Lenses for portraits

I got an email today from someone asking about portrait lenses.

Looking at her Flickr stream, she seemed to be using a Nikon D-80, which is a DSLR with a cropped sensor, so my answer leans a bit towards users of those cameras. For a long time, I used a Nikon D-100, which has a similar sensor.

Basically, the most important factor in a good portrait is not the lens or the camera that you use, but the level of connection and intimacy you can create between your subject and the viewer.


She asked for a recommendation for a prime lens, but in the end, it wasn’t my first suggestion. Shooting with primes is great, but it can be a lot of work. If you’re shooting a few hundred frames in a session, this can lead to a lot of pictures that look quite a lot alike. Getting something good in a short amount of time often requires a lot of different compositions.

In general, I despise most discussions about gear. No matter how much you try to speak in very general terms, someone will undoubtedly chime in to argue that the new Smegron 3-1500mm f:13.5 zoom that they heard will be announced at Photokina two years from now is the obvious best choice for portraits. These things are a matter of taste, which is really impossible to quantify. For example, one of my favorite portraits ever is one of the painter Francis Bacon, shot by John Deakin. I like it because it’s raw and unflattering, shot in close with a wide lens. In effect, he did it wrong and it works astoundingly well because of it.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote to her, perhaps some of you may find it useful as well:

Hi –

It depends a bit on the camera you use. If you are using a camera with a cropped sensor, like most of the digital SLRs on the market, you may find some of the more traditional portrait lenses to be a bit tight in composition. Still, if you like a close-cropped face in the portrait, something like an 85mm lens is still a good choice with a lot of flexibility. The 85 is a classic portrait lens for 35mm film photography. Being a slightly telephoto lens, it adds a bit of compression to the features of the subject, which is very often flattering. Wider lenses, especially those below 35mm, can be a bit unflattering, at the extreme making the subject appear moon-faced.

The kind of telephoto compression to which I refer is the effect you may have seen with a long telephoto lens, say a view down a crowded street from far away where the people appear almost stacked upon each other. When you read about lens equivalents with cropped sensors, they may say something to the effect of “a 50mm lens becomes an 80mm lens” but this is deceptive. A lens with a 50mm focal length will not have the telephoto compression of an 80mm lens, so you can’t expect the little bit of flattering that you’d get with an 80 or 85 millimeter lens.

That said, a 50mm lens is capable of taking excellent portraits, on any DSLR, regardless of sensor. You just need to get up and move your feet to do your composing. The same with an 85mm lens. It’s a lot of work to shoot a dynamic portrait session with a prime lens, but the benefits can be worth the effort. With any prime, you’re going to get good optics and a wider maximum aperture than on most zoom lenses. The wider the aperture, the more control you have over “bokeh” or out-of-focus blur, which can be good for isolating your subject from a distracting background. Wider apertures also let more light into the camera, allowing you to not only shoot in lower light, they help autofocus do it’s thing better and faster.

So for a good prime, I’d recommend getting the fastest 50mm prime you can justify getting. A 50mm f:1.8 can be had for between $80 and $120. That’s a simply fantastic price for a lens that fast. A bit faster f:1.4 will run you about $300. Canon makes a f:1.2, but it costs about $1,500. I have one of these and while it’s a real beauty, it’s a beast as well. It weighs a heck of a lot more than the others, which is a real consideration when shooting all day. I shot a model in my little studio the other day using that lens and others and after a couple of hours, my shoulders were simply aching. Still, the simply creamy blur it makes in out of focus areas makes it worth the pain—sometimes.

But you know what? If I had one lens to use for a portrait session where there’s be a lot of different poses and styles, where I need a lot of flexibility in composition, I honestly wouldn’t be shooting with a prime. For one thing, I often work in small spaces—my studio in Tokyo is about the size of a 1-car garage. Other times, shooting dancers, I’ll be on stage with them, with not a lot of space to move around.

In these cases, I use a zoom. On Canon, I like the 24-70 f:2.8 L zoom and on Nikon, I like the 28-70 f:2.8.

Both lenses are real workhorses. F:2.8 is about the fastest you can get in a zoom and they are pretty expensive and heavy, but I find them to be a good trade-off between price, weight and performance.

