The lens is always a primary creative tool a primary creative tool, yet a lot of photographers seem to think that for people and portrait photography, you must always shoot in the 80-120mm range. The best photographers, think outside the box or, in this case, outside the typical range. To find out what some of the most creative pros use and why, we reached out to Michael Britt, Brian Smith, Jason Lanier, Caroline Jensen, Scott Robert Lim, Michael Rubenstein, Me Ra Koh and Tony Gale. If you have been going along with the conventional wisdom of the 80-120mm range for this kind of work, you might be surprised to see responses from this elite group touting the benefits of everything from 35mm to 200mm.
Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA
Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS
I have never been so inspired by a lens as I have with the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA which is surprising because I’ve always favored telephoto lenses for portrait work. This lens is a big beautiful piece of glass that excels at environmental portraiture and street photography. The fast f/1.4 aperture makes it perfect for walking around the Honky Tonks on lower Broadway in Nashville at night. I wear my α7R II outfitted with the 35mm on a BlackRapid R-Strap which keeps the camera close to my right hip without bouncing around.
I was walking up the street when I noticed this well dressed diva coming out of Robert’s Western World to light up a cigarette. I approached her I told her she looked fantastic and asked if I could take her photo. She gave me a cool, barely perceptual nod and continued to smoke as I took her photo. It’s pretty dark on the street even with a lot of neon around but I’ve learned to trust the high ISO capability of the sensor in my α7R II. Combined with the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA lens, the color rendition and skin tones look great with details in the blacks and dynamic range that can handle shooting on the shadow side with neon directly behind her.
This lens challenges me to see the world wider and get out of my portraiture comfort zone.
Nashville Diva. Sony α7R II Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA lens. 1/200-sec, F1.4, ISO 2000
An obvious choice for a portrait lens is the amazing and versatile Sony 90mm f/2.8 macro but I’d like to talk about a favorite walking around lens that some people might dismiss because of it’s sub $300 price point. The Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS Lens is designed for APS-C cameras like the α6000 and newly-introduced α6300 which gives a field of view equivalent to about a 75mm on a full frame camera—perfect for portraiture. It’s compact and light and it won’t intimidate people when you point it at them which can sometimes be an issue for street photography. The fast f/1.8 aperture allows a nice shallow depth of field which helps separate your subject from the background elements while keeping the eyes tack sharp.
On my morning dog walk, I used to see this dapper gentleman sitting outside of an Italian wholesale suit shop in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles. He was always dressed impeccably and it was obvious he was from another time and place. He didn’t speak much English but he understood that I wanted to take his picture so he looked straight into the camera and let me shoot a few frames. His eyes are soulful and the wrinkles in his skin add texture and complexity to the geometric balance of his angled hat, lapels and pocket square.
DTLA Dapper Tailor. Sony NEX-7, Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens, 1/500-sec, F1.8, ISO 200
Sony FE 24-70 F2.8 G Master
Sony FE 85mm F1.4 G Master
Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA
I don’t have a single favorite lens for people and portraits. Instead, there are three that I choose from, depending upon the situation and what I’m trying to accomplish. Two of these lenses are new additions for me—the 85mm f/1.4 and the 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lenses—because I was able to use them prior to the actual introduction. I’m using these lenses now and they’ll be available to everyone in March. The Sony FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G Lens would have been on my list, but the new 85mm f/1.4 G Master has supplanted it in my bag.
It took a while for Sony to roll out their F2.8 FE zoom lenses, but it's well worth the wait because the Sony FE 24-70 F2.8 G Master lens is SPECTACULAR! If I could only own ONE lens this would be it because it’s the sharpest and most beautiful 24-70 ever made. Perfect for everything from wide environmental portraits at 24mm to tight intimate portraits at 70mm.
Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans. Sony α7R II, Sony FE 24-70 F2.8 G Master lens, 1/160-sec, F11, ISO 100
Topping Sony’s own A-mount 85mm F1.4 Zeiss lens was no easy task, but Sony did it with this lens that combines best-in-class sharpness with beautiful bokeh! (It’s worth mentioning that the Sony FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G lens would have been Number One on my list until the announcement the of the Sony FE 85mm F1.4 G Master Lens. The 90mm is the sharpest macro lens ever made according to DxO lens tests.)
