The Unsung Heroes of Portrait Lenses

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There are many basic lenses in portrait photography that are recommended for beginners and professionals alike. However, there’s something about an unsung hero lurking in an entirely different genre that could perfectly round out your arsenal of gear.

I’ve mentioned how I discovered photography several times, but really there were two different areas of the craft that appealed to me. One was portraiture, and that has captivated me for as long as I can remember. I didn’t really like glamorous or beautiful portraits of lucky people aesthetically, but rather portraits that told a story. I have a long-standing love of street photography and the portraits that featured regularly, as well as portraits of musicians, artists and personalities.

The second aspect that prompted me to buy my first camera was much more unusual: the macro. For years I have admired the work of photographers I vaguely knew and their obsession with capturing tiny insects in great detail. I had no interest in entomology until I saw stacks of macros of things I had previously discarded without a second thought. I couldn’t shake the urge to try it myself, so I did.

Eventually, after using a macro filter and being reasonably impressed with the results, I decided that my interest in photography and macro was not a fad, so I invested in a macro lens. This purchase is an odd story in itself, as in my inexperience I purchased a lens which, although genuinely made by Canon, took me a few years to identify. It wasn’t what I wanted to buy, but it became a hidden gem from 1990, and I still have it today!

While I wanted to buy a dedicated macro lens – that is, a lens capable of macro photography and nothing else, like the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 Macro 1-5x “I couldn’t afford it. So I went with a 100mm f/2.8, which is a popular focal length for macro lenses anyway. The advantage of this particular type of lens is that it can not only do macros, but it also works like a regular 100mm prime lens. It’s basically your standard prime lens, but with a much closer minimum focus distance.

It wasn’t long before I decided to try my hand at portraiture and my only two lens options were a nifty-fifty and an accidentally purchased 100mm macro relic. To my pleasant surprise, the macro lens was also a great lens for portraits. It’s a trend I’ve been watching and leaning into for over a decade, and while many other photographers love these versatile lenses, I wanted to draw more attention to them.

Why macro lenses make great additions to your kit bag

The number one reason macro lenses make great portrait lenses is simply the focal length. Longer focal lengths tend to be preferred for many types of portraits, from 50mm to 200mm. I have regularly expressed my love for the Canon 135mm f/2affectionately known as the “Lord of the Red Rings”, as well as the Fujifilm GF 110mm f/2 R LM WR on a medium format body. I then made whole series of portraits with the Canon 85mm f/1.8 – another low-cost gem – and my most used lens for headshots is a Sony 90mm.

Luckily, many macro lenses that can double as portrait lenses fall into that 85mm to 200mm range (on a full-frame sensor). The aforementioned target most used for headshots is the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS, which I bought for my commercial macro work (and which has served me brilliantly in this capacity alone). So why are these focal lengths so appealing? For me, it’s twofold: compression and separation of subjects. When shooting most portraits, the longer the focal length the better (within reason) for rendering the features flattering and proportionate, and my favorite look is between 85mm and 135mm.

As for subject separation, that is, of course, heavily influenced by the widest aperture, and f/2.8 isn’t that. wide, but when paired with a longer focal length, it’s definitely enough. Most of the time I use a macro lens for portraiture, I want the background to be out of focus enough that the subject is the only thing catching the eye, and I use the relic 100mm of Canon or Sony’s 90mm, I’ve never had a problem with that.

The second reason macro lenses are useful for portraits is the minimum focusing distance that makes them macro in the first place. While there aren’t as many opportunities to shoot extremely close to a subject (and even fewer subjects that will allow you to), it does come in handy, as you can see in the image below above and on the image of Ryan Beatty. It will allow you to get creative with detail, it will allow you to shoot some specific types of beauty images, and my personal favorite reason, which was a key focus in the two sample images in this article , it allows you to create an intimate feeling .

Conclusion

There are a plethora of excellent portrait lenses available at varying prices. But, whether you focus solely on portraiture or enjoy shooting multiple genres, macro lenses are worth a look. Macro lenses that aren’t dedicated solely to macro usually come in the right kinds of focal lengths for pleasing portraits, they’re usually quite fast and open, and best of all, used examples can be found at reasonable prices. If you’re looking for a longer lens and plan to use it for portraits and portraits, you might want to take a look at the many macro lenses on the market that are too often overlooked. .

Do you use macro lenses for portraiture? Share your favorite image in the comments below.

Main image of the leader of KALEO, photographed by me for EUPHORIA Magazine.

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