A Pro’s Two Fixed Focal Length Portrait Lenses & The Six Reasons He Owns Them; Only For The Not Ready For Full-Frame Players!

Given the current state of technology, a case could be made that a photographer could exist today with only two lenses--a wide angle to moderate zoom, and a short tele to long tele-zoom. That would be a mistake. For as good and flexible as today's zoom lenses are, there are some compelling reasons to choose fixed focal length lenses on occasion. I'll admit, 90 percent of the time I've got a zoom on my rig, but I have once again found the joy in shooting with fixed focal length lenses.

First, let me state that this article is aimed at those of us who do not own full-frame digital cameras. While the debate about that is beyond the scope of this article, the fact is that the 1.5 conversion factor of many cameras make them ideal for portrait photographers who enjoy the image effects delivered by long lenses and fast apertures. And they can achieve the look for a price unheard of in medium format days.

All Photos © 2006, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

So here's what I'm suggesting as an unbeatable, inexpensive, butt-kicking combo: a 50mm f/1.8 or faster lens, and a lens in the 80-105mm range at f/2.8 or faster. On my Nikon D200 and Fuji FinePix S2 Pro cameras, that's a 35mm format equivalent of a 75mm lens, and about a 120mm or 160mm lens. You can do a lot of damage with this combo. Let's see why you should consider this dynamic duo for yourself.

1) Image Effects
One of the cornerstones of professional outdoor portraiture is the ability to separate the subject from the background. By shooting with these lenses wide-open, or close to it, throwing backgrounds and foregrounds out of focus is almost automatic. The longer lens is obviously more conducive to this because of the larger image size at any given distance and narrower angle of view. Remember, all lenses have the same perspective and to change perspective you must change distance.

2) Price
Here's the best part: these lenses are free! OK, maybe not for everyone or someone who's new to the game. But for those of us who have been shooting 35mm for years, we may already have these lenses! I still have a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens (used to have a 1.4, darn) that came with one of several Nikons I used to own. And I bought a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro years ago for shooting flowers and wedding detail shots. Both lenses are excellent performers. This is a great combo. A little checking found used Nikon 1.8s for about $60 and new ones for about $115. The Tamron lens can be had for about $400 new and $250 used. Nikon also makes an 85mm lens in 1.8 and 1.4 varieties. The fast version is about $750 new, the slower only about $400. For portraits, I'd say the 1.8 is plenty fast; only buy the 1.4 if you do weddings in low light. Buy new or do some checking around in Shutterbug ads to find the combo that's right for your shooting needs and equipment.

3) Availability
Since these lenses were originally designed for 35mm film cameras there are plenty of them around. I found some in the camera store across the street. As mentioned, check the ads in this magazine--you sure won't find them at Best Buy! Keep in mind that if you're buying a new zoom lens it pays to get one designed for digital. I've done testing and there is a difference. The fixed focal length lenses I'm discussing here have all performed admirably for me with my digital SLRs, so don't hesitate to buy them.