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Photography Question 
Flo Bringas
BetterPhoto Member Since: 12/4/2007

Portrait/Studio Lens

I am looking for a good studio portrait lens. I have a Canon 40D. I have been leaning towards the EF 85mm. However, reading articles online and talking with a camera store ... the 70-200mm keeps popping up. Any recommendations or suggestions??

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5/1/2009 5:53:18 AM

Alan N. Marcus   Hi Flo,
For a portrait lens, you are free to choose any focal length your heart desires. While there are no hard and fast rules, there are compelling reasons to choose within a range, for your camera itís 65mm ~ 80mm.
Allow me to explain:
The focal length mounted establishes perspective. It is widely viewed that if one mounts a lens equal to the diagonal measure of the format, the perspective obtained is a close match to the human experience.
The Canon 40D sports a CMOS imaging sensor that measures 14.8mm by 22.2mm. We can calculate the diagonal, it is 26.9mm. You donít need to be exactly on this value so we can say if you set your lens to anywhere around the 27mm mark, you will match the human experience.
How about portraits? Experienced portrait photographers will gravitate to a lens 2.5 times the diagonal. Hollywood uses 3x for close-upís. These values are based on the typical viewing distance associated with a finished print or display screen.
That being true, for your camera the ideal portrait lens range is 65mm ~ 80mm.
Why this range? If the focal length you select is too short, the subjectís nose reproduces microscopically too large and the ears slightly too small. In other words, the view seen on the finished work will not match the mental picture people have of themselves. T
his self image is derived from the familiar view as seen in the make-up/shaving mirror. While the distortions I am talking about are tiny, they are enough to cause the subject to say, "I donít photograph well".
Little harm from using a too long lens, however long lenses compress facial features likely destroying the illusion of depth. After all we work in a 2 dimensional media, We want to convey the feeling that our images have depth.
Alan Marcus (marginal technical gobbledygook

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5/1/2009 7:27:17 AM

Dennis Flanagan
BetterPhoto Member Since: 12/31/2005
  First off, It's great to have you back Alan. your expertise and advice have been missed.

Remember with the 40D, your lens magnification is 1.5X. If your smallest focal length is 75mm, that's equivalent to a 35mm is 112mm. Unless you have a very long studio, it may be too much. I have a 50-150mm lens and I have trouble with full body shots at 50mm.

Alan, don't hesitate to correct me if I'm out to lunch.

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5/1/2009 4:53:57 PM

Alan N. Marcus   The why!

When we view a print, to achieve a correct perspective we need to plan ahead. We must consider the focal length used and the magnification needed to make an enlarged print. From a 35mm full frame we must enlarge 8 Ĺ times to produce an 8x10 print. To achieve a print that displays the correct perspective the desired viewing distance is equal to the focal length of the taking lens times the magnification. Normally a print is viewed from approximately the length of its diagonal however a portrait normally sits on a desk or mantel and the viewing distance is about 36 inches.

We mount a 105mm lens on a full frame --the diagonal is 43mm -- 2 Ĺ times this is 105mm. We calculate the viewing distance for the resulting print as 105 x 8.5 = 893mm = about 36 inches.

Now consider a typical D-SLR. The format is 16mm x 24mm -- the diagonal is 28mm. The portrait lens of choice is 2 Ĺ times 28mm or 70mm.

The magnification to make an 8x10 is 12 Ĺ times. We do the math.
70 x 12.5 = 875mm or about 35 inches.

I did not make these rules of thumb; they have been with us for ages.

Also: Art has no rules Ė you are free to follow your heart. In other words there are no norms in art.

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5/1/2009 10:24:23 PM

Flo Bringas
BetterPhoto Member Since: 12/4/2007
  Thanks guys! Your input was very helpful and even moreso informative. Appreciate your thoughts and time.

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5/4/2009 1:40:44 PM

Michael D. Miller
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/26/2006

In addition to Alan and Dennis, (I think) the reason the 70-200 is 'popping up' was that someone thought the low part of that range, 70mm, which is equivalent 112mm on your camera would be a good alternative for portraits AND you have the medium telephoto 200mm for other stuff.

A good 70-200 f2.8 is prit-tee expensive and heavy, compared to a good, shorter lens that you would use mostly for portraits. You'd better lift one before you invest in it. Granted, if is on a tripod or monopod then the weight is not much of an issue, but you still fall back to only having a 112mm lens for your portraits.

However, the 112mm, effective, is at the very end of the recommended portrait range AND you would be 'supporting' financially and weight wise a lens with that additional range that would not be used for portraits. You did say "a good portrait lens". I have the 70-200 f2.8 (another competing camera brand that I won't mention N-k-n) and it is heavy and I use it for candid pictures of children and short range wildlife and sports.

