Portrait lenses and portrait lighting


There are modules on lighting, and there will be more, but the reason for this brief module is simply to stop people barking up the wrong tree and imagining that all they need for portraiture is the right lens, when a far more realistic approach would be to spend their money on some lighting equipment, or even to spend no money at all, but merely to look hard at which portraits they most admire (sharp or soft, close-up or environmental, colour or monochrome) and to try to work out how they were lit.




This is one of Frances's favourite portraits of herself, because, as she says, it's the way she sees herself in dreams: all ages, and no age. Part of this is down to the extremely soft focus, achieved, as far as we recall, with the very rare 90/2.2 Leitz Thambar from the 1930s on an M-series Leica -- though we are not entirely sure that it is not a Dreamagon on a Nikon F instead.

But the lighting is important too. Roger's aim was to have a dark background to the lower, lighter part of her face, and a light background behind her hair. Look closely at the shadows and you can see that there is a soft light on her head and shoulders, from camera right; fill is supplied by a big white bounce (a sheet of expanded polystyrene) to camera left. The 'halo' is projected with a spotlight on a plain white background well behind her: a besetting problem with the neophyte portraitist is having the background too close to the subject, with resultant shadows.


frances soft

No 'magic bullet' lenses

The dramatic soft-focus effect in the portrait above is only one way to take portraits, and it is far from the only one. Many people seem to imagine that there is some sort of 'magic bullet' portrait lens. The magazines (and the internet) tend to emphasize two things, namely, the use of long-ish focal lengths and the suppression of biting sharpness. The former is easy to overstate, and the latter depends very much on what sort of portrait you want to take.

freedom fighter

It is true that both the portrait above and the one on the left were taken with 90mm lenses, but in the former case, this is simply because that was the only soft-focus choice available to us, and in the picture on the left, we could equally well have used a 75mm lens -- except that we didn't have one at the time.


Tibetan freedom fighter


Unlike the previous shot, this is very sharp indeed. We shot it for the Tibetan Government in Exile, who were starting a sort of national portrait gallery of prominent Tibetans.

The camera was an M-series Leica; the lens, a 90/2 Summicron; the film, Ilford XP2; the paper, Ilford Multigrade Warmtone; the lights, a key to camera left and a fill to camera right (you can see the twin catch-lights in his eyes, and the direction of the nose shadow).

Obviously the lights had to be low in order not to cast a shadow from the hat, and all we had available were standard small reflectors: we were working in an improvised studio in Dharamsala, and the background was a few metres of cotton, bought in the bazaar and sponged with dye to create something a bit more interesting than plain white and a bit less distracting than the room in which the photograph was taken (a large meeting room). One of the most important things in any portrait studio is plenty of room, and as you seldom have to set the lights very high, a garage can be ideal.

Focal lengths for 35mm

This is where discussions traditionally start, so we'll go with tradition. The most common advice for 35mm is to use a longer-than-standard lens, typically 85mm to 105mm. Two or sometimes three reasons are cited for this.



The first is to flatten apparent perspective slightly: a wide-angle will 'draw out' the features of the face, making noses appear long and pointed, and is also likely to make it difficult to compose pictures in which the hands and feet are seen: they will often appear too big in proportion to the rest of the body, simply because they are closer to the lens.

On the other hand, you don't really need a very long lens. A 75mm on 35mm is fine, and we have a great weakness for 58mm, which is only about one-third longer than the theoretical 'standard' lens (43mm, taking the negative diagonal as defining 'standard').

Also, the more of the person you show, the less the wide-angle effect obtrudes unless you are fairly careless in posing hands and feet.




With very clearly defined features, as in the face of this dancer, or unformed features, as in a child's face, you may well be unable to tell what focal length was used anyway, even with a 'large head' portrait. This was a 58/1.4 Nikkor on a Nikon F; the film was Ilford HP5 pushed to EI 1600 or so. The lens was used at full aperture under available light at a concert at the old Bristol Arts Centre.


Working distance

Often, this is a more important reason to use longer-than-standard lenses: you have a more comfortable working distance because you are not shoving the camera up your subject's nose. This is especially true with 'large head' portraits, where you can use a 135mm lens or longer -- even 200mm -- to some advantage. With full-length portraits, on the other hand, you would need to be an extraordinarily long way away with a long lens: well over 10m/33 feet with a 200mm lens, even with a short subject.