First, I’d take a good look at the lenses you own now. Even the “kit lenses” that come as an option for most DSLRs are often great, flexible lenses for portraits. After all, the makers know that a good percentage of new users will be soon taking their cameras to weddings or pointing them at newborn babies, so I suspect they optimize for those situations. In that case, you might best improve your portraits by getting a good flash with a diffuser or working on your composition. Get on your feet and engage your subject—your portraits will improve.

Shooting in your camera’s RAW mode makes a big difference as well. With that, you can go back and make subtle corrections to lighting and white balance, which is crucial for getting good skin tones.

Still, if you want a good prime, I’d try out a good 50mm. They’re just too much of a good value to pass up.

Good luck!


On Virtuosity

This started out as an email from a friend who was looking for feedback on his photography, but I decided to take a bit of time and fill it out a bit:

Pardon the delay in replying.

First, I guess a few general thoughts:
First of all, keep in mind this:Every photo that you take is a self portrait. Not your face, of course, but a part of a lifelong portrait of the sort of person you were when you walked this earth. These are the documents that you leave behind as a statement: “This was my life–this is who I was.”
Pretty heavy stuff, but if you think of any dead photographer that you admire, think of how well you think you understand who they were. It’s like that for us, too. Probably moreso, as we have the ability to disseminate any photo we take farther, wider and faster than they ever did. Hell, make explore on Flickr and you probably have an audience bigger than your local newspaper.
Think about that and ask yourself if you’re doing it the way you think is best.

Photograph your life with sincerity and interst, while avoiding banality. Everyday things can be fascinating, but perhaps every little thing isn’t. Are the things you photograph things that you’d write a paragraph about in a book?

Just as anything can be written about, anything can be photographed. This is where things get tricky.

I’ll assume for a moment that you know how to operate your camera—after all, just about anyone can take a properly-exposed picture at this point. The engineers at the camera companies have made it possible for a child to pick up a camera and push the button and get something that’s perfectly-lit, free of blur and technically, well, perfect. That hasn’t been an issue in years.(Of course, you can choose to use your camera in a way that it relies upon you for all of the exposure settings, but that doesn’t enter into this discussion—for now, I’ll assume that you have the ability to make an acceptable photo.)

Photography is a non-verbal form of communication. At its best, it has all of the eloquence of the spoken word, all of the subtlety of a well-played musical instrument. I’m not speaking metaphorically, I mean that photography is a form of language.

What do you want to actually say with your pictures? Think about that. Do you have a message that you want to convey? Do you have some thought that you would put into actual words that you have instead chosen to express through photography?

A competent photographer, however well-schooled in the visual vocabulary of photography, however skilled with his technique, yet lacking a real message is merely acting as a technician. There’s nothing wrong with technicians, of course—the world needs lots of them, even as photographers, to take photos of people and things, but in that capacity they may be artists, but rarely ever will that person be a Virtuoso.

What happens when you transcend the medium, your subject, even yourself, is that you achieve virtuosity. The word virtuoso has been applied mainly to musicians, but it applies to photography as well. The word shares a Latin root with virtue, of course and therein lies the key to understanding what it truly is. When the product of your artistic endeavor becomes more than the notes played, more than the shadows captured on film, more than the words typed dutifully onto paper and manages to grab the audience’s heart and mind, you’ve achieved virtuosity—something akin to a religious experience.

Virtue, after all, is one thing that brings us closer to God. It’s at this point that real communication occurs. This is what it’s all about.

That’s what all artists strive for. It’s why we take photos for the love of it. Photography at its heart is a cold, scientific, technical process. Take a three-dimensional space and use a lens to render it into two dimensions. That’s it, after all—that’s all we do.

When you think of it in those terms, it doesn’t sound very interesting, but then neither does tapping out notes on a piano keyboard or scratching a pencil across a pad of paper. To achieve virtuosity in any of those fields, you need technical ability, of course and some would say, natural born talent.

Once you are a virtuoso, though, the expression of that can be as simple as a single line on paper, a few lines of a haiku or a few notes from your instrument. Rarely does it require overpowering your audience with the technical aspects of your craft.

Sometimes, one achieves virtuosity while striving for the technical. Karl Blossfeldt’s masterwork, Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) was one example that comes to mind. In the 1890’s Blossfeldt set out to document the forms that plants take, in a fairly clinical, precise fashion with his camera, in hopes that it would be a useful reference work for students. What happened was that this book, with its gorgeous, abstracted botanical specimens, touched the hearts of the artists of that time.