If you do want a more 'all-around' lens, then there are those in the 18-200 (29-320) and 18-270 (29-432) ranges that would cover moderate wide angle to decent telephoto plus the recommended portrait range. Those lenses are not going to be the same quality as a fixed lens or a shorter telephoto such as a 28-70 (45-112).

What do yuse guys think about a good 28-70 f2.8 for Flo, as a 'good portrait lens' that will give her more flexibility? She can use it as her standard walk-around, travel, family lens.

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5/5/2009 5:42:05 AM

Dennis Flanagan
BetterPhoto Member Since: 12/31/2005
  It's a much better idea than the 70-200mm for in the studio.

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5/5/2009 7:48:44 AM

Roy Blinston
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/4/2005
  In the old days 135mm was generally considered to be the "portrait lens" because it slightly flattened facial features (ie: no noses sticking out or bulging cheeks and eyes etc.

The 40D (because of the sensor size) has an aspect ratio of 1:6 (same as the 50D and the 20D). Therefore an 85mm lens on your camera is the equivalent of 136mm in the old days.

I prefer a bit more than this... and often go to around 160mm (old)... so your mention of the 70 to 200mm (I believe) will give you a good working range for faces (in a traditional sense that is).... in effect it would be 112mm to 320mm on the 40D.

Hope this helps.

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5/5/2009 9:09:31 AM

Barend Frielink
BetterPhoto Member Since: 5/30/2005
  My choice would be to start with a prime lens like Canon EF 50mm 1.8 II. It is incredibly clear and sharp (as good as an L lens), and very cheap (around $80). It will give you an effective 90 mm on the 40D, which in my view is ideal for portraits. I am not sure that that using a zoom lens for portraits in a studio setting is really that helpful. It may be more f a distraction. Hope this helps.

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5/5/2009 4:59:30 PM

Bunny Snow
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/16/2004
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  Hi Flo,

At my former portrait instructor's suggestion, I bought a 70-200mm f4L lens for portraiture, which is the same as he uses indoors and out. Both of us always work on a tripod, unless we are in an area where tripods cannot be used and then, a monopod works. Neither of us work without a tripod. The reasoning behind this is that to get the most sharpness out of a lens, one needs a steady hand and zero vibration, and as we age, our hands are no longer totally steady.

Even when I was a photography major in college (1960's), I was taught to use a 135-180mm lens for my medium format camera and always to work on a tripod. The 135-180 mm were prime lenses and was considered a good range for portraits. Back then, a normal lens was considered to be an 80mm for a 2 1/4sq format. So you see, the 70-200mm is in the same ballpark, and the same suggestions apply.

I agree with Alan's reasoning behind the longer lens. That is also what I was taught by two professional portrait photographers 30 years apart, even though our styles of portraiture have changed over the decades.

Hope this helps.

~ Bunny

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5/7/2009 9:01:06 PM

Alan N. Marcus   Hi Bunny,
A tip of the hat from Alan Marcus!

The medium square format (120 12 exposures) nicknamed 6 x 6 meaning six centimes times six centimeters. We can rewrite this measurement as 60mm x 60mm. The actual frame is 56mm x 56mm thus the diagonal measures 79.2mm. These cameras are usually fitted with 75mm ~ 80mm lens this is ďnormalĒ. However for portraiture the 2.5 ~ 3 x rule of thumb still applies. This is because we tend to view prints at a distance about equal to the printís diagonal measure. For this format the likely print size is assumed to be 8 inches by 10 inches. People will naturally gravitate to a print viewing distance equal to the diagonal measure of the print which is 13 inches. However portraits are usually viewed from a greater distance, likely the print is on a desk or framed on the wall. We prepare in advance for a viewing distance of 3 feet (1 meter).

WHY? If the viewing distance is approximately equal to the focal length of the lens times the magnification used to make the print Ė objects like the nose and ears reproduce geometrically correct. If the viewing distance severely violets this rule-of-thumb, facial distortion is likely. Likely the distortion will be microscopic in scope, nevertheless the subject is likely offended and likely unable to put a finger on whatís wrong. Saying ďI donít photograph well or The camera liesĒ.

The countermeasure for this format is a portrait lens in the range of 200mm ~ 240mm.

Allow me to explain:

In portraiture we are concerned about the possibility that the optics will cause facial distortions. If we work in too close or use a short lens, the nose is rendered too big and the ears too small. This is true because the camera accentuates close by objects and minimizes distance objects. Itís the difference in distance camera to nose vs. camera to ears that is the root of the distortion.

Itís not the focal length of the lens that is responsible its camera to subject distance.


Itís not the focal length of the lens that is responsible its camera to subject distance.

