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Lens & Focus

Lesson 3 from: Portrait Photography Bootcamp

Lindsay Adler

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Lesson Info

3. Lens & Focus

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

The topic of the lesson is lens and focus in portrait photography.


  1. What is depth of field?

    Depth of field refers to how much of a scene is in focus, from the foreground to the background.

  2. How can you control depth of field in your photos?

    Depth of field can be controlled by adjusting the aperture, focal length, and distance of the subject from the background.

  3. What is the effect of shooting with a wider aperture?

    Shooting with a wider aperture, such as f/1.8, will result in a narrower depth of field and a more blurred background.

  4. Does the distance between the subject and the background affect depth of field?

    Yes, the further the subject is from the background, the softer the background will appear, creating a narrower depth of field.

  5. How does lens choice affect depth of field?

    Longer lenses, such as an 85mm or 200mm lens, will result in a narrower depth of field and more background blur.

  6. What should you focus on when taking a portrait?

    When taking a headshot, it is best to focus on the eye that is closest to the camera.

  7. What are some recommended lenses for portrait photography?

    Recommended lenses include a 50mm or 85mm lens for narrow depth of field, and a 24-70mm or 70-200mm zoom lens for versatility.

  8. What can you do to achieve sharper images?

    Using a sharp lens and shooting with a tripod or monopod can help achieve sharper images. Additionally, having a stable stance and choosing the correct shutter speed can also contribute to sharpness.

  9. What is the guideline for choosing the appropriate shutter speed for handholding a camera?

    The guideline is to use a shutter speed that is equal to or faster than the focal length of the lens. For example, if using a 200mm lens, the shutter speed should be at least 1/200 of a second. The topic of the lesson is image stabilization and focusing techniques in photography.

  10. What is image stabilization?

    Image stabilization is a technology in cameras and lenses that helps reduce camera shake and produce sharper images.

  11. What are some different names for image stabilization?

    Different brands have different names for image stabilization, such as image stabilization (Canon), vibration reduction (Nikon), and optical stabilization (Sigma).

  12. When should image stabilization be used?

    Image stabilization is helpful when shooting in lower lit situations or when hand holding the camera in order to capture sharper images.

  13. Should image stabilization be left on all the time?

    No, it is not recommended to leave image stabilization on when shooting on a tripod as it can potentially result in less sharp images.

  14. What are some common focusing issues in photography?

    Common focusing issues include difficulty focusing on moving subjects, groups of people, recomposing shots, and achieving focus with a narrow depth of field.

  15. What is back button focus?

    Back button focus is a technique where the focus control is moved to a button on the back of the camera, allowing the photographer to separate focusing from capturing the image.

  16. How does back button focus help with focusing and recomposing?

    By using back button focus, the photographer can lock focus on the subject and recompose without losing focus, resulting in faster and more accurate focusing. It also allows for continuous focus tracking of moving subjects and simplifies the process of focusing and capturing images.

  17. Are there any limitations to back button focus?

    Back button focus may not completely resolve focus issues when shooting at very wide apertures, as slight movements during recomposing can still result in an out-of-focus subject.

  18. How can lens choice and depth of field affect focusing?

    Lens choice and depth of field can impact the amount of light entering the camera and the range of distances that appear in focus, therefore affecting the focusing process.

Lesson Info

Lens & Focus

I know that when I started portrait photography I just had so much trouble with getting things in focus. And I don't know about you. And I have a specific story that it changed my photography career forever. I was assisting a portrait photographer and I'd actually already had a business set up, I'd been shooting for maybe three years or so and I had my kit lens, the lens that came with my camera. And I was shooting and I was assisting her and she said, I was really proud, 'cause she had faith in me, she said, could you do me a favor, can you go get these men's portraits, the groom and the groomsmen? And why don't you try this lens. And she passed me the Canon 85 1.8. And I had never shot with a lens that went any wider open in an aperture than 4.0. I think I had maybe had tried 3.5. So I was kind of like, okay. And she's like, oh, and make sure that you shoot a wide aperture. So I put the lens on and I went into my camera and I was like, okay, well this goes to 1.8, so let me put it to...

