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06-03-2020, 01:06 AM - 15 Likes   #1
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What portraiture actually is.

There has been a widespread assumption made during all the recent discussions about the new 85mm/1.4 that it's going to be a great portrait lens, and that the reason why it'll be a great portrait lens is that you'll be able to get very blurry backgrounds with it.

And it's not just an assumption that people are making about this new lens. It's something that comes up again and again all over the internet when people talk about portraits. A portrait has to have an out of focus background. Creamy bokeh is all that matters. Who cares if the subject looks utterly bored and has got one eye closed? Just look at that awesomely mushy background!

So. . . this morning I've been looking through the wonderful photographs in the shortlist for the "Portrait of Humanity" prize, and I thought I'd share it here. There's some of the best photographic portraiture I've seen in a long time in this shortlist, and hopefully it'll get the point across that showing people in some sort of context, and having that context pretty much in focus, usually makes for much more revealing portraits.

selection Portrait of Humanity (You might consider one or two of the photos NSFW)

06-03-2020, 01:35 AM - 1 Like   #2
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QuoteOriginally posted by Dartmoor Dave Quote
There has been a widespread assumption made during all the recent discussions about the new 85mm/1.4 that it's going to be a great portrait lens, and that the reason why it'll be a great portrait lens is that you'll be able to get very blurry backgrounds with it.

And it's not just an assumption that people are making about this new lens. It's something that comes up again and again all over the internet when people talk about portraits. A portrait has to have an out of focus background. Creamy bokeh is all that matters. Who cares if the subject looks utterly bored and has got one eye closed? Just look at that awesomely mushy background!
Dave, you make an excellent point. What are now commonly known as "environmental portraiture" can really be shot at any focal length and depth of field.

With that said, my default prime has always been and continues to be a fast 85mm for FF. For APS-C it's a fast 50 and for 645 the 120mm. But I have shot many images that can be considered portraits with wide angle lenses and distorted with deep focus too.

Ultimately what the 85mm f/1.4 offers is the possibility of bokeh you're can't get with a 28-105mm DFA f/3.5-5.6 at 85mm. The brighter finder also lends to faster AF if needed and lower ISO or options to not need a flash.
06-03-2020, 01:38 AM   #3
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Thanks for drawing attention to this. It is always good to review collections like this and think about portraiture
06-03-2020, 02:58 AM - 2 Likes   #4
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Thanks Dave for the thread and the link. You're right there seems to be a trend about super-shallow DoF and Bokeh - linked to lenses like an 85/1.4 (the release of the D-FA* seems to re-ignite these comments). Back in the day 85mm was considered the 'usual' length for a portrait lens (flattering perspective and a comfortable/practical camera-subject distance). Faster apertures allow faster, more precise focussing and give the option of de-focussing background clutter - imagine a working pro trying to get a head & shoulder shot of a busy subject in a cluttered environment - thus the 85/1.4 was born (evolution of the f/2 & f/1.8 lenses...). Head shots usually require longer lenses to maintain a comfortable working distance (maybe 135-150?).

You're also right that showing the environment around the subject often says more about them than 'themselves' - one of the reasons I prefer 40/43mm for a one-lens prime kit (50 is too long, 35 too wide).

06-03-2020, 03:04 AM   #5
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Not a f 1.4 blur anywhere !
06-03-2020, 05:26 AM   #6
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An 85/1.4 lens makes an excellent portrait lens in the same way that a 24mm lens makes an excellent landscape lens. Some (but not all) portraits benefit from an 85mm focal length and the option for subject-background separation enabled by larger apertures. Similarly, some (but not all) landscapes benefit from a 24 mm focal length.

Those statements don't imply that all portraits need 85/1.4 or that all landscapes need 24mm. There are many examples of portraits and landscapes that need wider or longer lenses than these "excellent" lenses.