The treatment is just to step back. Thatís the good news. The bad news is we likely canít. a. the studio size might prevent this simple solution. b. we likely canít bring ourselves to compose with wasted space around the subject in the viewfinder.

The countermeasures for a. are to redesign the studio or ignore this rule-of-thumb. The countermeasure for b. is to use a longer lens. Remember if you will just step back the ďnormalĒ lens will do nicely. A longer lens forces you to step back.

Now for the gobbledygook: Using a 200mm and making an 8x10 with 4x enlargements.
200 x 4 = 800mm print viewing distance equals about 30 inches.

Such a lash-up yields minimal facial distortion.
lan Marcus (marginal technical gobbledygook)

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5/8/2009 8:15:36 AM

Bunny Snow
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/16/2004
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  Hi, again, Flo,

My medium format camera from the 60's, was not a 1.5 or 1.6 but a full size format. It also was not a digital camera, nor a SLR or 35mm. I brought it into the discussion for a size comparison.

I have used the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens for portraiture. But, prefer Canon technology.

I have a Canon 24-70mm f2.8L lens, which I have used once for portraiture, but it is not my preference. This is not a good portrait lens. Additionally, for its size, it is very heavy at 2.1 pounds. I also have a 24-105mm f4L lens, which is good and sharp, but still does not offer the greater versatility of the 70-200mm f4L or f2.8L.

The 70-200mm f2.8L lens is very heavy. I agree. This is one reason I did not go this way. Its weight is 3.2 lb without and 3.5 lb with a tripod collar. I cannot image not using a tripod with this lens, so figure 3.5 pounds plus. Yes, that would be heavy. But, this is one good portrait lens and versatile whether you work in a studio or outside, where you can back up more. It's another good reason for using a tripod to hold the camera and lens securely and without vibration. Additionally, on a tripod, it is easier to hold the flash off camera and direct it where it is needed --easy on a tripod and a lot of fumbling off the tripod.

The problem with shorter lenses, in addition to the distortion, the photographer would be practically on top of the "model", which is not how "models" would prefer being captured. This is especially true if your subject is a child or pet, which would like a little breathing room. That may be the reason some photographers have longer lenses available if needed.

My 70-200 f4L lens weighs 1.7 pounds and does not have Image Stabilization, but as stated, I always shoot on a tripod. Additionally, if you really want the background thrown out (good BOKEH) but don't want the extra expenditure or weight, there are plug-ins that can be used along side processing in Photoshop. One such plug in is the AlienSkin Bokeh.

Hope this gives more ideas and possibilities.

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5/8/2009 12:39:08 PM

Ron Evans
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  I have zero training, nor can I provide any technical expertise. I can say that I use the canon 70-200 IS 2.8 as my primary and love it.

I've also not seen any mention of other brands but I've seen some good feeback of the Sigma 2.8 lens in this range and own the 18-50 2.8. It's been very an excellent lens as well so if price is a strong part of your consideration you want to expand your search. I think the Sigma 70-200 2.8 (non-IS)about $700. Considerably less than the $1,700 for the Canon IS version.

Lastly, it can never hurt to check your local shop and see if they have a rental program. That way you can test out multiple lenses and typically can use the money spent on rentals toward your purchase of a new lens. The con to this may be that the price at the local shop may not be nearly as good as you can get on-line from a place such as B&H.

Best of luck!

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5/12/2009 12:20:03 PM

Dennis Flanagan
BetterPhoto Member Since: 12/31/2005
  Unless it's a cheapie, the brand of lens isn't as critical as the focal length for studio work. If your camera sensor has a lens magnification factor of 1.5, you're going to be restricted on what you can do unless you have a very big studio to work from. That's especially critical if you are doing any type of group shot. My studio is approximately 20' X 30'. Figure in studio backgronds, supports, props and normal furniture, then place your subject 5 to 6 feet from the background, there isn't a lot of space to work with.

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5/12/2009 12:32:59 PM

Bunny Snow
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/16/2004
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  If I had to rely on what my local camera shop carried, I'd still be stuck with Nikon.

However, my former classical portraiture instructor (a local portrait-commercial pro) did what he said he'd never do. He sold all of his medium format SLR equipment and moved for Canon DSLR technology. The camera bodies changed with each new model. In 2005 was the 20D; then, the 30D; 50D; and now he's yearning for the full frame 5D. He's stayed with his Normans. And, his studio lights are still White Lightnings. Only the camera models have changed regularly.

His advice to me was to avoid purchasing many lenses at once until you cannot live without certain features. Because equipment can cost a literal fortune. Danny feels that the most important purchase one can make other than the body and the lens, is a good, sturdy tripod. Mine cost about the same as some of my lenses.

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5/12/2009 1:31:14 PM

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