How to use a 50mm lens for portrait photography
It is well known that a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera is somehow similar to what we see with our own eyes. Some photographers prefer to take portrait photographs with a 35mm lens, some others with a 75mm lens while even 105mm can be amazing for portrait photography. But what about a 50mm lens?
How to use a 50mm lens for portraits? A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera can frame a person for a portrait without any focal length distortions, where the person won’t appear to be either further or closer than it is. Beware as there is only a number of elements to be framed. A 50mm lens on a DX camera will be similar to 75mm on a full-frame camera, therefore, this won’t be near enough matching the natural look of a 50mm lens for portrait photography, unless a 35mm lens is used.
There are a million and one factors to keep in mind when we are aiming for portrait photography with a 50mm lens. But the beautiful thing as I’ve mentioned already above is that the photograph will mostly look natural, the person or person’s face won’t look distorted as photographing with different focal length and the possible bokeh or depth of field will definitely look more natural than any other focal lengths in special in portrait photography.
Table Of Contents
- How to use a 50mm lens for portrait photography: Advantages and disadvantages.
- Advantages of using a 50mm lens in portrait photography
- Disadvantages of using a 50mm lens in portrait photography
- Composition, framing and elements in a 50mm portrait photography
- 50mm lens on a full-frame camera vs dx camera
- Being creative with a 50mm lens in portrait photography
- Bokeh and the depth of field from a 50mm lens in portrait photography.
- Retouching portrait photographs.
- Conclusion and our recommendations.
How to use a 50mm lens for portrait photography: Advantages and disadvantages.
One of the major advantages of using a 50mm lens in portrait photography is that a 50mm lens is a prime lens and most of the 50mm lenses are wide apertures and in general much cheaper than anything else you can find on the market while providing amazing results (this will always depend on the camera model and manufacturer.
It is well known that the prime lenses are much cheaper than the zoom lenses as less glass is needed for manufacturing and eliminates the need of extra glass for zoom function, therefore, for a similar price with a zoom lens, a prime lens should be superior on quality and performance.
Let’s have a list with the advantages and disadvantages of using a 50mm lens in portrait photography, shall we?
Advantages of using a 50mm lens in portrait photography
- A 50mm lens is a fast prime lens which outperforms any (most of the) zoom lenses on the same focal length
- Very wide apertures (f/1.8, f/1.4, f/1.2)
- Relatively cheaper than most of the lenses on the market and offers outstanding image quality and sharpness.
- Amazing and natural bokeh and depth of field.
- Minimum to no distortions due to the unique focal length
- Does not require image stabilisations due to wide apertures
- Amazing for the night or low light portrait photography
- Lightweight and easy to use lenses, and a few unique on the market for the focal length (e.g. Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 manual focus/aperture lens.)
Disadvantages of using a 50mm lens in portrait photography
- The focal length can be limited to create art in portrait photography as either some of the very wide or telephoto lenses used for specific this reason.
- There are photographers who simply don’t like the 50mm focal length for portrait photography.
- A 50mm prime lens may present disadvantages over a good quality zoom lens in portrait photography which covers multiple focal lengths (e.g. 24-70mm)
- It is difficult to use a 50mm lens for group photography in narrow spaces (e.g. indoors)
This, just to generalize the advantages and the disadvantages of using a 50mm lens with a full-frame camera on portrait photography, but how is it on the field, to be there and take portrait photographs?
I am going to give you one example of using my Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 manual focus prime lens with a Nikon D750 full-frame camera compared to Sigma 105mm mounted on my Nikon D500.
I had a couple of months ago one photography session where I had used both cameras and lenses as listed above, where the theme of portrait photography was aiming to be Viking/warrior style.
Although the sharpness of using the Nikon D500 with Sigma 105mm on an f/2.8 was slightly superior to the D750 with 50mm on an f/1.2, the 50mm lens offered an amazing and unique depth of field with a lovely vignette. On this aperture on a full-frame camera, the vignette is very visible, just to be aware.
I wrote not long time ago a post “how to do fine-art photography using a 50mm lens” where I specifically mentioned the advantages of using this unique lens and in general any 50mm fast prime lenses on a wide aperture to create fine art. This also applies in 50mm photography, wherewith my other camera and 105mm sigma lens, this would be more or less impossible to create the aforementioned style of photography.
Have an example below: The left (first) photo is taken with 105mm f/2.8 on D500 DX camera and the right (second) with D750 full-frame + 50mm f/1.2. (model IG: https://www.instagram.com/nordicdwarf793/)
Keep in mind that on the above photos I had no assistant either additional lighting, everything is done with the natural lighting available.
Composition, framing and elements in a 50mm portrait photography
As I did mention at the beginning of the post, there is only a number of elements which can be framed into the composition along with the model you are going to photograph. Furthermore to this, it is relatively important to know how to use the composition to be able to frame everything correctly
This would make the difference between a standard photo and an amazing one. The following questions are often asked, and I am trying to answer them here:
- How far does the subject have to be?