His simple, clean, technically-perfect photos transcended his original intention to become a seminal influence upon art for years to come.


Here, a common relative of the buttercup, the Aconitum or Monkshood, becomes almost human in its form, but not merely visually, it shows movement, emotion and expression. The lines and curves of this simple plant have become beauty, music, dance and passion.

These works struck such a chord with the members of the burgeoning Jugendstil and Art Nouveau movements that his forms sprung from the pages of this book and crawled through art and architecture throughout Europe and America, rendered in iron and stone and the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alfons Mucha, René Lalique, Antoni Gaudí and countless others. Blosfeldt’s work, of course, was not the sole basis of these movements, but each piece became an important part of the cabulary of the meent. The actual plant forms, of course, had been in the gardens and forests since time immemorial, yet it took Blossfeldt to elevate them this way.
Edward Weston did this as well, but perhaps with more awareness of how they’d be received as he shot his bell peppers that evoked nude human forms:

As well as nudes that could be mistaken for bell peppers. ;-)
People have been rephotographing these subjects ever since. You can buy books of poses and lighting techniques, scour eBay for the same cameras these artists used, research film, whatever, but you’re not likely to make a photo that touches the genius of the original. You won’t do it because it’s neither your voice, nor your words.

To make a photo that matters, you need to find your voice and find your message. When you actually feel the spirit and find the words, you’ll know that your work is on track and that someone, somewhere, will care deeply about it. If you are persistent and determined, it’s something that you can achieve, though perhaps not on a regular basis, or with any feeling that it was your hand that created this beautiful thing.

After all, that’s why we have personified virtuosity with the concept of the Muse. The Muse, is a spirit that inhabits the artist’s heart with confounding irregularity. She loves to both delight and torment. She promises eternal devotion to your genius, for you to wake and find her gone without so much as a note of explanation. I’ve written about  muse before:

Muses are fickle creatures though—they’ll abandon you at the drop of a hat, or come rushing back when you least expect. It’s a roller coaster that, while it often lifts you to dizzying, spectacular heights, ultimately leaves you standing weak and nauseous on the sidewalk.
Of course, the idea of a “muse” is mythological, but it’s a mythology that has persisted for thousands of years and like most persistent mythologies, it’s workable in practice, even though it’s got no basis in science as we understand it.
If you want to take fascinating pictures, be a fascinating person. Do interesting things and you will make interesting photos. Take honest photos and people will connect with them. Fortes fortuna adiuvat, after all.

Well, I’ve been sitting here in the café for quite some time now, so I should wrap this up for now. I’ll come back and rework it, I suppose, as I’ve touched on a lot of ideas that I’d like to explore some more. Please leave your thoughts below, or just say hello if you’ve read it. I don’t have the readership I once did, so at times I feel lie I’m reading to an empty room.Do sign your name as well, as it’s not always apparent from just logging in, especially from Yahoo/Flickr.

British Journal of Photography – Dual-purpose camera on the way from Fujifilm

Why am I so excited about a camera that looks like it’s from the early part of the last century? While camera companies are doing their best to scrape their film camera divisions from their shoes, Fujifilm and more interestingly , Cosina, are coming up with film cameras that wouldn’t gotten stares snapping photos of the 1939 World’s Fair. (You could easily find film to fit it at the fair, too.) Folding bellows cameras started going out of vogue as amateur cameras at the end of World War II. So who in their right mind would release a medium format folder in this day and age? Fujifilm and Cosina, apparently…

I suspect that Cosina’s president, Kobayashi Hirofumi had a hand in this. Under Kobayashi, Cosina has made some baffling but brilliant design decisions. For example, when they decided to start making cameras for themselves under the Voigtländer name, the design they chose to improve upon was something from the 1920’s—an early Leica camera that didn’t even have a range finder for focusing. (Keep in mind that this is a company that had been building cameras for other companies for ages—it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to make a range finder focusing system, it’s that they chose not to.) When they did start putting range finders on their cameras, they made them as bright and as easy to use as the best that Leica has to offer

When they decided upon the lens mount for these cameras, it too was a design considered obsolete by the rest of the industry, the 39-millimeter threaded mount that was abandoned by Leica in the 1950’s. Canon used it too, plus lots of other companies, but nobody’s made a new one in decades. Perhaps there was a hidden market. Cosina makes fantastic lenses. The quality of the glass is superb and the image quality fantastic. Their lenses are also tremendously well-made and affordable. The lenses I have by them have held up for me for years of abuse. They’re basically brass, glass and steel, with no electronics to fail and no structural plastic. The markings are etched into the brass, not screen printed on, so they’ll never wear away. They look and feel like lenses from fifty years ago. So why the screw mount?

