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Portraits Are Nifty With a Fifty

April 27, 2012

Further to my previous post discussing the differences between zoom and fixed focal length lenses, I felt I should expand a little and get more specific. The most commonly available single focal length lens is the 50mm. They are generally available as either 50mm with either ƒ2.8, ƒ1.8 or ƒ1.4 apertures.

A 50mm ƒ1.8 lens costs around $200-$300. These are a bargain. The ƒ1.4 lenses are a lot more expensive, but work in slightly lower light levels. Indispensable if you need it. I use a Nikon 50mm ƒ1.8 which is excellent for low light. The large ƒ1.8 aperture gives great separation between subject and background. It is very sharp at all apertures, but best around ƒ2.8 -ƒ5.6.

Baby enjoying lunch. 50mm Nikon ƒ1.8

On a cropped frame camera 50mm gives an effective focal length of between 75mm and 85mm (depending on whether you use (Nikon or Canon and others). This is the classic focal length for portraits. This combination allows a ‘subject to camera’ distance that while not “in your face,” is still intimate enough to allow you to remain in contact with your subject.

On a full frame camera the 50mm lens remains 50mm, which is still OK for portraits that include a bit of extra background atmosphere, or groups of 2 people. Go too close with a 50mm on a full frame camera and you can get distortion and exaggerated, protruding noses. That’s OK for babies and young children, but 85mm is a better choice for portraits on a full frame camera. Nikon have a stunning 85mm ƒ1.4 which is pricey, but worth every cent. I have never seen such sharpness and low light capability in any lens I’ve used, apart from the legendary Leica 75mm Summilux ƒ1.4 and the current Zeiss Planar ƒ1.4. Both of which are far more expensive than the Nikon. Nikon have also released an 85mm ƒ1.8 which I intend testing with a view to purchasing. The depth of field at ƒ1.4/1.8 is very shallow. Mere millimetres, so accurate focus is critical. I get better with the 85mm Nikon by shooting at ƒ2.8 – ƒ4. The bigger aperture is still fine if you make sure the eyes are in focus.

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