For a full-length portrait, or one with a lot of surroundings, a lens as wide as 35mm may be entirely satisfactory; a 50mm is likely to be so; and we would be very surprised if a 58mm were not.

marie, hostess


Differential focus

The third argument is that longer lenses make it easier to use differential focus. There is a convention in portraiture that as long as the eyes are sharp, the ears may with advantage be out of focus. We believe that this arose out of sheer necessity in early portrait studios with very slow sensitized materials, and that there is no inherent advantage either way in deep field or differential focus, though differential focus is sometimes useful to concentrate attention on the eyes and defocus distracting backgrounds.


Marie Muscat-King


Many zooms are ideal for portraiture: this is an 80-200mm f/2.8 Sigma APO, which we particularly liked because of its 'glow' at full aperture, together with a reasonably wide aperture for easy focusing and good differential focus. Here, Roger used it on a Nikon F, probably at 150 to 200mm.

The film was Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX, normally regarded as too saturated for portraiture -- but it was what we had on hand. Besides, it is quite easy to desaturate colour in Photoshop, both overall and selectively. Here, both tools were used, with black being removed from the deep red background in 'Selective Colour'.

Larger and smaller formats

The bigger the format, the shorter the focal length you can use (relative to 'standard'), without unfortunate perspective effects and without working too close. On 6x6cm many people are perfectly happy with 100mm or 120mm (55mm to 65mm in 35mm terms) and few go longer than 150mm, which is about a 90mm equivalent in 35mm terms. Of course, with a 120mm lens on 6x6cm, a head-and-shoulders shot is about 160cm/5 feet away, while an 80mm is about 90cm/3 feet, which many subjects and photographers would consider an uncomfortably close working distance.

At 8x10 inch, a 300mm 'standard' is commonplace; 360mm (roughly 50mm in 35mm terms) is regarded as quite long; and something like our 21 inch (533mm) Ross, roughly equivalent to 75mm in 35mm terms, is regarded as uncommonly long.

Likewise, the smaller the format, the longer the lens you want to use: 50mm on a Nikon D70 may be a 75mm equivalent, but you would not normally want to use anything much shorter. By the same token, anything much longer than about 90mm (135mm equivalent on the D70) is likely to start running you into excessive working distances for anything more comprehensive than a 'large head'.




We forget what camera and lens Frances used for this shot but from internal evidence (depth of field, sharpness, grain, tonality) we think it was probably a 210/5.6 Schneider Symmar from the 1960s, used at full aperture on a Linhof Technikardan with 56x72mm roll-film back. This equates roughly to a 100mm lens on 35mm.

The advantages of larger formats are not confined to sharpness: tonality is often much superior too, and fast films such as the Ilford HP5 Plus used here are effectively grain free at modest enlargement sizes. Look at the shadows and highlights here and you can see that it was lit with a big, soft light to camera left, with fill provided by a bounce (white flat) to camera right.

roger, t-shirt


Another piece of standard wisdom is that lenses for portraiture need not be too sharp. Like most standard wisdom, this is highly disputable. Sometimes, it is true, you can seem to capture more of someone's personality by not using a super-sharp lens, and it is even more true that it flatters the vanity of many people to have their wrinkles suppressed. But equally, there are plenty of portraits that benefit from biting sharpness.

sophie as pretty baby

This is very much a question of style and preference: there is no such thing as a right way or a wrong way. People who say that a given lens is 'too sharp' for portraiture mean only that it doesn't suit their style.

We have cheerfully used both ultra-sharp lenses and purpose-designed soft-focus lenses for portraiture, to say nothing of 'in between' lenses such as the 85/2 Jupiter, a copy of the pre-World War Two Zeiss Sonnar, which many hail as a first-class portrait lens, though to our taste it is neither one thing nor the other, neither really sharp nor really soft. You may find the (paid) module Old Lenses of interest.


Sophie as Pretty Baby


We wanted to re-create a sombre, Victorian mood here. A lot of Victorian pictures seem to have the subject emerging from the shadows, both literally and (as in this case) figuratively. Perhaps a tiny bit more light on Sophie's bare foot would have been desirable (it is hardly visible here) but we think we did pretty well in re-creating what is essentially a 19th century monochrome genre, exemplified by beggar girls, in colour.

