You have owned your new digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) for a while, and really enjoy taking family photos and vacation shots, but you are starting to think about your next step. Your friend told you to buy a “portrait lens,” but what is a portrait lens and why should you buy one?
When I started out in the DSLR world, my thought was that if I upgraded my camera, my photos would magically get better! I found that if you have a good DSLR in 15 megapixel range, investing in a better lens before you upgrade to a new camera body will produce better results. Why? The lens that came with your camera is probably a variation of the 18-55mm focal range with a maximum f/stop of 4.5. These are great starter lenses, but if you are itching to upgrade your camera, you may really be itching for a lens upgrade. If you are unfamiliar with the lens numbers and what they mean, here is a post that may help.
When I first used a better quality lens, the sudden quality increase of my photographs was amazing. The best part of this upgrade is the price is less than you think. As regular readers know, my wife and I are Nikon shooters, but in this post I will also discuss a Canon lens. This discussion is for crop-sensor cameras as that is what most people start with, and for the personal shooter is probably all they will ever need.
The best bang for your buck lens is a 35mm or 50mm lens. These are fixed focal length lenses, meaning that if you want to zoom in or out, you move the camera. The advantage is that this allows the manufacturer to put the emphasis on the quality of the glass and the speed of the lens rather than on a zoom mechanism. The faster the lens, the more it cost. Remember the smaller the f/stop number the faster the lens and a fast lens allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds and requires less light and at a lower ISO. A lens in the f/1.8 range is a great balance between price and performance. You can buy a f/1.4 lens, but the cost will go up and for the average photographer the cost-benefit ration just doesn’t make sense. If you have the funds and want to the buy the f/1.4, then go for it.
A portrait lens will allow you to shoot in lower light situations without a flash – think the family birthday party indoors. If you want to take family photos with that really soft background look, this is they type of lens you need. To achieve the soft background, or shallow depth of field, when shooting family portraits, you need the small f/stop like these lenses provide. You will also find your photos are sharper with better focus. It sounds like I am promising a lot, but, for the price you will be very satisfied. For more information on depth of field.
Nikon shooters have two portrait lenses worth looking at, a 35mm and a 50mm, Canon shooters have one lens, a 50mm. Here are the three I recommend – I will say that I have not shot with the Canon, but the reviews of this lens are consistent with the Nikon equivalent. I have links to BH Photo and Adorama Photo, both are in New York and both have excellent customer service and great prices. If you use these links, it helps us fund this blog.
This is the lens we use on our D3100 and is a truly remarkable lens for just under $200. The quality of the photographs are truly amazing. The lens is fast and works great as an all-purpose lens. This is lens stays on the D3100 most of the time.
We have the f/1.4 version of this lens and it is an amazing lens. The f/1.8 version recommended here also receives high marks. This lens will work on both the crop-sensor (DX) and full-frame (FX) body cameras – which is a consideration if you are thinking about upgrading to an FX body in the near future. This lens is priced at just over $200 for the F/1.8 version and in the low $400’s for the f/1.4 version. For more thoughts on full-frame (FX) and crop-frame (DX) cameras.
What is the difference between the 35mm and the 50mm? If you are shooting on a crop-frame sensor, camera, the 35mm will act like a 50mm lens would on a full-frame sensor camera. If you have a DX camera – D60, D3100, D5100, D7100 or newer versions of these, the 35mm is the better lens. Why? It allows you get more into the frame due to the shorter focal length of the lens. The 50mm is a great lens, but, for shooting indoors you will find that it is “zoomed out” too far as it is acting like a 75mm lens on the crop-frame camera body.
This Canon lens is a bargain at $110. The reviews of the lens are excellent. Like Nikon, Canon offers a f/1.4 version for about $400.
I hope that you are considering adding a portrait lens to your camera bag. I think you will quickly find that this lens be your favorite lens. I rarely use the 18-55mm lens that came with the D3100, the 35mm is just that good. If you have been using a portrait lens, what are your thoughts?