- What is the best composition technique to use with a 50mm lens?
- Should I focus on taking horizontal or vertical photographs with a 50mm lens?
- What aperture is the most important to focus on?
- Any other tips to share?
- The distance of the subject (model) depends on the location you are, lighting, composition and framing, but in general, this can be divided into a few subcategories, depending on your main focus:
- Aiming to obtain bokeh and/or a shallow depth of field. – In this case, you should get relatively close to your subject and frame just the upper part of the body, using the composition technique of your choice. Keep in mind the background as this would create the depth of field and/or the bokeh. The complexity of the elements in the background would not matter in this case.
- When the scene is unique – You want to split the focus between your subject and the scene, but beware not to bring the main attention to the scene as this is not the main element. The model has to be on a relatively farther distance and maybe to step down the aperture, where the depth of field to be minimal.
- The elements complexity – if the scene is quite complex and there are a lot of elements in the scene, focus on creating a shallower depth of field or the general composition is going to be a mess. Work with point one.
- There is multiple composition technique which can be used in portrait photography with a 50mm lens, but a few to focus on, all those as well depending on the scene, elements and lighting.
- The rule of thirds – Is the standard composition technique which can be used in portrait photography and in most any other niches in photography. This should be not ignored at all.
- Centred composition – This is the technique I had used in the above photographs where the model is in the middle of the photograph. In this case, the model has to look directly into the camera lens. Cropping the photo for adjustments work just fine if the model is not in the middle of the photo.
- Foreground, the subject and the depth of field – A good focus to put the subject in the middle of the focal distance, between an out of focus foreground and a shallow depth of field. This helps the composition to create a more complex and professional portrait photograph.
- The leading lines – in some cases, the leading lines can aid and make the composition unique, and this works brilliantly in portrait photography.
- Simplification – This is one of the techniques (named variously by different photographers) where the model can be the absolute main focus of the photo with less to none foreground and a very simple background and/or a shallow depth of field resulted of a simple background.
- Should I focus on taking horizontal portrait photographs or vertical ones with my 50mm lens? Well, this is a good question and although there is no clear answer behind that, this is more like a personal preference. Have a read on our other post “taking vertical vs horizontal photographs“. But in general, you should focus on:
- Taking horizontal photographs which is a standard among photographers in special for portraits if there are elements to be shown, a scene and/or in case of group photography
- To take vertical photographs if the subject is relatively close to you, you want to create a shallow depth of field and/or bokeh and still to frame as much as possible from the model.
- As reflecting on one of the advantages of using a 50mm lens in portrait photography, most of those prime lenses they have wide-open apertures between f/1.8 and f/1.2. Sometimes we want to get that bokeh, so working on a maximum aperture of your lens is a good idea but keep in mind that the sharpness may suffer. All lenses, when you step down your aperture, the sharpness increases, wherein specific reaching that “sweet sharpness spot”. As an instance, for my lens often mentioned, the “sweet sharpness spot” is f/5.6.
- In most of the cases, the model is going to be the main focus. The aperture will mater a lot in concordance with the distance to the subject and the background you have. As an instance, if the model is relatively very close to you, photographing on a maximum aperture is not a good idea for the simple reason that the person or person’s face is going to be out of focus on the edges. Step down the aperture not only to increase the sharpness but for the model to get in good focus.
- When the person is going to be farther away from you, it’s not wrong to use the maximum aperture if this is sharp enough to be used without any issues. Due to the focal distance between you and the subject, relatively this should be all in the focus where the background is getting noticeable and the foreground will remain out of focus as well. If you are stepping the aperture down, the composition may get too many elements in focus.
- There are a lot of tips and ideas to share about portrait photography in general or about using a 50mm lens in portrait photography. How these will be used, it is reflected in your style of work and personal preferences. But furthermore, here is a shortlist from us:
- Post-processing the portrait photographs is an absolute necessity. Work with the colour temperature to match the scene’s one, saturation and sharpness, shadows and highlights and many other advanced techniques. But most importantly, work on the model skin tone!
- Lighting is the most important and key part of portrait photography in general. For successful photographs, you may need additional lightings and reflectors. Work and practice with and without lighting to see the difference between. Sometimes this may not be possible but this is not the end of the world if you know how to improvise or the scene does not require additional lighting.
- Using your DSLR flash (flashgun) when photographing against a bright background will help with the dynamic range and to balance the lighting of the scene in your photograph.
- Sometimes, black and white portrait photography may look amazing. Even spot-colour photographs can make a huge difference.
- Remember that with a 50mm lens you can create fine-art portrait photography better than with any other focal length lenses, in special if this is a wide aperture one. Use this for your own advantage.