1.8, let's use this lens for all its worth. And I'd never shot one like this before. And so I took a picture of the groom and I looked back in the back of my camera and I said, that's a professional portrait. It looked, there was just this missing element that I never understood why it was missing before, and that was it. That narrow depth of field, so that the background went soft and creamy and buttery and the focus was on my subject. And now that background didn't have distracting elements. And it just looked more like a professional photo. So if you've never tried a really wide aperture lens before and you want to do portrait photography I definitely think you're in for a treat, because I distinctly remember that moment and how it completely changed me as a portrait photographer. That is what we're going to talk about in this section, but not just that wide aperture, but all of it together. We're going to talk about lens choice, we're going to talk about focal length, we're going to talk about depth of field, we're going to talk about focus in general, and how all of those things work together for a successful portrait. So I'm gonna dive right into that and let's talk about depth of field and what it is. And I actually started out as a landscape and nature photographer. So there are a lot of things that I didn't really have to worry about that we have to worry about as a portrait photographer. Like posing and lighting and all of those things. I kind of just showed up and shot the landscape. And one of the controls I did have to worry about was depth of field. So I was acutely aware of it. And depth of field is, put simply, how much of your scene is in focus from the foreground, middle ground, and background? How much range of focus do you have? A very narrow depth of field means that just a sliver, just a small part of that frame is going to be in focus. A very wide or deep depth of field means basically you could even have your whole entire scene completely in focus. And there are many different ways that you can control and change your depth of field. And the more you understand this it's going to allow you to take more control of your portraits and more control over the focus in your image and where the eye goes. And we're going to talk about all of those things. And these are some of the main ways to control depth of field in your photos. And there actually are a couple other ways, but really the main ones are your aperture, I'm gonna go in-depth in that, your focal length, meaning what lens that you choose, the distance of your subject to the background, and then also the distance of you to your subject. But those first three are going to be the ones we're going to focus on, aperture, your lens choices or your focal length, and the distance of the subject to the background. These are all going to drastically effect depth of field. So if you want a narrow depth of field, if you are like me, once I tried the 85 1.8 I was hooked, I wanted every picture to have a soft blurry background with nothing in it, like I was hooked instantly. I'm not saying that's the only way to go, I'm just saying if you haven't tried you definitely should. So these are all ways that you can aim to have a narrower depth of field. You can shoot a wider aperture, so it's the bigger numbers, 2.8, or the smaller numbers actually, 2.8 is going to give you a wider aperture, 1.8, 1.2. And so most of the lenses that come with a kit lens, most of those lenses are gonna be something like 5.6, 4.0, maybe 3.5. But if you go even wider with your apertures that's where you get really narrow depth of fields. Your 2.8s, your 1.8s, your 1.4s. And we'll talk about that in a bit. The next one down is your focal length. A longer lens gives you a narrower depth of field, it makes that background go blurrier. That's the next one down the list. Also, you have a bigger distance between your subject and their background, it's going to make that background look even softer. So let's look at how this is in action down the list. But as I said, there's no right or wrong answer for the correct depth of field. I don't always shoot at one aperture, although randomly, I made up my favorite aperture. This literally means nothing to anybody. I like to shoot at 2.2. This really doesn't mean anything, but I know it's an aperture where I can shoot really wide open, but I can still get it in focus. And that is purely just based on I know that I can get a 2.2 aperture in focus. It doesn't really mean anything. So there's not a right or wrong answer. I know portrait photographers that'll have complete focus from foreground, middle ground, and background, but I tend to be a little bit more in the direction of having narrow depth of field. I know this seems like a silly point, but nowadays, because our point and shoots and because our iPhones take pretty good photos a lot of times we're competing with everyone, and as silly as it may seem, shooting these wide apertures, these narrow depth of fields, sets us apart from the selfies and the iPhones, it gives our images a little bit different of a quality. And our narrower depth of field allows us to simplify our background and bring the focus back to our subject. So if you're just trying portrait photography for the first time and you want to have a little bit more of a professional look you're probably going to want to aim for a little bit wider open in your depth of field. So let's talk about that first control of our list we talked about, our aperture. The wider aperture that you have the narrower depth of field. It's going to simplify