Gearducated: shooting prime portraits with what's in your kit

Rebecca Frogley skips the stiff poses and forced grins to offer some top-notch tips on how to take stunning portraits with prime lenses

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens, f/10, 1/125s, ISO 100

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens

The debate between the prime and zoom lens has set an ongoing divide between portrait photographers of late. In recent years, zoom lenses have been in favour for portrait photographers as the safer and more convenient choice. Admittedly, zoom lenses are incredibly versatile — they cover a range of focal distances in a single package, and don’t require interchanging to create a variety of compositions. In this way they can easily frame and capture a fleeting opportunity, without the risk of missing a shot. However, their strength in providing a greater range of focus is ultimately their weakness, too. Designing a lens for optimal performance across a zoom range is difficult, and with complex arrangements of multiple glass elements moving back and forth to enable zoom, the optical quality undoubtedly suffers.

Because prime lenses aren’t built to zoom, their fixed focal length means they have a much simpler construction, with fewer moving parts. Any engineer will tell you that a simple design will generally result in fewer defects — and we would expect prime lenses to cut distortions, reduce aberrations, and be less prone to the plagues of ghosting and flare. 

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens, f/10, 1/125s, ISO 100

The Sigma 85mm is a fine example of this type of lens. Designed with precision-moulded and special low-dispersion (SLD) glass elements, the lens yields sharp image captures in high contrast, and with excellent correction against chromatic aberrations. This beauty is equipped with a rear-focus system that minimizes colour fluctuations, and a super multilayer coating (SML) that reduces ghosting and flare, even when the subject is backlit. 

Due to their wide-open apertures, prime lenses such as the Sigma 85mm offer the ability to reach fast shutter speeds even within muted-light or low-light conditions — it’s really no wonder we call them ‘bright primes’. The Sigma 85mm offers a maximum aperture of f/1.4 — an entire four stops larger than the conventional zoom equivalent, which, at a comparable length, can reach only f/5.6 at its widest. This equates to 16 times as much light. Paired with some serious optical performance to boot, we’ve got a killer combination.

Undoubtedly, there’s never been a time that these features have mattered more. In the early days of digital sensors, the image quality achievable through the use of prime lenses simply couldn’t translate to the sensor. At a meek six, then eight, then ten megapixels, the early DSLRs were unable to capture the rendering of light, form, and detail that these lenses were capable of. Also, for a long time, the quality and refinement of prime lenses went largely unnoticed. 
Since then, the number of megapixels in imaging sensors has increased steadily, and our understanding of lens quality has followed suit. Now, with the Nikon D800 boasting a 36.3-megapixel FX-format sensor, and Canon’s latest — the 5DS — offering a whopping 50.6 megapixels, these high-resolution sensors speak true to the optical performance of their lens. It’s become clear that, for excellent optical performance, the prime lens tops the lot.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Zeiss Telephoto 85mm Planar T* lens, f/1.8, 1/80s, ISO 200

Zeiss Telephoto 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* lens

Prime lenses are particularly suited to portraiture, a genre of photography that depends heavily on composition. As a prime lens’ set field of view cannot be changed, the only way to alter the framing of a subject is by physically moving closer or stepping back. In this way, what at first appears as a hindrance to shooting is actually a great form of quality control, because there’s no risk of being snap happy with primes. They demand that you slow down, consider both your subject and their environment, and make conscious compositional choices. Plus, for beginners, being forced to ‘zoom’ in and out by physically moving is a great way to learn composition techniques and consider angles. Often, it’s the best way to understand the focal length of a lens in order to use it to its full potential.

Understanding the correct focal length for your subject is vital, regardless of how impressive a lens may be. In terms of portraiture, the wider the focal length, the more prone the resulting image is to distortion — generally appearing in the form of a slight stretching of the face, enlarging of the nose, and, in extreme cases, the vanishing of ears. Conversely, a narrower field of view lends itself to compressing facial features to appear more petite, and works to pull the surroundings in towards the subject. A short-to-medium telephoto sits comfortably between these two extremes, and is generally the portrait photographer’s favourite focal length. While portrait photography is a very broad term that is inclusive of a variety of potential subjects and framing devices, classic portrait focal lengths generally fall within a range of 85mm to 135mm. The Zeiss 85mm can comfortably move between both tightly framed beauty shots and more open head-and-shoulder or partial-body compositions, without visible distortion. 

It’s important to remember that these focal-length guidelines are intended with a full-frame sensor in mind. While the Zeiss 85mm is designed to be used full frame, it may of course also be used with APS-C–size sensors — such as the Canon 7D or 550D Rebel series. In saying that, as APS-C sensors have a crop factor of 1.6x, doing this results in a corresponding effective distance in focal length of approximately 135mm, sitting in the upper range of ideal portrait focal lengths.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* lens, f/3.5, 1/200s, ISO 100

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* lens

A major advantage of using prime lenses is that they allow for excellent subject isolation through the narrow depth of field offered by their wide apertures. This benefit is a strong one, lending itself to beautifully rendered backgrounds and lighting effects, with the dissolution of any unsightly elements in the background. 

The Zeiss Otus — without doubt a superlative lens, and arguably the highest-quality 85mm lens that money can buy — offers a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and a slick, nine-blade circular diaphragm for pleasing out-of-focus areas. The Zeiss Otus is capable of reproducing the finest details and textures in stunning clarity, with extreme sharpness across the entire image plane at its widest, including all four very extreme full-frame corners. With this stellar prime lens, super-sharp areas gently fade into pleasantly soft areas, accentuating our main point of interest — the subject. Conversely, the stunning razor-thin depth of field achievable with this lens can prove inappropriate in many situations, often resulting in image degradation when used incorrectly. There are a few easy techniques that will ensure you get it right, every time.

While most photographers take pride in being able to trust their eye, with a manual-focus prime it’s generally recommended you don’t. With the manual-focusing Zeiss Otus, first-time users often find that they can’t seem to get the lens to achieve a pinpoint accuracy through the viewfinder, due to the low tolerance for mis-focusing associated with such a narrow depth of field, and the viewfinder’s inability to zoom. So, here’s the next best thing — live view offers very precise and accurate focus adjustments by allowing you to zoom — using the magnify button on the back of the camera body — to closely check the sharpness, and make any adjustments necessary. Utilizing the live-view function will ensure that focus is always on point, resulting in more ‘keepers’ and ultimately the need for fewer exposures. However, there’s always a trade-off — using live view isn’t a natural nor intuitive process for most, and does take some getting used to. In most instances, it will require placing your camera on a support. In addition, it takes a substantial level of power usage to drive the LCD display on the back of the camera, meaning that its use will drain battery life.

The buttery, melting away of backgrounds and the soft slip from fine detail into haze work to isolate the subject and create stunning compositions. But the restricted focus commonly associated with this aesthetic quality also has a propensity to render an image slightly soft, and can allow for focal mishaps to occur. With an f-stop of f/2.8 or larger, we often only have millimetres to work with. The subject just needs to tilt their head slightly or change their expression to render a once in-focus subject overly soft — or worse yet, the entire composition a fuzzy mess. While the Zeiss Otus offers us the ability to shoot at a large aperture — and we do of course appreciate having the option — shooting wide open is risky for headshots in side profile or at a two-thirds angle. It’s a modern myth that shooting wide open is the only way to capture a stunning shot: choose instead an aperture between f/4 and f/5.6, which will allow more leeway in achieving focus across your subject, while still producing a pleasing out-of-focus background.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T* lens, f/5.6, 1/125s, ISO 400

Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T* lens

While wide-angle lenses aren’t a desirable focal length for tightly composed headshots, they are fantastic for situational portraits, which work to tell a story. Because of this, wide-angle photography has endless creative possibilities. It can reveal a juxtaposition that isn’t immediately apparent, encompass enough of a scene to describe interactions between subjects, or relay an environment in a unique way. The Zeiss 35mm is a superb wide-angle lens, as its high performance and versatility mean that it’s always ready for the unexpected. As a very fast f/1.4 lens, it excels in low light, ensuring you never miss a shot. Plus, because manual focus means controlling the image with your fingertips, the lens offers an ergonomic focusing ring with a large rotation angle. In fact, the lens itself is all metal and composed by way of precision mechanics — meaning it’s a piece of equipment to rely on, allowing your creativity to thrive.

Key to capturing a successful situational portrait is considering the subject as an element within a wider scene. Whether it be a farmer standing at the boundary of their property, a mechanic surrounded by grimy tools, or a small child sitting among a mountain of toys, these scenarios convey a lot more of the subject’s character than if each were a portrait in isolation. Make use of context, and it’ll result in interesting and evocative images. Plus, allowing subjects to feel natural in a familiar environment can often bring nervous sitters out of their shell. The success of any portrait lies in the mood  it is able to convey, and there is nothing more disappointing than being unable to capture a candid moment because of an overly stiff and uncomfortable subject. 

The brilliance of a wide-angle lens, such as the Zeiss 35mm, is that nothing escapes its gaze. Wide-angle lenses see the world very differently from their normal-range and telephoto equivalents, and that can cause difficulties for beginners. With wide-angle portraits, any deviation from perfectly level will result in an exaggerated, and often unsightly, perspective. For a distortion-free portrait every time, ensure the lens is in perfect parallel to your subject. In addition to this, once a shot of your subject is composed, you are likely to end up with a
lot of distraction within the frame. Some will be well lit, others will be underexposed; some will be near and some will be in the distance. Work with the contents within your frame, rather than against — shoot through people and foliage for soft, pretty effects, or out to the distance for soft, diffused backdrops. 