Thus, we can say that some lens makes an excellent _____ lens even if only a fraction of those _____ photographs need that lens.
06-03-2020, 06:00 AM - 1 Like   #7
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From a practical point, using razor thin dof for a portrait creates many missed shots. The frustration of an exquisite expression that captures the sitters character only to find the focus was missed is a big risk. Better to err on the side of safety and close down a bit. So why a f1.4? Apart from lots of light to focus with, it beats me. With an 85 for head and shoulders, f5.6 gives a narrow, workable dof that allows both photographer and model to move around a bit. Trying to nail the precise plane of the eye with whatever AF system is used is trying without some dof leeway.
06-03-2020, 06:09 AM - 1 Like   #8
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Perhaps the reason why 85 mm lenses are sold as portrait lens is, that there is no other use for this focal length?
We should start a thread "Show us your non portait (and non macro) pictures shot with 85 mm".

06-03-2020, 06:36 AM - 1 Like   #9
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QuoteOriginally posted by Papa_Joe Quote
Perhaps the reason why 85 mm lenses are sold as portrait lens is, that there is no other use for this focal length?
We should start a thread "Show us your non portait (and non macro) pictures shot with 85 mm".
I have a lot of sports shots taken around 85mm. It's good for when the players are roughly 75 feet from me. And indoor lighting could make a large aperture useful. Of course there aren't many sports where they'll stay around that distance for long, usually making a zoom much more appropriate.
06-03-2020, 06:51 AM - 3 Likes   #10
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I've always said, for my own preference background blur is the least satisfactory way to achieve subject isolation. Colour contrast and tonal contrast are more relevant. But you don't have to buy new lenses for those, so they remain largely undiscussed and people don't really get excited about them.

But as a fall back position where you can't position the subject in a background that adds to the image, I guess blurring out the back ground is a last resort. It does feel heavy handed in that the person viewing the image doesn't see what the photographer sees, and he/she may actually be blurring out exactly what the photographer found interesting about the set up. But I've always felt it was crutch for those who don't spend time scouting and making use of interesting architecture and nature for back grounds.

The lack of prevalence of shallow DoF in the competition shows how little shallow DoF is needed for portraiture.

Where I like it is in a studio using a scenic back ground, where you want a bit of blur, so the back ground image looks like it could be real, but you don't want people looking too closely. If the background is real, the photographer needs to work with it.

As for sports, that's not exactly portraiture. That's more a snapshot or "capture the moment" type of photography. It takes no portrait photographer talent to get such images. You don't set your lights, you don't pose your subject, you don't have time to choose your background. It's all built around right place, right time, right angle, right equipment. All pretty fortuitous. All the photographer can control is where he sits and what equipment he brings.

Often the most interesting part of a good portrait comes out of the interaction between photographer and subject. If there's no interaction, it's a candid, not a portrait.

Last edited by normhead; 06-03-2020 at 07:11 AM.
06-03-2020, 07:14 AM - 1 Like   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by normhead Quote
I've always said, for my own preference background blur is the least satisfactory way to achieve subject isolation. Colour contrast and tonal contrast are more relevant. But you don't have to buy new lenses for those, so they remain largely undiscussed and people don't really get excited about them.

But as a fall back position where you can't position the subject in a background that adds to the image, I guess blurring out the back ground is a last resort. It does feel heavy handed in that the person viewing the image doesn't see what the photographer sees, and he/she may actually be blurring out exactly what the photographer found interesting about the set up. But I've always felt it was crutch for those who don't spend time scouting and making use of interesting architecture and nature for back grounds.
Too true. Nearly always the background's a key player in any composition. As you say colour and tonal contrasts are examples, as are framing, juxtaposition, narrative etc etc. Just thinking about blurring out the background is an unsophisticated approach - often it's just a quick and dirty fix to isolate the subject. Too often a cliche as well. Even a blurred out background can have a key role to play in supporting the subject.
06-03-2020, 07:27 AM - 1 Like   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by photoptimist Quote
An 85/1.4 lens makes an excellent portrait lens in the same way that a 24mm lens makes an excellent landscape lens. Some (but not all) portraits benefit from an 85mm focal length and the option for subject-background separation enabled by larger apertures. Similarly, some (but not all) landscapes benefit from a 24 mm focal length.

Those statements don't imply that all portraits need 85/1.4 or that all landscapes need 24mm. There are many examples of portraits and landscapes that need wider or longer lenses than these "excellent" lenses.