your background and allow you to focus on your subject. So just to show you an illustration. I have my subject in this photo about three feet in front of this background. And in this photograph I'm shooting at f/8. And so f/8 is just like the middle of the lens, f/8 is nice and sharp, but she's in focus and the background is pretty in focus. It's not tack sharp, but it's pretty focused. Now watch when I switch to 1.8. The background just goes smooth and buttery and disappears, so let's look at that again from f/8 to 1.8. And I think it drastically improves the photograph, because in the first one I notice the little rivets on the background and I notice the lines in the brick on the left hand side, but when I switch to 1. it all just kind of melts away and I connect with her eyes. So taking control of depth of field with aperture is one way for you to control your depth of field. So the next one from aperture one of the things is the distance of your subject from their background. So I did a little illustration here. The further your subject is from the background the softer that background's going to appear. So watch this. This is not how I take portraits, I'm not always like touching hands with people, but in this instance I did, because I wanted you to see that the distance from me to my subject stayed the same. So in the first photo that you see here we keep the distance the same and then I backed up and she moved about four feet away from that background. And so just watch the detail in the words behind her head and those lines. So here's, and notice, this aperture stayed exactly the same. Both of these were shot at like f/5. So here's her against the background, and here's her in front of the background. Show you again, here's her against the background, same distance between her and myself, but I moved her out from that background and it becomes softer and less distracting. So let's say that, you know what, you love my suggestion of getting a faster lens and shooting at a wider aperture, but right now you only have a kit lens, you only have your lens that goes to 5.0. And you're looking at your photos and you're like, wow, I really like what Lindsay does with those narrower depth of fields, but I don't have a fast lens, I don't have a wide aperture lens. Well, what you can do is just move your subject a little bit further away from that background and that'll make it a little bit softer. Shoot as wide open as possible and get them away from anything directly behind them. And I think that that is a general suggestion I would give. I see a lot of beginning portrait photographers posing their subjects flat up against a wall and the photo becomes two-dimensional, there's no depth, there's no foreground, middle ground, and background, and it's just very flat and everything's in focus and you don't connect with the subject as well. But sometimes just pulling them out a little bit, giving yourself a little bit narrow depth of field is going to help you have more connection with your subject. The next thing down the line for controlling your depth of field is your focal length, specifically your lens choice. But your lens choice controls a lot more than depth of field. And I make a note to this earlier, that the longer lens, the longer focal length you use the narrower depth of field you have. But it affects several things. So know your lens choice completely changes what your photograph looks like. And there's really these several, but specifically these three main ways that it changes what your photo looks like. So the first one is depth of field. I've already talked about that, I'll show you what it looks like. But the next one is field of view. How much you see in the background and at either side of your subject. I will illustrate that momentarily. And then the last one is compression. How close or how far away does your subject look from whatever is behind them? It compresses distances or exaggerates distances. So your lens choice, your focal length affects these three main areas. And to be honest, I think mastering your lens choice and really understanding how it works can make a huge difference in your portraits, especially when you start getting creative and you wanna be able to incorporate elements in the background or you wanna be able to shoot groups, understanding how your lenses work and all of these elements it's gonna make you a better portrait photographer. So let's take a look at the first thing. We already talked about depth of field and I'll illustrate in a second, but what about field of view? So I did this little diagram here looking, in the center I have my subject and in all of those different focal lengths, whether I'm shooting a 24 millimeter lens, a 50, or a 200, she's still front and center in all three of those pictures. But in each one I'm seeing more or less behind her. With a longer lens, like a 200 millimeter lens, I'm only gonna see a small sliver of that background behind her, but with a wider lens I could see everything, the entire room around her, even if I kept her the exact same size in the frame. I did an illustration, I took some photos for you, so you can see what this means. But this is something I use all the time, because I'll use my lens choice to decide okay, I want my subject to be the same size, but in this photo I want that building to look towering behind her and I wanna see the entire expanse. Or uh, I really hate the background around here, I'm gonna use a longer lens to simplify it, really narrow my field of view, and get rid of all of that junk, all of that noise that I'm seeing. So I'm using my lens choice to decide how much of the environment and what in the environment you are going to see in a portrait. So here's the scene. Right around my studio in New York City, I have a studio in Chelsea, right next to it there's something called the High Line, it's awesome. They took these old train tracks and converted it into a park. And so we went up to the High Line and I wanted to shoot and it had some, it was a really hot day and I wanted to find some shade. And so we found some shade, but unfortunately the High Line is super busy. There are a ton of people walking in and out. And so I could use my lens choice to cut away, get rid of some of those people, or maybe I'll use a different lens to include the entire scene, to show the hustle and bustle, to show the buildings. And in all of these photos I can keep her head, the size of her body in the frame, the same size, but just change my field of view. So let's look at this and it makes a huge difference. So what I want you to watch is what you can see in the background and we'll go back through these and take a look at the changes again. Okay, so in this first photo what I'm seeing is I'm seeing the building beside her, and see, watch this, watch the building in the far background just to the left of her head, see how far away it looks. And also, I'm getting that entire walkway to the left hand side. Her head is going to stay the same size, or her body, the same relative size in all these photos. And I'm shooting at 2.8 in all of these shots. And I'm actually going to switch, by the way, between a 16 to 35, a 24 to 70, and a 70 to 200. So I'm shooting with each of these lenses, so you can see how lens choice and focal length, specifically focal length make a difference. So going back to this, 16 at 2.8. Now I'm gonna zoom in to 35 millimeters. And so what you'll see is all of a sudden, whoa, that building behind her, let's go from 16 to 35 again. Look how close just from 16 to 35 that building now looks. It looks significantly closer. And I've cut out that entire walkway to the left hand side. In all of these photos my subject did not move. The only thing I did is I moved in and out distance from my subject to just to make sure that her body stayed the same size, but all I did was move out as my lens got longer. My field of view is changing though. So we went from 16 to 35. How about to 50? 50 simplifying it a little bit more. How about zooming in a little bit more to 70. I'm even seeing less of the environment around her. How about 105? 105, now I've made the buildings and the trees way far behind her look larger. And then even more, all the way at 200, now the only thing behind her head are trees that I didn't even see in the first photograph, because they were so far away. And I've cut out everything else. I've cut out all of the buildings, I've cut out the sidewalk, I've cut out all of the noise. And all of these the aperture stayed exactly the same. So if we look at a summary of this, there's from 16 to 200. And so what you need to realize is there's actually a couple of things changing, but the drastic one that you see right away is the field of view. First one, the buildings on the left and right, the second one, all I see is the green of the trees behind her. But notice how both of these are shot at a 2.8 aperture and how the one on the right is soft, narrow depth of field. So if I want to shoot and have the background more out of focus using a longer focal length is going to give me that narrower depth of field and that narrower field of view. I'll cut out all of the noise on the sides. And personally, for this scene I definitely am going to like the one on the right better, unless I'm on purpose trying to include those buildings. So again, I could say, oh yeah, the perfect portrait lens is, but it depends. I've taken shots where I love, like on the High Line there's these epic architectures, there's beautiful structures, I've taken shots that are portraits with a wider lens, because I want to see that building in the background. I've also taken portraits that were just a headshot where I wanna get rid of all the noise and all of the people. So I talked about your focal length so far has changed our field of view, it has changed our depth of field, but it's also changed one other thing. When you look at these two photos what is one other massive difference you see? You see the change in what her face looks like. In the picture on the left she looks kind of cartoonish, kind of warped, a little bit of a caricature. Whereas she looks a little bit more in proportion or maybe even a little bit flatter on the right hand side. And so this is something called compression and if you understand compression, compression is yet another effect that is changed by lens choice. And this is something I use to my benefit all of the time. So here's what compression means, a wider lens exaggerates distance. And we actually saw this in the beginning of that series of shots when I was shooting with 16, that building in the background looked so far away from her, it exaggerated the distance. But when I used a longer lens I could also have framed up and put her almost right against that building. So a wide angle lens makes distances look larger, more exaggerated, a long lens compresses them, brings things together. And if you ever shot any portrait, or if you've ever shot any landscape photography you might know this. Let's say you have a tree in the foreground and a mountain in the background. With a wide angle lens right up next to that tree that mountain