mm f/1.4 lens, set to f/1.4 at 400 ISO and 1/400th second. And it looks like a studio shot. Due to my use of a fast lens.

(Oh – why did I shoot as I was, at f/1.4 and 400 ISO? Because I was carrying a heavy bag with speedlights and lesens, and two cameras, and a laptop. So I had no spare hand. That’s why!)


Use the right tool.

“You can only use a 50-150mm lens for portraits”.

Nope. You can use any lens, just about. It’s a matter of matching the kind of portrait to the most suitable lens. Somewhat like this:

So you do not shoot a headshot with a very wide lens. But as you see, almost any type of lens can be used for portraits of one sort or another.

  • For stand-alone portrait, the longer the better. But you may not have space to use a 200mm lens.
  • For groups, wide or very wide is OK . Keep people away from the edges or they will stretch.
  • A Macro lens makes a good portrait lens.
  • For available light photos, you use a fast lens.
  • For environmental portraits, you use a wide lens, making sure your subject is not too large in the image.

I am going to be at the Henry’s Imaging show in Mississauga all three days, Friday to Sunday, talking about “the right lens for the job”. Come see me if you like!




Why you use good lenses

Lenses are worth the money you spend on them. At the risk of repeating myself, let me show you why.

A good lens focuses fast. It is well-built and strong. It has little aberration and edge distortion. It is silent. It has better coatings and resistance to flare. Most importantly, it has a larger aperture (a smaller “f-number”), hence more glass.

But also very importantly, it is sharper.

Look here. Click on this image and then click on “orginal size”, and then view it at original size. Make sure you follow all those steps.

(24-70 lens at 24mm, at f/8, 1/125th second, 100 ISO; using studio strobes).

When you do that, you basically get to DNA-level.

“But I do not want my face to be so sharp!”.

Yes you do. You want your eye, eyelashes and soon, to be sharp. Skin you can blur later if you wish, but the basic image must be sharp.

And that is why a good lens (e.g. in the Canon-world, an “L”-lens, where “L” stands for “Luxury) is worth every penny. (And they cost a lot of pennies – but the lens will last you twenty years, both technically and in economic terms).

I am repeating myself, I know – but this is important. In lenses, there are few shortcuts (except an affordable 50mm lens, which is why if you do not yet have one, go get one now!)

Aperture effect

Here’s an effect we forget sometimes. When a lens is wide open, it vignettes.

My 50mm lens at f/1.2:

And here is that same lens a stop and a third closed down, at f/2.0:

Can you see the difference? The first picture, wide open, shows significantly more vignetting.

Now I like vignetting – a lot, in portraits. But shooting portraits with a lens wide open is rather dangerous, since depth of field is very shallow and may not be sufficient. So I add vignetting in Lightroom – Post Crop Vignetting is one of the best controls in Lightroom for when you are shooting portraits.

And when you are not shooting portraits, avoid vignetting like this – so in those cases, avoid shooting with your fast lens wide open.

The SUV of lenses

I like to shoot with many lenses. Wide (16-35 on full frame), long (70-200 on crop), and fast primes.

But the one “general purpose” lens I keep going back to is the 24-70 f/2.8L. First of all, this lens is sharp:

Michael Willems - self portrait, detail

Self portrait, detail (view at full size)

You like crazy sharp? This lens is crazy sharp.

The main thing about this lens, however, is that it can be used for almost any shoot. For instance, for music school portraits like today’s:

Michael Willems - demo portrait

Michael Willems - demo portrait

But also for headshots, environmental portraits, events, travel, low-ish light shots, and much more. Its fast speed (i.e. the low f-number, a constant 2.8 throughout its zoom range) allows you to blur backgrounds well, and allows its use in low light. This is why photojournalists keep that lens in the bag and on the camera.

Today’s shoot was a music school and tomorrow’s is the same – all day. If you wonder how the shots above were lit: three Bowens studio lights; an umbrella, a softbox and a snoot. Here’s the softbox:

Softbox during music school shoot

Softbox during music school shoot

A softbox gives you a large area and hence soft light. For studio I use a large softbox; for on-the go shoots I use the Honl Traveller 8 softbox on a speedlight. (As you know, Dave Honl will be helping me teach a course in Toronto on March 19; he is in London today, where yesterday he taught a course to Matteo, a young friend and student who has taken a number of my courses. Small world!)

Ideal Aperture

The ideal aperture is like really large, yes, a small F-number?


Well then, at least in a portrait it is, yes?

It can be. But you need to think about this carefully.

Look at this image of some students who kindly volunteered the other day:





Which one do you prefer?

I think you may agree with me that a blurrier background is better. But so is a sharp face. Often, the extremely shallow depth of field (e.g. the DOF you get at f/1.2) is too shallow for comfort. Personally, I would say that for this kind of close-up hand-held available light portrait, f/2.8 to f/4 is great.


Take a headshot portrait (one where the head fills the page) using a 20mm lens.

Go on, do it. You know you can. And I mean a real 20mm lens, so if you have a 1.6 crop camera like a Digital Rebel you would use a 13mm lens; on a Nikon you would use a 14mm lens. Or that setting on your wide angle zoom lens.