Chief Kevin Goodman of Flaming Arrows, New Orleans. Sony α7R II, Sony FE 85mm F1.4 G Master lens, 1/800-sec, F5.0, ISO 400
I love the Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA lens for medium distance portraits. It's exceptionally sharp wide open when shooting portraits with shallow depth of field that really pop.
Child Against Red Wall, Haiti. Sony a7R, Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA lens, 1/4000-sec, F2.2, ISO 200
Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA
My favorite lens for portraits and people where I want to show more than a tight head shot is by far the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA. The lens has beautiful fall off, focuses very quickly, and it’s tack sharp. When shooting wide open the sharpness really focuses your eyes towards your subject which is something you want in portraits. On the Sony α7R II, you can't beat the detail, image quality, and pure performance. I truly love this lens and with the wide aperture, it allows me to shoot in dark situations which can be very helpful for someone like me who does the vast majority of his shoots outside of the studio environment. Many people have told me the 35mm isn't a traditional portrait lens....well, it should be.
Raquel In Mexico. Sony α7R II, Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA lens, 1/4000-sec, F1.4, ISO 50
Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA
The Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA is my all time favorite. The first time I saw the three dimensional nature of the images this lens, I was sold. It’s razor sharp—-incredibly sharp—and it makes it easy to nail small details, like eyelashes, wide open at f/1.8. It also has wonderfully smooth bokeh at f/1.8 as well. I tend to shoot wide open to maximize the separation of my subject from the background and find the bokeh to be lovely and smooth. I find that the images need very little post processing, as it’s a champ where chromatic aberration is concerned. I rarely, if ever, see any wayward colors in tricky lighting situations and the colors are rich right off the card. The clincher for me, and why I always have it with me, is its size. It’s tiny, and I can have it on my camera all day long with no issues. The build quality is sturdy and it has taken some tough abuse over the last two years, but still looks amazing. This is the one lens that I recommend to all new Sony owners. It’s that classic focal length needed in every bag, but this lens is anything but ordinary. Not only is it a great portrait lens, but it also does double duty as a phenomenal street and still-life lens. This lens never leaves my bag, and rarely leaves my camera.
In The Kitchen. Sony α7S II, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens, 1/250-sec, F1.8, ISO 1250
Scott Robert Lim
Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA
I prefer to use a fast prime and at least 50mm or greater focal length to be sure the subject will be in proportion. However, the photographer must make sure that the angle is not too drastic. Shooting close up, if the lens is too high above or too low below the subject the facial features will be distorted and the forehead or chin may look too large. The most pleasing angle is shooting slightly down on your subject. This can be a challenge in the field or on location when on flat ground and the subject is taller than the photographer. Try to find an elevated position such as stairs, a step ladder or an incline to get the best shooting position.
I like using the live view on my Sony α7R II and I often lift the camera over my head and look at the LCD screen to compose. This allows me to shoot as if I was a foot taller. Also, you can always pose the subject in a seated position or on the ground, this way you are shooting down no matter how tall they are.
The Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens is quite versatile. I have used it as a wide angle lens by simply backing up. This creates a different look versus using a 24mm or 35mm because it has a narrower field of view and does not distort the perspective on the edges of the frame. Also it will compress the image and cause the background to appear to be closer and enlarge background elements. I also like to set my aperture to a low value to hold both eyes in focus while creating a nice bokeh in the background. If you use too low of an f/stop, your depth of field may be too shallow and may not bring the eyes into focus. I’m going for a nice background bokeh which makes the in-focus subject really pop and stand out. I like to use colored lights in the background or perhaps areas where sunlight is creating some nice highlights.
A fast lens also allows you to shoot in very low light and when shooting at night, I use a video light thru a white umbrella with amazing results. I may have to turn up my ISO to 800 or 1600, but I don't worry about noise with my Sony a7 series cameras.
If one wants to be a good portrait photographer, you have to have a passion for it. The best portrait artists know how to maximize the beauty in their subjects and can find their "sweet spot" in a matter of seconds. It’s a skill that may take years to develop. However, if you can capture beautiful portraits, you have significantly increased your chances of having a long and successful career in photography.
