Six Benefits of Using a Fast Lens to Make Child Portraits

Six Benefits of Using a Fast Lens to Make Child Portraits

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Today Erin Dyker shares some of the benefits of using fast lenses when photographing Children.

A fast lens is one that lets a lot of light in (ie. has a large maximum aperture). The larger the aperture, (the smaller the f number), the shorter the shutter speeds required to make the exposure. (see our previous post for more information about and examples of fast lenses).

(1) Use window light (a) to emphasize the fullness of the child’s face by allowing soft shadows for definition and (b) to give the child room to move.

Because fast lenses can let in more light when used at or near their maximum aperture, they are great in low light conditions.

Often, you can use natural, directional window light, without needing to supplement with an artificial lighting system. Using a large area light source is a beneficial when working with toddlers, who can be difficult to keep in a fixed position or direction. (Use a reflector to bounce some light onto the shadowed side of the subject’s face, if it’s too dark.)


(2) Sharp focus on the eyes in facial close ups. When the eyes are the only thing in focus, the photograph can be extraordinary. When shooting wide open, f 1.8 for example, you’ll have a very narrow depth of field. Since the eyes are the first thing people will look at, they should be in focus. Of course, there are exceptions to this suggestion.

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(3) Draw the focus to an unexpected body part. Because of the narrow depth of field, attention can be drawn to one part of the child’s body while maintaining a pleasing composition of the full body. This is a great alternative to photographing just the child’s hand, foot, etc.

(4) Make an unexpected but memorable photo, by waiting patiently and let the subject’s personality may shine through. With the fast shutter speeds available at large apertures, you can catch even fleeting expressions, and with the narrow depth of field, you can tell more of the story by selectively focusing on the primary subject.

(5) Bring the focus to your child in this big busy world by blurring out the background elements. By shooting at low apertures, if not wide open, you can keep your child fully in focus while achieving a nicely blurred background. This is great for playgrounds, museums, beaches, or anywhere that is busy or crowded.

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(6) Some fast prime lenses are more convenient to carry, since they can be quite small and light in weight (Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras for example) as compared to other lenses. When mounted on your DSLR, they fit into relatively small camera bags that can be tucked into a diaper bag, large purse, or even under a small stroller. The lighter weight and compact size are especially noticeable when wearing the DSLR, with the fast lens attached, around your neck. With your camera always ready, you’re more likely to catch those priceless moments in your children’s lives.

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About the Author

Erin Dyker is a Canadian family photographer / photography instructor. See more of her work on her photography blog.

All images in this article are copyrighted to Erin Dyker.

Updated for accuracy.

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Some Older Comments

  • Kemo June 9, 2009 12:56 pm

    Great Information !
    I think my next lens for my D90 will be a Nikkor 35mm /f1.8 regarding to the affordable price compared to 55m/ f1.4

  • Kirill May 24, 2009 01:21 pm

    Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 is really light, small and inexpensive but it is not very sharp under f/3.5. It's focusing mechanism is not particularly fast either and it has a tendency to hunt in low light.

    Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 is about 3 times the price and it has a much faster motor (USM) making it a lot better for shooting action (pictures of kids on a swing, for example). It is about 1.5 times large and feels a lot heavier than f/1.8 though. And it is not sharp at f/1.4 or even at f/1.8. At f/2.8, however, it is excellent.

    I first bought the f/1.8 and once I really got frustrated with its focusing limitations (Canon XSi could probably be blamed for some of those), I got f/1.4 which seems to focus a lot quicker and more accurately.

    From what I've read so far, EF 85 f/1.8 might be an even better prime for portraits.

  • Erin Dyker May 23, 2009 02:01 pm

    Neil, Werner, and Marcus, beautiful photos. Marcus, I've been so focused on soft even lighting lately...the photo you posted is refreshing in the contrasted lighting you employed. Werner, your comment about using a single shooting point with shallow depth of field is so true. Neil, excellent tip (I also like shooting down on the subject to emphasize the vulernability and innoscence of the child).

