Contrast: How to Get The Most Out of Your Portrait Lens

Portrait lenses are available in all sorts of different focal lengths, prices and types. They’re the bread and butter of many of us as photographers, and they can help us put our creative vision forward onto pixels and film. These lenses, like all other modern lenses, are capable of doing awesome things overall.

In fact, you can make the output of an affordable $250 lens look like that of a higher end product before you even bring the image into Lightroom.

Here’s how.

Keep it Clean

Pro Tip: Isopropyl Alcohol is recommended by many manufacturers to clean your lenses and many other electronics.

Pro Tip: Isopropyl Alcohol is recommended by many manufacturers to clean your lenses and many other electronics.

Before you even start to talk about what lenses you should use or even using them, you should keep your lenses clean. Isopropyl alcohol or Purosol work very well accordingly. Removing smudges ensures that you’ll eliminate anything that inhibits the image quality of the lens.

Sometimes even using UV filters or your lens hood can help too.

Considering Focal Lengths

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Rokinon 135mm f2 lens review portraits extras (1 of 3)ISO 8001-160 sec

Your focal lengths are partially tied to the types of portraits that you can create in addition to how they can look. A 135mm lens that lets you focus closely means that you get get very up close and personal with your subject. It also means that the further you go away from the subject, the more bokeh will be in the background.

The photo above and below are done with a 135mm f2 lens.

Rokinon 135mm f2

Rokinon 135mm f2

Model: Megan Gaber

Model: Megan Gaber

The images above and below are done with an 85mm f1.4 lens.

Model: Megan Gaber

Model: Megan Gaber

The looks overall can be much different.

Stop Down Slightly

Zeiss 135mm f2

Zeiss 135mm f2

While lab tests will tell you to stop down to f8 or f11 to get the best sharpness, I call poppycock! 100% sharpness isn’t everything–separation and micro-contrast is. Your lens can look super sharp at f4 or f5.6 fi you add contrast and separation to the scene. With that said, also consider how bokeh can help make your subject pop out more from the background.

Soft, Wrap-around, Off-Camera Light

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 85mm f1.8 Di VC extra sample images Jenn's portraits (4 of 4)ISO 16001-100 sec at f - 1.8

Wraparound light is something that you can get when a light modifier is larger than the subject. This helps to make them stand out even more from the scene and adds a fair amount of contrast not only in the lighting but also in the colors.

So when you’ve got:

  • Light that envelops the subject and changes the colors
  • Bokeh
  • An already sharp lens

Then you’ve already got some cool ways of making a portrait subject stand out and you’ve effectively made great use of a portrait lens. But let’s take that further.

Less Ambient Light, More Artificial

Yes, that's me.

Yes, that’s me.

Ever heard the term “Kill the ambient?” It refers to using less ambient light in a scene and more flash output to really make a subject stand out. The above and below images do this very well.

This is high speed sync: which cuts down on how much ambient light is in a scene

This is high speed sync: which cuts down on how much ambient light is in a scene

When you kill the ambient light, you create more contrast. The more contrast you create and the deeper your black levels do, the more you can get out of your lens and fool the eye into thinking that the output is sharper than it really is when someone looks at the image as a whole.

Contrasty Images

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Phottix Indra500TTL Images portraits with Amanda (9 of 11)ISO 1001-2500 sec at f - 1.4

When you create more contrast in an image, it tends to stand out overall. Adding something like a Polarizing filter can slightly help with this as can a neutral density filter at times. It also starts with choices in the scene like wardrobe. In the scene above, we’ve got purple, blue and red as the main colors. And despite using an older Sigma 85mm lens (which is still very good) you create an image where the sharpness is quite apparently partially because of the way that colors are popping out at you accordingly.

It makes sense!