50mm lens on a full-frame camera vs dx camera
As mentioned above, a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera is considered to be relatively what you see through your own eyes. What about on a DX camera?
If you are using a 50mm lens in a DX camera, you have a 1.5x crop ratio, which means that your real focal length will be about 75mm. In order to get as close as possible to 50mm on a DX camera, you have to use a 35mm lens.
The differences in portrait photography to use between a 50mm lens on full-frame camera and a 35mm (to reach the 50’s) on a DX camera would be that with an FX the sensor is larger than with a DX, therefore, the lighting and dynamic range is better, the depth of field is shallower and bokeh will look better in general. This does not mean that you cannot take 50mm photographs with a DX camera. You can, and the photos may look amazing. It is all about the photographer, the knowledge of working with this form of art and the relation between the model, scene and the elements present (plus a few million other things).
I had written a full post about the difference between 50mm lens on a DX vs FX camera, I would strongly recommend you to read it HERE if you are interested.
Being creative with a 50mm lens in portrait photography
The level of creativity is different for every photographer. Where some photographers are strict to ground to the rules of photography, some others are breaking those rules to be as creative as they can be.
To be creative and not only with a 50mm lens in portrait photography but in general, it can be split into two parts: creativity as a photographer and the creativity as an editor.
If you master photoshop and lightroom you master the world of photography. You can be as creative as your skill in post-processing and your imagination will take you far away.
Furthermore, every photographer has a different level of creativity. Even the small elements in the composition can make a difference.
It is difficult for me to write in words but I will share with you a few creative portrait photographs from Unsplash to boost your ideas (not all the photographs may be taken with a 50mm lens.) – Thanks for everyone sharing their photos to be used for free on unsplash – Amazing work!
Bokeh and the depth of field from a 50mm lens in portrait photography.
Reflecting on a few key points I mentioned earlier, the bokeh and the depth of field are more shallow if the camera is a FX (full-frame) where the sensor is much larger than a DX (crop sensor) camera. The larger the sensor in photography, the shallower depth of field can be obtained, this being in direct relationship with the aperture of the lens and the focal distance.
In order to get a shallower depth of field and more bokeh, the subject/model has to be a bit closer to the camera (or a bit more). It may be difficult with a 50mm lens to be able to take a photograph to the model (head to shoes) and get some very shallow depth of field, where this will work better with a telephoto lens.
Remember that the bokeh obtained will take the shape of the aperture of your lens. As an instance, if your lens has a 6-blade aperture, the bokeh will take the shape of a hexagon, where a 8-rounded blade aperture, this will look more like a circle.
Retouching portrait photographs.
This is the part where your photos can take off from exceptional to a piece of art. The retouching and post-processing. What should you focus on?
I use Lightroom about 90% of the time where the photoshop only 10% for post-processing. My skills with Lightroom are not so bad, but I am terrible in Photoshop. I am using it only when I have to remove elements from a scene, to purify the skin of the model and/or to remove the chromatic aberration where Lightroom is unable to do it sometimes. Very rare for something different.
But now, the very first thing you want to focus on post-processing the portrait photographs is the skin of the model. Remove all the impurities and work on the skin tone colour. You may want to create a layer for this as if changing some other settings to the photo, for aforementioned not to be affected or to be further worked around.
Level your brightness/shadows as per your like, the colours and contrast. Please ignore the histogram and stop playing by the rules. Haters gonna hate me now… “The beauty of a final image is not always reflected by a “perfect histogram” but to the creativity of the photographer” – Gabriel Mihalcea.
Increase the sharpness but not too much. Soften the skin, boost your image with any creative modifications to your original image.
Remember that black and white portrait photographs are absolutely stunning and this may be a good idea in some cases when you can boost some contrast, have a difference of dynamic range, in special when there are too many colours on the image and this can be confusing or when you want to focus on a specific spot colour photograph.
Conclusion and our recommendations.
Taking portraits with a 50mm lens is a form of art seen from my side. This is probably one of the most used focal lengths for portrait photography and the lens can be part of your arsenal.
Remember that most of the 50mm lenses are relatively cheap (as the 35mm for dx cameras) compared with all other focal lengths. Having a fast prime lens is a must, and although some people don’t like too much gear and they have zoom lenses, there is nothing wrong in this to be used for portrait photography. Just remember, that for a good depth of field and bokeh, you will probably need a fast prime 50mm lens.
I cannot say for anything else but Nikon, all the 50mm lenses I tried and owned until now, including the 50mm f/1.2 manual focus & manual aperture lens I own, they are absolutely stunning, sharp&good. Don’t be afraid to try one before you buy. If you are working with Nikon cameras and lenses, I would strongly recommend you to have a look over our other post ” Nikkor Nikon 50mm f/1.2 manual focus lens“
Thank you for remaining with us until the end of this post. If you enjoyed please give us a share to spread the love. For now, I have to say goodbye and hope to see you around. Take care!
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