Leica used to use a screw mount. They made hundreds of thousands of cameras with that mount before they introduced the “M” mount, a bayonet type in 1954, with the M3 camera. Lens mount changes are never done lightly—for photographers, the lens mount on a camera body can be the most important consideration in choosing a camera, because one typically can’t use a lens made by one company on another company’s camera body. As a pro photographer will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on lenses, they wind up being committed to that maker.

So when Leica changed their mount, they made adapters for their users to put onto their old lenses so they could be used with full-functionality on the new bodies. This is still the case, actually. You can pick up a lens from 1935, say an old screw-mount Elmar, screw it into an adapter and pop it on the Leica M8, their latest digital and it will work just as well as ever.

Same thing with the Voigtländer lenses. By going with the screw mount, they probably doubled the number of bodies that these lenses will work flawlessly on. There’s an awful lot of prewar Leicas sitting in closets waiting to be rediscovered by young photographers. They were so well-made that a good number of them only need a roll of film to be put back into service. Many of the lenses also come with external finders as well, which is a good thing because these early cameras had finders that are now dim and hard to use.

While many will extoll the virtues of the old Elmar lenses for shooting, if you want some variety Cosina/Voigtländer lenses are the only new options if you want something with modern coatings to reduce lens flare and give accurate color. Compared to antique Leica lenses, they’re a real bargan, too—I’ve gotten most of mine for around $300, where similar Leica lenses would be several times as much.

I have a couple of old Leica bodies, an M3 and an M2 that I got at reasonable prices, but for the most part, I use my C/V lenses on them. Here’s my M2, with a 50mm C/V Heliar and external finder:


It’s a wonderful combination. The Leica body is solid and reliable and the lens is one of the sharpest lenses ever made for any camera. Very affordable, too, if you can find one.

Edit: No discussion of Voigtländer cameras would be complete without a link to Stephen Gandy’s excellent and exuberant site CameraQuest. There is more information than you can shake a stick at there on all things Cosina, plus it’s probably the best place to buy them.

So back to the folder…

Back in the day, the larger 120 format of film was more popular for amateur photographers. It’s several times larger than 35mm film, so the increased size made up for the all-too-often lower-quality cameras and optics in cheap folders and box cameras. The folding design and bellows made them compact and light, something that would easily slip into the pocket of an overcoat, or on a strap on your shoulder all day, unlike a non-folding design. The bellows were cloth or leather, both prone to getting pinholes from wear at the corners, though, so often they didn’t age well. Still, when combined with good lenses, they are capable of taking fantastic photos, at resolutions that far outstrip what you can get with a digital camera that any mortal can afford.

120-size film fell out of favor with amateurs though, with the 35mm SLR craze of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It stayed around mainly for wedding photographers, I’d guess, but was at risk of disappearing as they all switched over to digital a few years ago. Thankfully, it found a niche with the Holga. A Holga is a cheap Chinese plastic camera that’s wildly popular with creative amateurs, due to its quirky, heavily-vignetted style of photos. If nothing else, Holgas taught a new generation how to load and handle 120 film, which is a daunting prospect at first, as the film doesn’t come in a canister, it’s simply rolled on a spool with a heavy light-proof paper backing.

After using a Holga for a while, many people ask what other medium format cameras are out there. How can they improve their image quality, while still using this wonderfully-detailed film? I think Fuji’s folder is uniquely positioned to be that camera.

It will be light and handy. Given that it has a lens shutter, I’m guessing that it will sync a flash at any speed, a limitation with other cameras. Some modern material will keep the bellows light-tight and the range finder will be bright and a sheer joy to use. They call it dual-purpose because you can switch between 6x6cm and 6x7cm, which is a simply huge amount of film to store your image on. I hope they did this in a way that you don’t have to open the camera to switch formats, but even if you did, I could happily live with it. After all, there’s only about a dozen shots on a roll of 120, so you don’t have to wait long between changes.

