Portrait photographers who are just starting out have a lot of choice on hand when it comes to lenses. While you will likely pick up a lens that comes with your first DSLR camera body, it might not be totally suited to the kind of photography that you want to do. Here are our recommendations for the kind of lenses that you should pick up first as a portrait photographer.
50mm f1.8 or f1.4
Let’s start with a really classic lens which can suit a lot of purposes. A 50mm lens is a standard size that is often used for portraiture, and it has a lot of advantages. It is lightweight because there’s no zoom, it is very flattering to the human face and figure when photographed, and it tends to be quite cheap.
The 1.8 will be your cheapest option with most brands, giving you a low price point for very good quality. The 1.4 is another step up in terms of capability, giving you finer control over light and depth of field, but it can often be so much more expensive that you have second thoughts. Especially for a beginner just starting out in portrait photography, there’s no real need to go for the bigger price point – the 1.8 will stand you in good stead for many years.
If you are going to upgrade, you might as well go crazy – the 50mm f1.2 will give you a greater difference in performance along with the bigger price tag.
If you do have a bit of extra cash on your hands, then the 85mm option might be a little bit more attractive. Particularly for Nikon users, the 85mm f1.4 is considered to be their best portrait lens and really the flagship for the brand. Other makers will also give great results with this option. Most argue that this focal length is the most flattering for portrait subjects.
Another great option for portrait lenses, this one is especially great for those who are going out to shoot on the streets or at live events. If you like getting portraits which tell more of a story, with a wider view of the background, then the 35mm is perfect. Many of the greats of portrait photography, especially the flaneurs who walked around the streets looking for someone interesting, have used the 35mm.
There is only one zoom lens on our list of recommendations, for the sheer fact that portraits are better with the stronger, lighter, sharper prime lenses. However, there is one instance in which you might want a zoom, and that is if you are taking portraits at a bit more of a distance – for example, if you are covering an event. A fashion photographer would do better with a zoom lens in a catwalk pit than they would with a prime lens, for instance.
Generally, though, your first lens shouldn’t be a zoom if you are intending to stick to portraiture. It just won’t get you great results, and the added materials and complexity can also push the price up. You’re better off saving some money and going for the standard cheap 50mm 1.8.
Choosing your first lens
Don’t get too bogged down in the choice of your first lens, to the point where you are paralyzed over what to do. It’s not a big deal, because if you remain a photographer for a long time, you will no doubt collect lots of lenses that work for you over the years.
If you are able to go in person to a camera shop, then you can get the chance to actually see how the lenses feel and work with your camera body. Ask if you can try out a demonstration of the lens you have your eye on. If the retailer won’t allow it, try a rental place – you can even rent a lens for a day to see how it suits you, and this will give you a better idea of how the lens will perform once it’s seen some use.
If we had to give one final recommendation, narrowing it down to only one choice, it would be the 50mm f1.8. Why? Because it’s the cheapest option on the market – especially if you buy second-hand, which could set you back less than a good camera bag – and it really does the job well. If you end up not pursuing photography as more than a hobby, then you haven’t invested too much. And if you do pursue it as a business, then you have a really good foundation to start on.
What you don’t need
If you are starting out for the first time as a portrait photographer, then there are certain things that you really won’t need. Zoom lenses, as previously mentioned, are definitely one of them. While we’ll allow the 70-200mm, anything longer would be a waste of your resources and will likely sit in a drawer for a long time.
As for accessories, you can keep it light. There’s a certain expectation that the more money you spend on your kit, and the more bits and bobs you have, the better you will be as a photographer. The truth is that the masters of the craft can produce something gallery-worthy with a smartphone or an old Polaroid with expired film! It’s not always about the tools, though they can make the job easier: it’s about the skill you use them with, and you can only gain that through experience.
Now you should have a good idea of which portrait lenses to go for first, and how to build your kit from the ground up. Remember to try different options if you can, and to stay open to new ideas. Who knows – maybe one day, one of the big manufacturers will come out with a totally new lens which blows all others out of the water!