How to Make the Most of a Portrait Lens

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss Rokinon Sigma 85mm f1.4 three way comparison (1 of 3)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 3.5

So you’ve got a portrait lens, now what? You want to take portraits, right? You can go right ahead, point your camera and spiffy new optic towards your subject and hope for the best, but you’re not that type of photographer. You want to step it up more. You want to create a photo that makes someone say, “Wow.”

First off, it’s time to get inspired. Then, you’ll need to understand the lens.

Understand How it Works With Your Camera Sensor/Film

Chris Gampat Bronica etrs and film 75mm f2.8 (1 of 1)ISO 2001-160 sec at f - 1.4

Different lenses work in different ways with each type of sensor or film in each camera. The larger the film plane or sensor area, the more of an area you’ll be able to cover with a specific focal length. That changes things like composition, depth of field, and sometimes color. If you’re using a full frame DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you’ll experience a wider view that you won’t get with Four Thirds sensors or APS-C sensors. But what this also means is that a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera will still be a 50mm lens and it won’t be an 80mm or 75mm. Yes, it can give you that field of view, but not that depth of field or even the lack of distortion that a true 75mm or 80mm lens will render.

Our favorite portrait lenses and cameras are medium format film cameras that work in a quasi-reverse crop factor. For example, a 75mm lens will render a 50mm field of view in 35mm full frame thinking, but it will still act like a 75mm lens and therefore also give less distortion despite the inflated field of view.

Composition Per Focal Length

Chris Gampat Lauren Englebert portraits Early winter 2015 first batch (5 of 8)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8

Some lenses are better for tighter portraits while others excel at letting you capture more of a scene. Basically, the rule is that the longer the focal length is the more you can put into the scene with less distortion. With that in mind, a gripping portrait is all about good composition and posing of your subject.

Personally, I like working with 85mm or 135mm lenses because they allow you to remain fairly close to your subject without distorting them.

Some lenses are naturally better for certain compositions than others, at least not creatively speaking (which opens up a whole ‘nother realm.) Part of this has to do with your creative vision though and you should answer a couple of questions first such as:

– What areas of this person do you want to feature?

– What are this person’s strengths when it comes to their looks? How can you make them better?

Then you should also consider the content within the portrait itself. Lots of portrait photographers focus on a person’s eyes, and if you’re going to do this you need to make sure that they’re expressive and tell something about the person. Other elements that you can use to tell more about the person are clothing, accessories, and props.

Find the Balance

Chris Gampat Amanda Aiken portraits winter 2015 (2 of 11)ISO 1001-2000 sec at f - 1.4

Shot af 1.4


Every lens has a sweet spot: which is otherwise known as where the lens is sharpest. With many lenses on a 35mm full frame sensor, it is at f8. But to get the most attention to the subject in a photo, you should only stop the lens down a very small bit. This is going to take some experimentation, but you’ll need to find the best balance between sharpness and bokeh (out of focus area) quality.

Modern lenses are designed so that they’re very sharp when shooting wide open but they tend to improve when stopped down even just a little bit. This is how you find an appropriate balance between bokeh and in-focus areas and it helps you tell more about the person.

Getting Better Sharpness

Shot at F2.

Shot at F2.

In our last step we talked about how you basically shouldn’t stop your lens down to the sweet spot–and we’re sticking to that. So to make your images seem even sharper, we’re going to strongly suggest that you add artificial lighting into your image like that of a flash or monolight. Even just a bit can deliver highlights in just the right areas that also make the image overall look sharper when combined with the science behind a fast flash duration.

We talk about this a lot more in this post.

Eliciting a Feeling in the Final Image


Now think about this for a second: what’s going to make someone love the image that you just shot? Is there something specific that draws someone into it? What is that thing?

What’s going to make someone pay attention to and stare at it for a while or want to come back later on to look at it again?

What are you going to do to make someone’s jaw drop when they see the image and immediately fall in love with it?

Portrait photographers used to do this years ago, and when they saw a smile on their client’s faces then they knew that they did a great job. This is what you should aspire to do. It’s complicated, but think of it as adding more value to an image and creating stronger work.



Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.