You would get this – and thank you to the student who kindly volunteered to be pictured with, um, an enlarged nose:

Because that is what happens when you use a wide lens, because you have to be so close.

You see, it is not the lens that has the bad magic. It is your position right in front of his face.

Now use an 80mm lens (that would be a 50mm lens for crop factor camera users). That forces you to step back a couple of metres. Now you get this:

That’s a lot better, eh?

So the moral: portraits are best taken from a few metres away. Either that means you use a longer lens (80-135mm), or you avoid headshots where the subject is large so you have to get close.

And therefore yes, you can use a wide lens – just with a small subject, in the middle. So an environmental portrait with a wide angle lens is fine, if your subject is small and not near the picture’s edges. Otherwise, a long lens. On a crop camera, 50mm and longer!

Can you tell my spouse?

A student recently asked me to explain to his or her spouse (anonymity will be preserved) why it is worth investing in lenses.

Michael in The Plaid Chair (Photo: Peter McKinnon)

Michael in The Plaid Chair

And indeed I am happy to do this. Not because I have any stake in selling lenses (I teach, at various venues including Henry’s School of Imaging, but I have no stake in selling anything anywhere). But because:

  1. I strongly believe the lens is the most important part of photographic equipment between you and a great picture.
  2. A lens keeps its value much better than a camera does.

Let me explain.

  • The lens determines how sharp your picture is. Good lenses are simply sharper, and with today’s sensors this difference is noticeable.
  • The lens determines how fast your shutter speed is. And hence, how blurry the image. A faster lens (“fast” means “how wide is the aperture”, i.e. “how low is the minimum F-number this lens can go to”) means more light can get in – which means faster shutter speeds are possible at the same ISO.
  • The lens determines how blurry you can make the background. An f/2.8 lens gives you, if you want it, a much blurrier background than a consumer-grade f/3.5-5.6 lens. A “prime” (fixed) f/1.4 lens, even more so.
  • Good lenses focus faster, are quieter, have better “bokeh” (look better where they are out of focus), are water- and dust-sealed, and so on.

Those are very important factors whose importance it is almost impossible to overstate. Photojournalists like me use f/2.8 zoom lenses and f/1.4 primes. for a reason. For several reasons.

And finally- a lens keeps its value. A camera – not so much (next year it is worth half; a afew years later it has $0 value). A good lens keeps its value for decades.This is because 20 years from now it will still do what it does today (let through photons), and because the intrinsic value of the optical glass is a larger part of the value of the lens.

This is why lenses are worth buying. They make much more difference to images than the camera does, and they are a much safer investment.

Event Fave Lenses

Another word today about lenses, many of which I have mentioned before: here are my  four favourite for lenses for shooting events.

  1. 35mm f/1.4 prime – for low-light “people, camera aware” events. Its large aperture makes it ideal for clubs.
  2. 16-35 f/2.8 zoom – for events with groups of people, or events in small rooms. Its wide angle makes it idea for cramped rooms and dramatic leading lines.
  3. 24-70 f/2.8 zoom – for general purpose events, where you do not know what you will encounter. Its wide range makes it ideal as an all-round lens for events,
  4. 70-200 f/2.8 zoom – for candid shots. Its long focal length makes it great to catch those unexpected portraits-from-a-distance, camera-unaware.

So those are the four lenses I use most. I also use 50mm prime lenses, 100mm macro lenses, and others, but for most events I can grab one or two of the above and be well equipped.

Do you need all four? No. But yo uight want to start saving for the one or two that are most useful for the type of events you shoot.

Event lenses

What lens to use at an event? I hear this question all the time, and it is a good question.Especially with “events” happening all over, during the next week or so.

In my upcoming “Events Photography” workshop I’ll talk about this topic at length. But today, let me give you a starting pointer or two. Some of this is a repeat from prior posts, but put together in one post it probably has value.

Teambuilding at a recent event

I use the following lenses rather often: and this is on a full-frame camera, so on a crop-factor SLR you need to divide each of these numbers by roughly 1.5:

  • 24-70 f/2.8: General purpose, when I expect a “normal” party or event: i.e. no cramped spaces, no ultra-low light.
  • 16-35 f/2.8: When I expect group shots or cramped spaces. I also use this to get extra perspective, or to get shots with lots of leading lines, possibly angled shots like the one above.
  • 35mm prime f/1.4: When I expect low light, or when I expect mainly “grip and grin” pictures.
  • 70-200 f/2.8: when I expect to be asked for impromptu “fly on the wall” shots and portraits.

So on a crop camera (a low- or medium-priced SLR like a D90 or a Digital Rebel) I would use the 16-35 or 17-40 lens as my general walk-around event lens and I would use a 24mm prime for low-light shooting.

Wide apertures are good

Fast lenses (low “F-numbers”, or “wide apertures” are good for two reasons: they let in more light, and they allow me to blur the background more.

The decisive moment

Yes it may

The most important lesson is: It does not greatly matter. While a wide lens is probably easiest, you can take pictures with any lens. “Fast” is more important than the exact width.