Given the current state of technology, a case could be made that a photographer could exist today with only two camera lenses – a wide angle to moderate zoom, and a short tele to long tele zoom. That would be a mistake. For as good and flexible as today’s zoom lenses are, there are some compelling reasons to choose fixed focal length lenses on occasion. I’ll admit, 90 percent of the time I’ve got a zoom strapped onto my rig, but while researching and shooting the images for this story I once again found the joy in shooting with fixed focal length lenses, for the reasons stated below. Follow along with me to see why you should consider adding a couple of more lenses to your arsenal. For many of you, you already own them!
First, let me state that this article is aimed at those of us who do not own full frame digital cameras. While the debate about that is beyond the scope of this column, the fact is that the 1.5 conversion factor of many cameras make them ideal for portrait photographers who enjoy the look of long lenses and fast apertures. And they can achieve the look for a price unheard of in medium format days.
So here’s what I’m suggesting as an unbeatable, inexpensive, butt kicking combo – a 50mm f/1.8 or faster lens, and an 80 – 105mm f/2.8 or faster lens. On my Nikon D300 camera, that figures out to a 75mm lens, and about a 120 – 160mm lens, when compared to 35mm or full frame. You can do a lot of damage with this combo. Let’s see why you should consider this dynamic duo for yourself.
One: Results. Let’s start at the heart of the matter. If you can’t cook the bacon, the stove ain’t no good! And the combination of a short to medium length telephoto with a wide opening is a sure fire recipe for super results in the hands of a skilled shooter. One of the cornerstones of professional outdoor portraiture is the ability to separate the subject from the background. By shooting with these lenses wide open or close to it, throwing backgrounds and foregrounds out of focus is almost automatic.
The longer lens partner is obviously easier because of the larger image size at any given distance and narrower angle of view. Remember, all lenses have the same perspective, to change perspective, you must change distance. Also remember, two images taken with two different lenses at the same distance with the same f/stop will have the same depth of field, one will just have a larger image size. That’s why we love long lenses – to get further away from our subject for great perspective and have an image we don’t have to crop!
Two: Price: Here’s the best part – these lenses are free! OK, maybe not for everyone or someone who’s new to the game. But for those of us who have been shooting 35mm for years, we may already have these lenses! I know I did. I still have a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens (used to have a 1.4, darn) that came with one of several Nikons I used to own. And I bought a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro lens that gets me to 1:1 years ago for shooting flowers and wedding detail shots. Both lenses are excellent performers. I’d guess the Nikon 1.8 glass is better than the 1.4 version, slower lenses usually are, and the Tamron 90 is known for it’s sharpness, so this is a great combo.
A little checking found used Nikon 1.8’s for about $60 and new ones for about $115. The Tamron lens can be had for about $400 new and $250 used. Nikon also makes an 85mm lens in 1.8 and 1.4 varieties. The fast version is about $750 new, the slower only about $400. For portraits, I’d say the 1.8 is plenty fast, only buy the 1.4 if you do weddings in low light. It’s not a price issue, these prices are peanuts compared to medium format, but the super fast lenses usually make sacrifices in quality to attain the speed. Buy new or do some checking around on SHUTTERBUG, KEH, and other sources to find the combo that’s right for your shooting needs and equipment.
Three: Availability. Since these lenses I described were originally designed for 35mm film cameras, there are plenty of them around. I found some in the camera store across the street. Other professional will have them laying around, be smart and go buy them cheap off them! As mentioned above check SHUTTERBUG, KEH, EBAY, and others for used lenses, or buy them new from your local camera store (you won’t find them at Best Buy!) or one of the SHUTTERBUG advertisers. An important point here. If buying a new zoom lens, it pays to get one designed for digital, I’ve done my own testing and there is a difference. The fixed focal length lenses I’m discussing here have all performed admirably for me, so don’t hesitate to buy them.
Four: Focal Length: As discussed above, this lens combo is ideal for the digital cameras that have a conversion factor of about 1.5. The 85mm focal length will of course be fine with a full frame cameras, but one lens does not a combo make! Full frame shooters may want to consider finding an 85 and 135 lens to approximate the results we’re describing here. But those of us with the smaller sensors are able to find great inexpensive lenses in ideal focal lengths for portraiture. The 50 (75) length is great for shooting where space is at a premium and the 90 (135) length is about the ideal combination in terms of length, price, weight and performance.
Five: Weight. Weight is the enemy of pictures taken. Think about it. If you’re like me, the thought of hanging a big, heavy zoom around your neck all day doesn’t sound like fun. If I ain’t having fun, I don’t want to take many photos. In the studio is one thing, but running around at a park or beach with heavy lenses and a tripod doesn’t appeal to me. I usually shoot with a bare minimum of equipment and rarely use a tripod, so weight is important to me. Will an 80-200mm f/2.8 lens take care of most of my shooting needs? Absolutely! But at over 2.5 pounds, it’s an albatross around my neck! Compare that to the 5.5 oz. of the 50mm lens, or the 13.2 oz of the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens. Remembering that you must carry backup gear, that allows me to carry a pretty small bag and shoot pretty freely with my subject. See the smile on my face?
Six: Maximum Aperture. Here’s one of the best parts – that big old f/stop. Working at f/1.8 was only a dream in medium format and f/2.8 was only on the ‘normal’ lens. There are of course two big reasons we love the fast lenses – the shallow depth of field and the ability to shoot in low light, even at slower ISO’s. The shallow depth creates a great look that sends sharp backgrounds and foregrounds packing. The speed extends my shooting day into the time where the light is usually at it’s best – the tail end of the day around and even after sunset.
I prefer not to use flash on my outdoor portraits and beach portraits are very popular in my area (East Coast). The only way I can hold detail in both my subject and the water and sky in the background without a flash is to wait until the brightness range is lowered at the end of the day. (That again is beyond the scope of this article, I’ll address it later.) In many cases I’ll shoot with my f/2.8 lenses until it’s so dark I’ll grab the 1.8 and finish the shoot with that. I’ll usually start shooting at ISO 100 and end up at ISO 400. When I hit about a 30/th of a second at f/1.8, I’m done, remember I’m not using a tripod unless it’s a group. Any darker than that and I’ll probably wander into the ocean anyway!
Conclusion: While full frame shooters can play in this group with a few different rules, the cameras with the smaller sensors are a bonanza for portrait shooters who want to be able to assemble a collection of lightweight, fast, and inexpensive lenses capable of producing fantastic results. The two lens combo described above should be capable of handling just about any portrait assignment that doesn’t call for a wide angle lens, and most traditional portraits don’t. Put together your own combo and have some fun!
About the Author:
Steven M Bedell, Photographer
Steven M Bedell has been a photographer and writer for over 30 years. He is a regular contributor to Shutterbug magazine where he has written over 100 articles. Steve also published EPhoto, a photography ezine, every two weeks. It is an opt-in newsletter with about 2000 subscribers. His specialty is natural light portraits.
Steve holds the Master of Photography Degree and Photographic Craftsman Degree from the Professional Photographers of America. He is also a PPA International Print Juror and 7 time New Hampshire Photographer of the Year.
To see Steve’s educational products, please visit http://www.ephoto-photo-school.com/