Tutorial: How to Shoot Great Portraits with a 135mm Lens

If you’re shooting portraits and using a 135mm lens, here’s what you need to know.

The 135mm lens is a favorite of many portrait photographers for great reason. They compress your subject quite a bit, make everyone look fantastic, can be used for headshots and wider portraits, and blur the background into oblivion. While many photographers often reach for an 85mm due to its versatility, those who want even more compression go for 135mm lenses. This can be solved with a 70-200mm lens option of some sort, but what a 135mm prime lens does is so much better. Luckily, there are a number of great 135mm prime lens options on the market, and if you want one here’s what you should know.

135mm or 85mm?

Generally speaking, 85mm and 135mm lenses are more than good enough to shoot portraits. However, 135mm lenses have more compression power than 85mm lenses. Most subjects will look great with an 85mm lens but a 135mm lens can make them look even better when combined with a good photographer and support crew. When we talk about compression, we’re talking about flattening the face and features. Generally, this makes folks look more flattering.

For those of you who talk about body shaming and body positivity, I’d like to share my own personal experience. I’ve gone through a number of body transformations. I was super fit right out of the army, pretty darn fit in my 20s, slightly obese and pretty damned good looking in my 30s, and now that I’m writing this I’m edging back into being overweight. No matter what my body type has been, I’ve looked better with a 135mm lens. Why? Well, not everyone is an extremely skilled photographer or knows how to make someone look better. It is ultimately up to the photographer, but a 135mm lens has a much higher chance of compressing features that folks may be more sensitive about.

If I have learned anything it’s that folks can be million times more shallow than they seem. In a world dominated by imagery, a 135mm lens makes it much easier to make mostly anyone look great.

You Need Space

You need space to work with a 135mm lens. It’s a great focal length for working on a location of some sort. Because the lens is longer, the closer focusing distances won’t always help because in order to get a full body shot you need to be pretty far away from your subject. If you’re working in a small studio, you’re better off with an 85mm lens. If your studio is huge, then a 135mm can suffice.

If you’re outside and have all the room in the world, why not reach for a 135mm lens?

You Need Stabilization

Considering that I’m a photographer who can handhold a lens stable for 1/4th of a second without lens or in-body stabilization, I’m positive that most folks can’t do that. So, to make the most of a 135mm lens you need stabilization. A super fast shutter speed can help at times, but not always. There’s no real reason to shoot portraits in drive mode: I’ve found it superfluous when you can just do the right thing from the start. So sometimes a tripod is ideal. But there’s more to it than that.

Bad Form

Good form

Good form

If you’re shooting a portrait the default is to bring your elbow up into the air. That’s terrible form. When you shoot in landscape mode, you tuck your elbows. So when you shoot a portrait vertically, keep your elbows tucked in too. It will help stabilize your image.

We’ve got a longer tutorial on how to shoot a portrait right here.

Stop the Lens Down a Tad

While many photographers will want to keep their lenses wide open, we’re going to tell you to stop the lens down just a bit. When you stop the lens down, you get more of your subject in focus. Because this is a longer lens, the background is going to be blurred anyway. So, make more of the subject in focus by stopping the lens down, raising the ISO a bit, and shooting at a faster shutter speed.

Ideally: Use a Flash or Strobe with Fast Flash Duration

Lastly, the best thing that you can do is use a flash. Flash isn’t meant to fill in shadows, it’s meant to be used as a creative tool. It can overpower the light in the room and most importantly, a flash has something called flash duration. The effects of fast flash duration help take over for the shutter speed in a way. What that means is that a photo shot at 1/125th with a flash that has a flash duration set at 1/8,000th will have the stopping power roughly of 1/8,000th. This, more than anything else, can help keep your photo sharp and devoid of camera shake. And all it means is you should have a little bit of creative vision.