Sure, there are other options for medium format, but most of them are too heavy to carry around unless you’re out “taking photos.” This will be one you can toss into a backpack and take everywhere.

Personally, I can’t wait to get my hands on one. When I do, I’ll give it a thorough review.


Dual-purpose camera on the way from Fujifilm

Fujifilm has revealed additional details on its upcoming medium format film camera, the GF670.

Shown as a prototype at the Photokina trade show in Cologne, the GF670 is expected to be released in 2009. The GF670 is a portable folding camera jointly developed by Fujifilm and Cosina. It features a mechanism for switching between two film formats, 6x7cm and 6x6cm. It is fitted with a 80mm f/3.5 fixed lens, which is composed of six glass elements in four groups. It has an automatic lens shutter, an SPD sensor with both automatic and manual autofocus. The ISO ranges from 25 to 3200.

While Fujifilm will release the GF670 under its own brand in Japan, the medium-format camera will be renamed the Voigtlander Bessa III outside of Japan, where Cosina will take charge of its distribution.

[From British Journal of Photography – Dual-purpose camera on the way from Fujifilm]

TED | TEDBlog: Bloggers: Help break James Nachtwey’s story on Oct. 3

27 September 2008
Bloggers: Help break James Nachtwey’s story on Oct. 3

Photographer James Nachtwey will be breaking a big story on October 3 — using his powerful photographs to share a vital story that the world needs to know about. You can be part of the breaking news by adding a badge to your site.

Let your readers know that — starting October 3 — these pictures will be shown on outdoor screens around the world and online. Seeing and sharing these pictures will truly make a difference in solving the crisis that James is photographing.

[From TED | TEDBlog: Bloggers: Help break James Nachtwey’s story on Oct. 3]

James Nachtwey seems to be taking a page from Steve Jobs’ playbook to fulfill the wish he made at the end of his speech at TED:

“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about.
I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof
of the power of news photography in the digital age.”

Easier Login

Here’s a bit of a non-camera news about the site: After my last re-vamp of the backend, I decided to add support for OpenID.

What that means, basically, is that you don’t need to create an account to make comments here, you just type in the address of your home page on a service that supports it. In effect, if you’re a member of almost any social network site, you can use that account to log in, except that I never need to see your password.

The Login page is here. don’t use the username and password fields, type the URL in the third box.

Give it a try and let me know if you have any trouble!

As I probably know most of you from Flickr, you’d probably want to sign in using your Flickr address (not your login and password!) It should look like:


For other accounts that you may have, here’s a list of URLs to try:

Orange (France Telecom)

Text Chat Snooping

Editor’s note:

After this point, the posts are more than three years old, recovered from an old blog export file.

This is a kind of obscure thing, so a little background:

Often, to type Japanese characters into a computer or cellphone, you type the word in phonetic characters, either the the “Romaji” (Not “romaNji”, by the way…) or the Hiragana and then use another key to select the proper Chinese character-based word.

Since this can be a bit slow, different systems use shortcuts for entering words quickly, kind of a speed-dial for text entry.

Apparently, one suspicious housewife went through her husband’s phone and was able to get a sense of what kinds of text he was tapping into his phone, even if he had deleted the messages themselves.

Yuki from Pineapplemonade has some fun with this and shows what her own texting reveals…

pineapplemonade: Mojihenkan

The woman thought her husband was cheating on her, so she looked into his cell phone. I don’t know how it works in English phones, but in Japanese cell phones, if you write a word and then push a convert button, it shows up the words you wrote in cache memory. She went through all of the words alas, and came up with horribly perverted words.

Another Online bookmark

Just so I’ll know where to find it next time…

Steve Ramsay’s Guide to Regular Expressions

If you’ve ever typed “cp *.html ../” at the UNIX command prompt, or entered “garden?” into a web-based search engine, you’ve already used a simple regular expression. Regular expressions (“regex’s” for short) are sets of symbols and syntactic elements used to match patterns of text.

Even these simple examples testify to the power of regular expressions. In the first instance, you’ve copied all the files which end in “.html” (as opposed to copying them one by one); in the second, you’ve conducted a search not only for “garden,” but for “garden, gardening, gardens, and gardeners” all at once.