Blacklight. Sony α7S, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens, 1/125-sec, F1.8, ISO 800
In The Dressing Room. Sony α7R II, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens, 1/400-sec, F1.8, ISO 100
Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA
Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS
I photographed and filmed Daniel Cotte a few weeks ago while my wife was getting tattoo’d for a personal project I’ve been working on about her father and the 6th Century Chinese poem by Li Bai that he used to read to her before she went to sleep. My wife was born in China but was raised most of her life in the United States. I’ve been trying to learn about the lives she and her parents lived before the immigrated to New York when she was five and about how China and her Chinese heritage influences who she is. I filmed her father painting the characters of the poem in our apartment with a Sony α7S II and a Sony α7R II and recorded him reading the poem and I filmed Daniel tattooing the poem on her arm for a short film I’m working on. I think its very important for photographers to work on personal projects as well as assignments. To me, curiosity is most important trait a photographer can have.
Tattoo Artist Daniel Cotte at Sena Space Tattoos, New York City. Sony α7R II, Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA lens, 1/640-sec, F1.4, ISO 400
I just shot these images for a Valentines Day digital promo I’m sending out in February. I worked with two fantastic models from Wilhelmina (Daphne De Baat) and DNA Models (Malik Lindo) in NYC and a great hair and makeup artist (Valeria Kole) help out. This one was a team event for sure. I’ve wanted to photograph a beautiful couple for a few years and finally found a couple of models who were actually dating and were down to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to shoot at sunrise all over Manhattan. We shot with the Sony α7R II and shot BTS video with the α7SII. Because we shot at dawn the low light capabilities were absolutely essential. I’ll be releasing the shoot later this week and the BTS footage will follow here on AlphaUniverse.com.
Valentines Day. Sony a7R II, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS lens, 1/500-sec, F2.8, ISO 160
Me Ra Koh
Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA
The most popular question I'm asked is "What is your go-to lens?" For years, I didn't hesitate to answer. It was always the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II Vario-Sonnar T* lens, but in the last year I've fallen in love with the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens. I tried it, and now I'm hooked! I've been shooting everything from babies to kids to families to travel with this lens.
In my workshops, I breakdown the Magic Three—Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO—for learning how to shoot in manual mode (which is so much easier than you'd think!). All three work together to determine how much light my image has or doesn't have. But I love using aperture for creative purpose. I call it "the buttery, blurry background". And yet, it's a win-win situation with the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA. The lower I go with my f/stop to get that buttery, blurry background, the bigger my aperture opening becomes which also gives me more light. That's a lifesaver for shots in low light like the one below.
It was the end of the day. The sun had already dropped behind the buildings surrounding Central Park. This little one reached up for her mama's hand and had a timeless look on her face. My setting the aperture at f/2.0 gave me the buttery, blurry background (because the story is all about her expression), and it also allowed enough light to capture the moment. Here’s a fun note about her vintage hat. While walking to Central Park, I passed a farmer's market. One of the booths had a collection of vintage hats. I decided to get a few to bring to the photo shoot, but I had no idea how she'd respond. The little girl took one look and her face lit up. She put it on her head and felt like royalty. The facial expressions that this vintage hat encouraged were perfect! I let all my little girls try them on for photo shoots now. Who knew how much little girls would love vintage hats! Keep your creativity alive by trying things. Some ideas will flop but the ones that fly will make your heart and photography soar!
Girl In Central Park, New York City. Sony α7R II, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens, 1/125-sec, F2.0, ISO 250
Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS
My favorite portrait lens is the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS, runners up are the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS and Sony 85mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Planar T* Prime. The Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS is an amazing portrait lens, its longer focal length range allows for a very flattering portrait. It does a fantastic job at keeping the background soft, and minimizing distracting elements when shooting in a cluttered environment. The lens is super sharp and with the optical steady shot in my Sony α7 II and α7R II, it can be handheld very easily while still maintaining sharpness.
Because it zooms all the way to 200mm, I can get very tight portraits without being right on top of my subject so they stay relaxed which is key to a flattering and authentic portrait. With this photo it was easy to get a shot I was very happy with because of how light and fast the lens is. Being an f/4 it is smaller then a f/2.8 would be so it is very comfortable for me to shoot with all day.
Woman on Green Hillside. Sony α7 II, Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS lens, 1/125-sec, F5.6, ISO 400