We have forgotten which lens we used here but we suspect it was the 80-200 f/2.8 Sigma mentioned above, used at 80mm: the drawing room where we shot this was big, but not big enough for anything longer. Sophie's mother is Marie Muscat-King, portrayed above; the embroidered white dress was Sophie's First Communion dress. She'd have been 15 or 16 in this shot; at the time of writing (2007) she was in her mid-20s.



All rules in photography can be broken, but in portraiture, one rule we have found hard to break successfully is that the lighting works best when it is low in contrast. Contrasty lighting looks really dramatic to the eye, but it is very easy indeed to overdo things, especially in colour (silver or digital) so that the darkest areas are blocked up to a solid black and the lightest areas are blown to a featureless white. Ideally, you do not want a subject brightness range or SBR (free module) of more than about 3 or at most 4 stops.

It is easiest to control the SBR when you are using studio lighting, but if you cannot do this, then often, very weak fill-in flash will often work wonders -- and the word 'fill' is the key here.


Sophie again, probably with the same camera (Nikon F) and lens as above. You can see that the light on her nose, intended to re-create the rising sun, is simply too 'hot' and has blown to an ugly blob. Weakening the key, or using a stronger fill, or both, would have been better.


The Hollywood Formulae

Much still-portrait lighting from the glory days of Hollywood portraits was extremely formulaic, and the favourite formula was known as Paramount (from the studio that popularized it) or Butterfly (from the shape of the nose shadow).

There were basically two lights. The key (the one that casts the shadows, and is the most powerful) was above the camera-subject axis and to one side of the camera. The fill, which as its name suggests 'fills' the shadows and makes them less dark (and is therefore necessarily less powerful, as it must cast no detectable shadows of its own), was below the subject-camera axis and on the other side of the camera. Thus if the key was to camera left, the fill would be to camera right, and vice versa.

mandy barber

You can ring quite large changes in several ways. The most obvious is by raising or lowering either light, and varying the angle between the subject-camera axis and the subject-light axes. Another is controlling both the intensity and the hardness of the light: highly directional spots, versus very diffuse soft lights. Even so, the basic layout is very simple and very reliable.

If you like, you can also add one or more effects (FX) lights. The classic FX light is a hairlight, used to add anything from a highlight to a rim-light. Then there are smaller FX lights, to brighten a specific area of a picture: for example, the model's hands, or something the model is holding (or indeed Sophie's feet in the 'Pretty Baby' picture above). You can use small spots for this, or, in many cases, simply a shaving mirror.


Mandy Barber



The two lights, key and fill, are quite evenly balanced here, and fairly soft, but you can see that the key (slightly stronger) is higher and camera left while the fill is lower and camera right; you can see both reflected in her eyes. There is of course a third light here, a hair light to backlight Mandy's magnificent mane. As one of her friends said of this picture, "It makes her look like an Egyptian princess." We shot it in both 35mm and 120; this is from a 6x7cm frame made with a 'baby' (6x7cm) Linhof and probably a 105/3.5 Xenar.


The bottom line

If you are a good enough portraitist, then of course, just as with any other branch of photography, you can break the rules with impunity. We are not especially good -- not least because portraiture is a branch of photography that we cannot get excited about -- but we reckon that by following a few simple rules we get acceptable portraits most of the time, along with the occasional good one. If you are interested in portraiture, but have yet to reach the standard of 'acceptable portraits, most of the time', you could do a lot worse than to pay heed to the lighting advice above, and not worry too much about exactly which lens to use. A wide range of lenses, used with competent lighting and some thought for your subject's looks and personality, will give very acceptable results. There is no point in worrying about specialist lenses until you reach this modest standard.

vince donlin

Vince Donlin

Technically, it's abysmal. The colours are all over the place (as far as Roger recalls, it was Ferrania own-process slide film shot under tungsten light) and the blur is due to camera shake. How much does this matter? The portrait of a very fine young artist is reminiscent of Byron -- 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' --or perhaps of Alex in 'A Clockwork Orange'. Which is probably the way that many teenage painters want to look.


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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks