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Friday, 06 March 2009


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I don't know about other systems, but 4/3 has 2 such primes (fast 100mm equiv.):

Sigma 50 mm f1.4
Olympus ZD 50mm f2.0

And they are stabilised on most Olympus bodies!

I would have thought that using a wide aperture for portraits would be a perfect example of when IS is not particularly useful at least compared to high ISO abilities. I keep the shutter speed up a bit to avoid too much subject motion.

That's a pretty brilliant essay, to be honest. Very clear, gets right to the point and doesn't dawdle. I wish all writing was like this.


Interesting article. I shot about 50-60 head and head shoulder 'portraits' this morning at the Alamo. I used my 40D and the the Canon 85mm 1.8 lens at f2.0-5.6. Not an L lens as they say but darn good for doing environmental portraits in available light. Nice bokeh too. Not a bad setup for a poor boy, sorry old guy, such as myself.

I believe that Olympus also still sells a 35 mm (70 equiv) lens, although at f3.5 is not that fast.

Having recently switched from a 'cropped' APS-c camera to full frame, and it surpassed my expectations. Not because 36x24mm sensors are better (in fact APS-c is superior in many ways) but because now 100% of lenses were designed for that size! This means extra sharpness, reduced problems with flare etc.

What the market desperately needs is a few good primes for the smaller sensor. Lets hope the Nikon DX 35mm f/1.8 is just the beginning!

And Pentax has the DA 70mm f2.4 and the FA 77mm f1.8 Limited. Slightly shorter is the new DA * 55mm f1.4.

All are stabilized on current Pentax DSLRs.


Reading the posts on that link, it is clear that the APS-C cameras are dominated by amateurs who clearly don't understand the fuss (I am not trying to disparage amateurs as I am one myself). Perhaps there is a "future" TOP article to enlighten everyone about the subtleties of portrait perspective.

(...and if any of those posts were by TOP regular readers, it might be time for a refresher on "bokeh".)

"you sometimes feel lucky to capture a picture of Tuesday before Wednesday gets here".
seriously, tears are muddling up my vision, thats waaay too funny...and true.
The D100 was the first digital camera I was to buy, until pulling my credit card out with a Canon rep nearby in the store...a Canon rep with an EOS 10D in his hand. The rest, like my Nikon lenses, was history.

I like Olympus more and more these days.

I sold my G1 a few weeks ago and replaced it with a discounted D60 body (such a deal!). Now I'm finally able to liberate a closet-bound Nikkor 85f1.8 left over from film days. This makes for a compact, high IQ, longish portrait set-up that came together quite unplanned.

OK, so the only portrait so far is of a cat but this combo could be a revelation. Nothing conclusive to say about bokeh yet.

"...he neglects to mention how wonderfully useful body-integral IS is when shooting portraits at wide apertures with the type of fast prime lens he's describing."

Hmm, a giveaway to what camera you finally decided to buy?


There's always the Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f/1.4 for Nikon. Gets you to 85ish.

I ended up dishing out good money for a Pentax FA 77 f/1.8 Ltd because Pentax didn't seem like it was going to release a 90mm f/1.4 (f/1.8 would have been OK too). Some like 85mm-equiv. for portraits, but others like me prefer 135mm-equiv.

I don't want to say "I make do" with the 77 Ltd, as it would be insulting to such a fantastic lens, but I do wish I had something at 90mm.

Maybe it's people like me that Tamron is trying to attract by marketing their 90mm f/2.8 macro as the portrait macro lens. But like Andy said, f/2.8 isn't good enough for a portrait lens, especially on APS-C.

I'm curious. What is the benefit of IS for a fast prime wide open? Aren't you typically at fast enough shutters when wide open?

If you're willing to go manual, Olympus has 50mm primes galore. :-) All of them stabilised.

Up to now, I tried four. The one I liked best was Olympus 50/1.2. Immediately after that is an old Russian Helios 58/2. It may not be the best lens in the world, but I simply like it for portraits.

Why does everyone on the internets think that portrait means headshot?

Being in London perhaps Andy Westlake should be sentenced to a visit to the national portrait gallery. Or someone could send him, say, Cartier-Bresson's book of portraits.

This guy must have never been introduced to the Leica M system. The 75 has been around for quite awhile now.

"Hmm, a giveaway to what camera you finally decided to buy?"

No, sadly, my new camera does not have IS.


"Nothing conclusive to say about bokeh yet."

There's never anything conclusive to say about bokeh.


"I'm curious. What is the benefit of IS for a fast prime wide open? Aren't you typically at fast enough shutters when wide open?"

Andrew Yang,
I guess I'm always trying to shoot people pictures in very low light--frequently indoors, at night--and if you're already wide open it means you can't get more shutter speed by opening even more. At any rate I feel like I've always struggled to hold the camera adequately still when making people pictures.


Perhaps if/when Nikon and Canon introduce body integral IS, then we'll get widespread appreciation of the added possibilities it provides, rather than the rather dichotomous arguments over "My IS is better than your IS". Until then, I guess Sony, Pentax and 4/3 mount users (have I left anyone out?) will have to suffer alone the ability to use f/1.4 primes on stabilised bodies. :-))))

I can't imagine shooting headshots with a "fast" lens of ANY focal length. I nearly throw up when I see one sharp eye while the nose, ears, and other eye is fuzzy (looks like the work in the windows of "Rembrandt Studios" on every small town street corner in the 1940s.)

The perfect lens is of course the 75/1.4 Summilux, slightly short on the film era but still a killer and perfect on the M8.

Now if only the M8 price drops a bit more....

Pentax lenses always make me a little sad...

I love the results I've seen from them, the K20d looks great, I'd love to have built-in IS and everything is affordable. I just don't have faith that they're going to be around in a few years. With limited funds, it's hard to justify buying lenses that might be orphaned in the future. Of course, older cameras can still take photos with them, but that doesn't really cut it anymore.

Oh man... here we go again...

Yes, I know 'conventional wisdom' dictates that to take a portrait you HAVE to have a fast lens between 70 and 200mm but come on people, think beyond that.

My 28mm 1.8 is one of my favorite lenses for portraits, environmental or otherwise. Where's the essays and articles about getting beyond the classic bokeh-riffic headshot?

I confess agnosticism about what makes a "good portrait," but whatever "it" is, the focal length of the lens used has to be the absolute least of it. Sorry to disagree, but the referenced essay actually highlights for me the general absurdity of dpreview.

Aaron, as a Pentax owner it doesn't worry me overmuch that Pentax might go bust. Samsung won't (or are no more likely than some of the other makes)and hopefully they'll keep the line going. The Pentax cameras are very capable of taking great pictures with the right eyes and will be capable for long enough in the future. Try to take great pictures forget about the pixel race for the years ahead. I hope to be taking good pictures with my old 28mm prime on the K10d for some time ahead,

"I just don't have faith that they're going to be around in a few years."

I'm not directing this at you exactly, but I find this a little curious. People keep buying Leicas, and Leica has been much closer to closing up shop several times in recent years than Pentax has shown any sign of being. There was a run of near-bust stories in there for a while before Herr Kaufmann came along. People still bought the cameras because that's what they wanted to own and shoot with.

I bought a Konica-Minolta just before they fled the field, and although I admit that I wish they were still in business, it's been no disaster for me and I don't regret the choice.

Live for today; nothing's certain.


"Oh man... here we go again...

"Yes, I know 'conventional wisdom' dictates that to take a portrait you HAVE to have a fast lens between 70 and 200mm but come on people, think beyond that."

We're talking about tools, not rules. Of course you can make portraits with any lens you want to or can manage, lots of people do. All he's saying is that legacy 50s on APS-C don't cover every need for everybody all the time and that we should have more options in the gap between 50 and 85.

Mike J.

Mike's new camera doesn't have IS. Isn't that one of the signs of the apocalypse?

"Live for today; nothing's certain."

Certainly true. I have Nikon equipment now (although it could have just as easily been Canon), and given the current state of the economy there's no iron clad guarantee that they'll be around in five years either.

If I was starting from scratch, maybe I would opt for the Pentax, and let the price difference between the K20d and Nikon/Canon's equivalent assuage my concerns about the longevity of the system. For me, a $700-$900 lens is a lot of money though, and I'd like it to last for a while, on whatever camera bodies may be released in the future. A good fixed, fast, portrait lens was my first expensive lens. I felt good about buying a Nikon; I'd be hesitant to spend that same money on a Pentax.

Mike, you've written before about your reluctance to purchase expensive digital camera bodies that won't be worth anything a few years down the road. I'm relatively new (just a few years) to photography, and feel a similar reluctance towards buying expensive Pentax (or anything that's not Nikon/Canon) equipment. I fully recognize that might be due to my own ignorance though, and would be delighted to be wrong. Hopefully they'll be around for the duration.

I think more important are the gaps between 17 and 50. Personally 90% of my favorite pictures have all been taken with a 35mm lens. There's not a lot of options for that, digital wise, either. That's 90% of the reason I ended up with a 5d, so I could use a regular 35mm lens. If there was a good equivalent for a small sensor camera, I would have saved a lot of money.

The whole notion about having a "portrait" lens is the idea that based on a "typical" head or head-and-shoulders framing, there is so-and-so angle of view, at so-and-so working distance, that is very comfortable for photographer and subject alike. If you can make portraits with other focal lengths which means either a) different framing, b) different working distance, or c) both. that's fine. However it doesn't obviate the need or convenience of having lenses with a focal length in the "classic" ranges on APS.

In the interest of full disclosure though, this is coming from someone who bought a Cosina Auto-Topcor 58/1.4 in M42 for my Maxxum 5D, the same lens as that Nokton that someone mentioned before, way back before they became a hit on the F-mount.

I don't see the fuss (seems like my catchphrase lately). 10mm between 75mm and 85mm is going to make or break your "portrait"?

A Nikon shooter has quite a few options available in the 50-85mm range; 50mm primes, 60/2.8 macros (which do quite well in that focus distance), the new Cosina-Voigtlander 58/1.4, and if you don't mind, there is that Sigma (shudder) 70/2.8 macro. The latter is available in other mounts as well.

I agree with Paul above; the bigger gaps are at the wider angles for APS cameras. In that range the few mm differences in focal lengths are more keenly felt. Not to mention the attraction of really small primes.

And a :facepalm: to the guy who said FF cameras are good because of FF lenses. There is no extra sharpness because said lens is designed for FF; that is purely down to physics working to the larger sensor's advantage. And less flare? Last I checked my old 20/2.8 (which incidentally is *not* a great performer on digital APS as it is already, can't imagine it on FF) flares just as much as it did on digital as it did on film. Not to say it flares a lot, but when it does, it's the same in either medium.

"I confess agnosticism about what makes a "good portrait," but whatever "it" is, the focal length of the lens used has to be the absolute least of it...."

I too found the piece underwhelming. I also would agree that the focal length of the lens is the least important element (assuming it is not so wide that from the chosen distance, it is not causing distortion of bodily feature(s), assuming you are not intending to distort:)

In part, the perceived need expressed in the article may arise from the current fashion/trend in the desire of the "B" word, the Bokeh.

While the blurred background can be pleasant, and can be desired if for some reason you have to do a head shot, it is (in portrait making) curious.

My own prejudice is to favor the environmental portrait. The disembodied head and shoulders, floating in a sea of blur? I will pass.

More important, I think, is the part of the discussion about other optical properties. whatever your focal length having in- and out of focus properties matched to portraiture is missing.

Another thing - a good reason for IS with fast lenses is it can help (not a panacea) stabilise things to keep the focal point in check. Useful wide open.

Any Four Thirds camera + Olympus 50mm f2 macro: 100mm field of view, great bokeh, IS if you're feeling flush. Job done!

The comments relating to lens designs that are optimized for portraits brings to mind my old manual focus 105MM f2.5 Nikkor. The lens was perfectly OK near infinity focus, but absolutely stunning when working at portrait distances. (And yes, I found the lens to be fast enough for decent subject/background separation).

These days, if I want a similar effect, I'm using a manual focus Pentax KA mount 50MM f1.7 on my K10D. Not quite as nice (but in the ballpark), and it came with a ProgramPlus film body for about $65 on that big auction site.

(I tend to be somewhat, err... thrifty.)

I believe that the problem here extends beyond just fast primes for portraiture. Looking at most companies' lens lineups, there aren't many options for those looking to shoot APS-C. It seems as though most assume that if you're after good lenses, you'll be willing to shell out the cash for a body with a 35mm sensor.

The problem is that not everybody wants to shoot FX, and not everybody who shoots APS-C wants to shoot with an 18-* 3.5-5.6 zoom (seriously, Nikon, we don't need any more of those). There are many reasons that one would want to shoot with an APS body, and we need some lenses, primes in particular, that are optimized for that format. Seems that Pentax is the only one who understands that.

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