  • Cassy May 23, 2009 12:19 pm

    @ Frank J: Thanks for the info on the min. focusing distance of the 35mm and 50mm. I've got a Canon EOS 400D and was tossing up between the two as I don't currently have a prime (sad face here). I was thinking about a nifty fifty merely for the cheaper price (both my options would have f1.8) but I think the wider angle on my crop sensor and the closer focusing of the 35mm would be much more useful and worth the couple of hundred more!

  • Neil Bryars May 22, 2009 09:36 pm

    I love the 50mm prime I purchased at Christmas, it's made a huge difference to my child portraits.
    My top tip is to take the pic from above the subject. The shadows are gone, and the skin is tighter on the face.
    This one is my favourite, by a mile.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/nbryars/3501176169/]

  • Werner May 22, 2009 03:45 pm

    By the way, if light is good, a long tele lens (even a slow one !) used at close distance will give nice, shallow depth of field as well, although maybe with a little less sharpness than the super primes.

    This for instance, is shot close with a cheap Canon 55-250 lens at f/5.6 @ 171mm.
    http://picasaweb.google.com/MarWers/020509BikingAround#5332259206348150146

  • Werner May 22, 2009 03:36 pm

    It's a great article Erin ! Of all my lenses, definately my super fast Canon 50mm f/1.4 is the crown jewel for taking portraits, surely, mostly stopped down a tad or two two get the extreme sharpness. With regards to focal point issue, I have found that when shooting at shallow f's it is ESSENTIAL to use a single point focus in the camera to catch those lovely eyes perfectly.

    Agree about the nit pickers in here :)

    Werner

  • Togin Thomas May 22, 2009 02:35 pm

    I recently bought a new 50mm 1.4 for my D90 and I had this same issue and my doubt here is no one speaks about 1.4, as this is suggested by many big guys out there as a fast lens ?? did I made a mistake ??? thanks every one out there

  • Togin Thomas May 22, 2009 02:34 pm

    Very nice article and posts and its truly helped me in understanding some of my flaws, I recently bought a new 50mm 1.4 for my D90 and I had this same issue and my doubt here is no one speaks about 1.4, as this is suggested by many big guys out there as a fast lens ?? did I made a mistake ??? thanks every one out there

  • Marcus May 22, 2009 08:30 am

    I grabbed this shot a few months ago using my 40D and my 50 mm f/1.8. The lighting was all but absent aside from the lamp to the baby 's left. I was so glad I was able to get this shot.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hypnoeyez99/3316787396/

  • Rob May 22, 2009 08:04 am

    Great article Erin. Very succinct. Man are there some nit pickers on this site or what?....cheers..R

  • Megan May 22, 2009 04:16 am

    Great article, Erin! I loved it! I got a Nifty Fifty for my D40 at Christmas and it has taken me forever to understand the simple point made by huntting b above - "You have to be *incredibly* careful with focal point when dealing with low f/stops, particularly if you are close to the subject." I have flubbed up more shots trying to perfect shooting completely wide open with - it would look nicely focused on the LCD then I would open for post-production and be shocked at how completely off-focus it was.

    These are fantastic tips and so helpful for me as shooting my little ones is pretty much all I do. Thanks again!

  • Tami May 22, 2009 03:31 am

    Oh! This makes things much clearer for me (and my photos!) Thanks for the great tips!

  • Major Bokeh May 22, 2009 02:29 am

    ...oh and one more thing relative to the posts about size and weight, that 50mm f/1.2 is nearly as large and much heavier than my EF 24-105 f/4 L IS zoom

  • Erin Dyker May 22, 2009 02:28 am

    I've updated section 6 to make it clear that some fast prime lens are small and light. For some examples, I'll refer you again to the article "What is a Fast Lens" that I site at the beginning of the article.

    Stephen, thank you for your clarification on fast zoom lenses. It was for their existance that I didn't name the article "Six Benefits of Using a Fast Prime Lens....", as benefits in sections 1 thru 5 aren't specific for fast prime lenses, but apply to fast zoom lenses as well.

    Scott, I've gotten some great results by using the continuous shooting mode and moderately low apertures (f3/f4) for catching genuine expressions while the child's swinging, running, etc. Lots of lights helps to allow fast shutter speeds, so not a great technique for indoors, but on a bright cloudy day or an hour before sunset it's great. Even then, most of the photos will not be focused correctly...it's just a way to increase your odds of getting a great shot at any one time...

  • Major Bokeh May 22, 2009 02:26 am

    I have a Canon L series 50mm f/1.2 prime lens that's incredible. Shooting wide open the depth of field is razor thin and it makes for great portraits.

  • servo101 May 21, 2009 08:18 pm

    stephen,

    that was already explained by the author several comments above you if you actually read the comments before you

  • stephen May 21, 2009 07:41 pm

    "Fast lenses are more convenient to carry, since they are usually quite small and light in weight as compared to zoom lenses."

    sigh.

    "fast" lenses and "zoom" lenses aren't different things. You can have a fast zoom... 17-55mm f2.8... 70-200mm f2.8. etc.

    I think you mean "fast prime" or "prime" or

  • PPusa May 21, 2009 06:06 pm

    Earlier I've never understood photos that are 99% out of focus but that baby toe photo is finally something where it works. The shallow depth of field is not used just for the sake of shallow depth of field effect. I might have missed the toes if greater depth of field would have been used and the full body makes it totally different than a much tighter crop.

  • Scott Schrantz May 21, 2009 01:39 pm

    I got a fast lens to take better natural light photos of my kids, only to run into two problems:

    * Sometimes my autofocus grabs onto an ear or shoulder instead of the eyes, making the eyes out of focus
    * My kids move so fast, that even if the autofocus is right on, by the time the shutter trips they've moved out of the zone of focus. Even the quickest DSLR is no match for a moving child!

    Just more challenges and more opportunities to learn better shooting techniques. But it can be frustrating to get an expensive lens and end up with over 50% of your pictures out of focus!

  • Sarah Alston May 21, 2009 12:46 pm

    It's all about the eyes! I definitely agree that focusing right on the eyes makes such a difference in portraits. My favorite thing to do with baby and child portraits is make the eyes pop as much as possible.

  • Erin Dyker May 21, 2009 11:53 am

    Gene, That particular photo with the park blurred out was taken at f1.8...the difference between that photo and the first photo (sharp eyes, blurred ears) is the distance from the camera to the subject. I've acheived similar photos with aperture up to f3.5 (not that that's the cut off). I've made a nice portrait of a family of three (parents plus a toddler) at f3.5...all three were in focus and the background looks nicely unfocused (I made this set of photos after I'd taken some 'safe' shots at f8). Even with f2.8, you should be able to acheive a similar degree of background blur as long as there's sufficient distance between the subject and the background elements.

  • Erin Dyker May 21, 2009 05:24 am

    Thanks for your comments! Peter, this is why I love DPS, too :)

    Jeffrey, I totally agree about finding the sweet spot of the lens two or so stops down from wide open.

    Frank, you're right. I was mostly referring to the Nikon 50 mm lens with maximum aperture of f 1.8.

    Dan, Joe and Martin...thanks for your considerations. I was talking about 'fast lenses' in the context of Darren's article that I refer to above. I definately should have specified in my article that I'm talking about fast prime lenses.

  • Gene May 21, 2009 04:03 am

    Question for the author, by saying "...shooting at low apertures..." in section 5, what aperture range do you shoot at to get this affect. I tend to shoot at f2.8 up to about f6 depending on number of people, larger crowds f6 and up.

  • Trevor May 21, 2009 01:04 am

    Do we really need to tear this article/author apart over one small point.

    Martin has written, "in the post you keep talking about the fact that a fast lens is “quite small and light”."

    No Martin, she does not "keep talking" about it. The author only mentions this point once in the entire article and although she made an assumption I hardly feel that it calls for the amount of criticism that has been shown here in numerous comments.

    Give it a rest.

  • Huntting B May 21, 2009 12:01 am

    You were obviously talking about prime lenses, but a "good" prime is going to be as heavy as many of the decent zooms out there. For example, my 24 f/1.4 weighs as much as the 17-40 f/4 or the 16-35 f/2.8. and the 85 f/1.2 weighs more than the 24-70 f/2.8.

