What is the best lens for taking flattering portraits? ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOM!
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
My love affair with the zoom lens began in the late 80’s. I started my career as a portrait photographer using an entry level Nikon with an 80-200mm Sigma zoom lens. Back in the day “zoom lens” was code for paperweight or doorstop because they had the similar optics to a pair of cheap sunglasses and were about as sharp as a butter knife.
Zoom lenses were for amateurs, pros used prime lenses.
After I’d been shooting for a few years and could afford better gear, the zoom was shunned to the back of my kit. It only saw the light of day on the rare occasion I photographed a wedding or a corporate event. Then in 2004 I met and fell in love with the Canon 70-200mm zoom. I have to be honest here and tell you that it wasn’t love at first sight. I’d been burned before by zoom lenses that promised so much and yet delivered very little. But, it didn’t take much to convince me that this lens was different and completely revolutionized the way I worked.
This is a typical way I might use the 70-200mm zoom in a portrait shoot. The first image is set up as full length shot at a focal length of 70mm, then I zoom in to create a three-quarter shot at 150mm, and again to create a tight headshot at 200mm.
Many of my clients suggest that I just shoot full length, and then they will crop to headshot or three-quarter in post-production.
This sounds great in theory, but there are two problems with cropping in this situation. First, you end up with less than twenty percent of the original file, which is a drastic reduction in quality, and reduces a 60MB file to approximately 10MB. Second, the lens compression factor at 70mm is very different than at 200mm.
A tight headshot at 200mm creates the most beautiful blur (or bokeh) in the background (top image of Tom) that is not as prominent if the image were photographed at full length and cropped (bottom image of Tom above).
I love working with a zoom lens when I’m taking portraits because it means I can set up my shot and create full length, three-quarter and tight head shots without having to move the camera. I can stay out of my model’s personal space, which can be intimidating or confronting, and keep the momentum of the shoot flowing.
Model credits: Images Gina Milicia, Courtesy Nine-Network Australia
Being able to work this quickly is perfect for editorial and celebrity photo shoots, which are always fast paced and high pressure.
The long zoom lens is also perfect for capturing intimate photos of couples or children, and even pets. I’m often shooting well back at 200mm, and this makes it much easier for my model to forget I am even taking their picture.
The whole “look” and feel of a portrait can be radically changed by focal length choice. A focal length less then 50mm will distort facial features. Some photographers love this look and have successfully incorporated it into their shooting style.
I love to work with a focal length between 100mm and 200mm. Facial features are compressed slightly, which is flattering for portraits. I don’t like the way a wide focal length looks and it doesn’t suit my shooting style.
The 70-200mm is a heavy lens to carry around all day long. The extra weight can make handheld shooting difficult. Its size and length also makes it stand out, making it incredibly difficult for you to shoot incognito, such as at an event or when taking street photos or travel pics. In these cases, I opt for my walk-around zoom, the 24-105mm Canon f/4, which is perfectly suited to these situations and is much lighter!
The other downside of shooting with a long lens is I’m often backed into corners or having to shoot through windows or doorways just to be able to get the shot. I’m constantly shooting with my back to the wall. Literally!
The most annoying part about working with zoom lenses is the zoom action is continually sucking dust onto my camera sensor. Unwanted dust means I need to get my sensor professionally cleaned more often which is an added cost, and extra down time I wouldn’t have if I stuck to prime lenses.
I work with the Canon 70-200mm IS F2.8 L series. It’s my workhorse, and I use it on 70-80% of my shoots. An average photo shoot for me will consist of approximately 2000-4000 frames, and I can’t think of another lens in my kit that would give me the consistency, ease, speed and high standard of the 70-200mmm.
If you are considering buying a zoom there are now many excellent ones on the market. The price drops significantly if you choose a slower lens (f/4 instead of f/2.8) and one without image stabilization, that is almost unnecessary these days because cameras can shoot at a much higher ISO. If your budget is tight, you might also consider buying second hand. Yes, zoom lenses are pricey, but remember your lenses should last you a minimum of 10 years if you look after them. I’ve had mine for 10 years now, and it’s outlasted three cameras. This fact alone makes the 70-200mm my most cost effective investment.
The other option you may like to consider is renting a long lens for a weekend. Prices are very reasonable.
It took me ten years of experimentation with different focal lengths before I found my happy place. Do you like to shoot long? Which lens do you think is the most flattering lens for portraits? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
More Favorite Lenses from our Writers
- How a Humble 85mm lens became my favourite
- Going Wide With the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8
- Tamron 18-270mm Lens
- Canon 40mm Pancake Lens
- 50mm f/1.4
Gina is the author of four dPS eBooks including:
- Portraits: Making the Shot
- Portraits: Striking the Pose
- Portraits: Lighting the Shot
- Portraits: After the Shot
You can buy one for $19.99 or grab the whole bundle for only $49.99 (save 38%) from any of the links above.