Thus, we can say that some lens makes an excellent _____ lens even if only a fraction of those _____ photographs need that lens.

I completely agree that 85mm can be a great focal length for portraits on 35mm film or FF digital. But that's not because you can get a very blurry background with it. It's because it's a length that tends to be quite flattering for many people's features in a full-face close up.

In fact, I'd bet that many of the photos in the shortlist that I linked to were shot with lenses around the 70-90mm range, but stopped down to show some context rather than wide open to try to make people go: "Ooh, look at my lens's bokeh. . . creamy. . ." And I think it's also worth observing that, in the photos in the shortlist that have been shot as full-face close-ups with a neutral background, in each case the subject has got features extraordinary enough to justify that treatment.

I think the new 85mm will probably be a great lens. I just hope that occasionally those lucky enough to own it will do the unthinkable and shoot it at f/8 or f/11.
06-03-2020, 07:34 AM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by normhead Quote
Often the most interesting part of a good portrait comes out of the interaction between photographer and subject. If there's no interaction, it's a candid, not a portrait.

Yes, absolutely. I think you can always tell when the photographer has really engaged with the subject and waited for that "decisive moment" that really captures something of their character. And you can definitely always tell when the subject has got bored waiting while the photographer messes around with technicalities.
06-03-2020, 07:35 AM - 4 Likes   #14
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Like everything in photography, there are bad and good reasons photographers buy and use some technical feature of their equipment

A bad photographer might use f/1.4 as a crutch -- it lets them be lazy about controlling the background and positioning the subject.

A good photographer might use f/1.4 as a necessity -- it lets them get the portraits they need at a big event, candids, or street photography where they have less control of the background.

A bad photographer might use f/1.4 and ruin an interesting background that provided environmental context or counterpoint -- they fail to see how detail in the background doesn't always detract from the subject. Competing details can create a relationship that more strongly defines the subject on a conceptual level.

A good photographer might BOTH position the subject against an "interesting" background AND choose to blur that background -- they know that the blurred patterns of light, dark, color, or overall geometry (not the details of the background) can strengthen the image.


To me, a portrait-taking photographer would want an 85/1.4 not because every portrait requires f/1.4, but because some do benefit from it. A lens with a wide aperture doesn't have to be used at that aperture for 100% of the shots but it can be when when needed.

That is, getting an f/1.4 lens is about expanding the range of control the photographer has. Whether they make good use of that control is another matter entirely.
06-03-2020, 09:09 AM - 3 Likes   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by photoptimist Quote
A good photographer might use f/1.4 as a necessity -- it lets them get the portraits they need at a big event, candids, or street photography where they have less control of the background.
I don't include candids and street photography in portraiture. Event photography is entirely different.

QuoteQuote:
That is, getting an f/1.4 lens is about expanding the range of control the photographer has. Whether they make good use of that control is another matter entirely.
There are 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22 I'd consider useful f-stops. There's little you can do at ƒ1.4 you can' do with ƒ2. There's little you can do at ƒ22 you can't do better at ƒ16.

If ƒ1.4 was cheap, I could see this thinking. But take the added cost to ƒ1.4 and the possible benefit, for most of us the benefit isn't worth the cost. I have my DA* 55 1.4 and do a search on my images, and I have 1 keeper taken at 1.4 out of 1200 keepers. I bought the lens because I broke my FA 50 1.7, and wanted something in the for range, and got it at a good price. But honestly, the picture I have that couldn't have been taken with another FA 50 was a test image, just to see what it could do. Given the penalties in size and weight with ƒ1.4 lenses this is something I'd give serious thought before going down that road.

1.4 lenses are not "general photography" items. If you need them you need them, but for most people, they are unnecessary. Unless like I did you need a 50 ish or 85ish lens and you find something at a great price, most will find better places to spend limited funds. Whenever I'm having trouble fitting the 55 in the bag, I wish I'd bought another FA 50 1.7. It's far from a given that you will ever make us of a 1.4 lens even if you buy it. I really like the DA*55 1.4, but if was half the size at ƒ2, it would make very little difference to how I use it, and to my images.

Last edited by normhead; 06-04-2020 at 07:38 AM.
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