    I will echo Jeffrey's comment on point of focus. You have to be *incredibly* careful with focal point when dealing with low f/stops, particularly if you are close to the subject. I couldn't possibly count the number of shots that I've had come out wrong during a concert because I had caught focus on the players hand instead of their face.

  • Fort Myers Photography May 20, 2009 11:16 pm

    I could not agree more. I know some have said a fast lens for portrait photography is too heavy, but I think they are worth the results...

  • Jeffrey Kontur May 20, 2009 11:03 pm

    I think this is a good article. I have only two points to make, neither of which invalidates anything said in the article:
    1. No lens is sharpest at maximum aperture. Most are acceptably sharp for most people but if you're a real stickler for sharpness, you need to stop down at least two stops (sometimes more) to get the best of whatever lens you're using. The flip side is that helps make the case for fast lenses as you can stop down a couple of stops and still have a reasonably fast aperture.

    2. At maximum aperture with super fast lenses, depth of field can be extraordinarily shallow. This is the look that a lot of people seem to really like. The caveat is that you must be very careful where you place the point of focus. Shooting with these lenses takes some practice because it's so easy to misplace the focal plane.

  • Bozo Tic May 20, 2009 03:28 pm

    Lester, don't do it, better grab Nikon's 85/1.4. It is almost as fast as Canon, with extremely great sharpenss fully open. It's a lens to have (if you're pissing of your spouse you might well do that on this Nikkor lens).

  • Lester May 20, 2009 01:43 pm

    I've seen some wonderful images shot with the Canon 85mm f1.2 lens. If you can afford it and piss off your spouse, then buy it! Almost makes me wanna sell my Nikon stuff and switch to Canon.

  • Frank J May 20, 2009 01:34 pm

    With the reference to ƒ1.8, I took the author to mean the 50mm prime lens. From my experience, it's a fine lens (I'm using the Canon EF 50mm 1.8), but when shooting with my active twin niece & nephew, I actually prefer my 35mm ƒ2.0 because of one reason: it's minimum focal distance is 9.6 inches, while the 50mm has a min. foc. dist. 18 inches. For some reason the kids like to lean right in when they are fully aware of their picture being taken, and it's made for some brilliant shots focused on their bright, laughing blue eyes.

  • Victor Augusteo May 20, 2009 01:32 pm

    yeah, i agree with martin and joe. "fast" lens is freaking heavy and big, except the primes below 80mm (such as 35mm f1.8, 50mm f1.8 that are cheap)

    just change the "fast" to "prime" in the article, and we have a winner!

  • Scott May 20, 2009 12:26 pm

    I bet the author is referring to the "Nifty 50", the 55mm lens that is normally 1.4 to 1.8 and around $100 for the 1.8 on Nikon (similar on Canon). Very nice lens and fun to use and everyone should have one.

  • Peter May 20, 2009 11:55 am

    wow...this is why i like DPS, because someone always knows another method, or a clarification that is helpful...thank you martin and joe...

  • Martin May 20, 2009 10:10 am

    I concur with joe - in the post you keep talking about the fact that a fast lens is "quite small and light".
    Err....not true. Typically, the faster the lens, the larger and heavier it gets.

    Unless you should have been talking about prime lenses instead of fast lenses.....(but even with prime lenses, a faster prime lens is going to be larger/heavier than a slower prime lens of the same focal length).

  • joe May 20, 2009 09:59 am

    Did you mean to say that *prime* lenses are usually smaller than equivalent zoom lenses? Zoom lenses can be plenty fast , and fast but long prime lenses can still be fairly large and heavy (example here http://www.luminous-landscape.com/images-56/Canon500mm.jpg)

  • Dan May 20, 2009 09:21 am

    Well, there are fast zoom lenses too, and those are quite heavy to carry. Not quite as fast as some prime lenses. Maybe you really meant fast prime lenses in the article?

    The 17-55mm f/2.8 on my Nikon is great, but it's definitely not light. The 50mm f/1.8 is both light and fast, but doesn't give quite the same freedom with respect to distance. Having a bit of zoom means either less moving around, or less cropping to do back home, giving the child more freedom to be itself while keeping the resolution of the images as high as possible for the large size prints if need be.

    Anyway... That's just a nitpick. Great article!