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T* lens, f/1.4, 1/6s, ISO 800 (cropped)

Rotolight RL48-B LED RingLight

The addition of a fill light, or secondary light source, can greatly improve the appearance of your subject, and is a simple way of reducing the contrast of a scene to ensure that no areas of your image are overexposed or underexposed. Versatile and easily portable, the Rotolight RL48-B comprises 48 ultra-bright LEDs, and is able to produce a wide 110-degree beam angle of soft, diffused light. While the Rotolight is easily mounted to a camera body by attaching to a hot shoe to provide a front-on light source, it is most effective when handheld or mounted to a stand.

This is because the form of the human face isn’t flat, and each is unique. Whether it be having deep-set eyes, a slightly crooked nose, or laugh lines circling the corners of their mouth, your subject will have a certain something that gives them individuality. When a strong light is thrown straight on to a subject, it tends to blow out certain areas, and create harsh shadows around the topography of the face. For a more natural approach, use a simple two-light set-up with your Rotolight RL48-B as a fill light. With the addition of CTO and ND filters, light can be dimmed by up to 1.5 stops, and temperature adjusted to four distinct values, ranging from a cool 3200K and through daylight to a warm 6300K. A truly useful feature rather than a gimmick, colour temperature adjustment is crucial in accurately matching key light sources, whether daylight, fluorescent, or tungsten lighting.

Simply put, effective lighting is all about ratios. Take, for example, a sitter positioned near a window, with diffuse sunlight as the main light source. For a soft, dreamy aesthetic, a ratio of 2:1 is generally used. Commonly chosen for portraits of children or in beauty shots, this lower ratio results in a very flatly cast light — producing only subtle shadows, and softening the appearance of facial features. For a more serious tone, which may be required for a business portrait, a ratio of around 4:1 would be preferable in order to cast deeper shadows over the contours of the face. Of course, these ratios can be magnified for dramatic effect — perhaps to emphasize the road maps of a wrinkled face, to create an edgy fashion shot, or to produce a classic, film-noir effect.

Vanguard VEO AM-264-TR Aluminium Monopod

A full tripod set-up isn’t always practical — sometimes there’s simply not the time to mount, adjust, and check that the camera is level before the moment’s gone. Particularly in working with tireless toddlers, or in amongst the hustle and bustle of a wedding, a tripod often proves to be a hindrance rather than of any help. While with portraits we frequently require greater stability than is achievable using the camera handheld, we commonly want more portability than a tripod allows. So with that in mind, Vanguard’s come up with a sharp little number — the VEO monopod.

With the Vanguard VEO, gone are the days of lengthy tripod set-ups and adjustments — and, no doubt, it’s much to the delight of portrait photographers everywhere. Vanguard has found the perfect balance between functional stability and ease of use, making the sleek Vanguard VEO an ideal choice for on-location shoots. In essence, it works as a height-adjustable pole for added stability, however, this humble piece of equipment is packed with features. 

Equipped with a tri-stand constructed of three retractable, anti-slip rubber feet, the monopod can secure a DSLR paired with a heavy telephoto lens — and is able to withstand a weight of up to 6kg. To ensure there’s no risk of ever missing a shot, there’s a ball joint positioned between where the four-section magnesium-alloy leg meets the tri-stand, allowing for smooth panning and tilting. At a comfortable 900g, the Vanguard Veo is able to open out to 1.63 metres, and collapse less than a quarter of this length. And, as a charming added feature, a rubber cover hides the top mounting screw, allowing the monopod to be used as a walking stick when not in use — rather nifty, if you ask me.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens, f/5, 1/400s, ISO 100

ONA ‘The Chelsea’ bowler bag 

We’ve all been there — swapping over lenses as quickly as possible, and hoping to capture a precious moment as it takes place before your eyes. In the process, you’ve tugged open the finicky zip, searched through numerous individual compartments, and now, finally, have your gear sorted. Despite your haste, the moment has evaded you — the lighting has changed, the expressions have left, and the mood is gone. A trendy photographic accessories company, ONA, has an innovative solution in mind. Its classic bowler bag is simple and stylish.

It’s the Prada of all camera bags — almost literally. ONA’s ‘The Chelsea’ is handcrafted with rich Saffiano leather, a term that identifies a distinguishable heat-stamping process supposedly invented by Mario Prada himself. To ensure durability and stain resistance, the calf hide undergoes a process of heat pressing and a cross-hatch embossing, and is finally treated to a wax finish. As a result, the bag is extremely resilient and resists marking, fading, and water damage. It’ll survive your on-location shoot, even if that includes being placed down on an old dirt path, or getting caught out in a sudden downpour of rain. Most importantly, this photography bag will keep your expensive kit snug and safe. The roomy interior fits a DSLR, up to three large lenses, and a tablet or external flash, all separated by soft closed-cell foam. 

With rolled leather handles and a detachable crossover body strap, The Chelsea makes it a breeze to carry even some of your more weighty equipment, and its structured bottom means that it’s able to stand upright on its own. The Chelsea is a functional twist on an old favourite — and you’re guaranteed to be shooting in style.

For more information on the gear featured throughout Gearducated, visit crkennedy.co.nz.

This article originally featured in the October–November 2015 issue of D-Photo. Missed the issue? Add a print or a digital copy to your collection below: