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!



The 50mm lens continues to be a favourite, but not always for the same reason.

There are in fact four reasons people often say they like a 50mm lens:

  1. On a full frame camera, it has the width of view that our eyes see sharply. This gives it a natural look: no compressed perspective (telephoto lens), and no expanded perspective (wide angle lens).
  2. Or – on a crop camera, it is a 75/80mm lens, which makes it a great portrait lens.
  3. And most 50mm lenses are fast. Meaning a low “f-number”, meaning a wide aperture, meaning selective depth of field.
  4. And finally, that also gives you a nice fast shutter speed in low light without having to go to very high ISO values.

Those last two points are illustrated by this picture, 50mm at f/1.2:

Reem, by Michael Willems

Pay here!




A student took this snap of me yesterday:

Photographer Michael Willems

He did this as follows:

  • He used his Canon 60D with my 50mm f/1.2 lens.
  • He used his new 580 EX II speedlight, bounced off the ceiling behind him.
  • The camera was set to manual exposure, f/5.6, 1/30th second
  • He selected 400 ISO.

Typical “indoors flash” settings.

The 50mm lens was set to f/5.6, so that means you could have done the same with any lens in the range of 50mm. This kind of lens length (meaning 80mm on a full frame body) is great for portraits. Which is why the 50mm (crop body) or 85mm (full-frame body) are such popular lenses.

If you do not yet own a 50mm prime lens, go get one. 50mm f/1.8, or if you can afford it, f/1.4 – or go all the way as I did, and get the 50mm f/1.2, but you will not using it at f/1.2 much.


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.

A rose by any other name

I took this “grab-shot” at the Kodiak Gallery the other day with a Canon 7D and 50mm f/1.4 lens:

Canon 7D, 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, 1/250th sec, 800 ISO

This shows that with the right lens, you do not need flash. You also do not need a macro lens every time. You can use what you have, if you keep your eyes open.

Also note:

  • The secondary subject blurred in the background
  • I used exposure compensation (+) to ensure the white background showed as white, not gray
  • I am not afraid to go to 800 ISO or beyond to get the right fast shutter speed.
  • I am using off-centre composition, rather than Uncle Fred’s “subject in the middle”

Simple. Just keep your eyes open.