might look so far in the distance that you barely can see it. But if you back way far up and use a long lens you can actually make that tree look really close to the mountain. And I've seen this done in a million different ways for creative effect. But why do we care about this for portraits? I'm not really using compression that much. Maybe in wedding photography I would shoot and there would be a lighthouse in the background and I want the people in the foreground to look closer to that lighthouse and get the whole thing in the view. Maybe that would be my longer lens, using compression. But actually your lens choice can make a difference in groups. For example, here's at 70 millimeters. In these two shots my subjects do not move, they're sitting in the exact same place, he tilts his head a little bit, that's the only difference. So in the first shot I am shooting at 70 millimeters, but the second one I'm shooting at 200. So if I understand that wider angle lens exaggerates distance, if I, for example, shot with a 24 here she should look much further from him. And then if I switch to a she should look much closer. So watch this, all I do here is I back up and I switch to my 200 millimeter. And it looks like she scooted up right next to him on the bench, but she didn't move at all, all I did was change my lens choice. And so I've used this, actually in my posing 101 class, I used this knowledge to my advantage when I was posing couples of two drastically different sizes, because I could put one in the foreground and one in the background in order to exaggerate or to bring them closer together in size. So you can see, nothing's changed, but she'll look closer by using a longer lens, because it compresses. But this also makes a difference with faces. When you're photographing a face for a close up headshot, again, there's not really a right focal length, but there certainly can be a wrong focal length or a focal length that's not working to your advantage. So watch this change. All I'm doing in these photos, the only thing I'm changing is switching from a 50 millimeter to an 85. You probably wouldn't think that from 50 millimeters to would be a huge change. It should be, there should be a little bit of a change, but you wouldn't think it would be drastic. Okay, watch this. From 50 to 85. In the 50 her face looks a little bit bloated out, maybe just a little, not super distorted, but watch this, from 50 to 85, that is a huge change in just a few millimeters. And what I did is in the 50 I had to be a little bit closer to her to fill her face in the frame, with the 85 I had to back up just a little bit to fill her face in the frame. So looking at this, we go from 24 to 50 to 85 to 200. So your lens choice is going to make a drastic change on what someone's face and body looks like. For example, you might also have experienced this if you're taking a picture of someone with a wide angle lens and they're standing close to the edge of the frame and all of a sudden they look huge, because the wide angle lens is exaggerating the distance from one side of their body to the other and they're going to look much larger and they will not thank you for that at all. A longer lens in that instance might be beneficial. And when I talk about photographing women with curves I'm going to talk about how I work kind of counterintuitively sometimes to use lens choice to my advantage to flatter the body. So in general what you wanna be careful of if you're doing a portrait is you don't wanna use too wide of an angle lens too close up, it distorts the features, it bloats them out. And so often the solution is if you're looking at your photo and something's wrong with the compression, they look a little distorted, a general rule of thumb is try this, back up and zoom in. Now if you're a little more advanced you know it's not that simple, but really try just backing up and zooming in. The compression improves, the background gets simplified, the depth of field becomes narrower, and it tends to make for a better portrait. So that's kind of a starting go-to. So know that your lens choice changes all of this. When I'm shooting headshots I tend to shot between 85 and 200. That's kind of my sweet spot. Canon makes, I believe, it's a 135 2. that some people live and die for, because they love the narrow depth of field and the compression. I shoot a lot with an 85, because I love that narrow depth of field on location, but I also know some very successful portrait photographers that shoot portraits with a 50 or a 35. They don't fill the frame with someone's head though at 35, because that's what starts to stretch and distort the head. And so they back up and the shoot a little bit wider at those wider focal lengths. So those are some things to think about. If you're shooting a lot of portraits you might wanna go for a little bit longer of a focal length and I am going to talk about those things. Before I talk about lens choice though, let's talk about where to focus. I get this question many times in my classes. When you're taking a portrait what are you focusing on? And there are a couple answers for this, but the most important answer is when I'm taking a headshot I'm focusing on the eye that's closest to the camera. So if I'm turning to the side it's going to be this eye, if I'm turning this way it's going to be this eye. And let me show you why. And by the way, you wanna be careful if you're shooting at really narrow depth of fields, because of this problem. If you were like, oh, Lindsay's great, she said to go try an 85 1.8, and then you get that and you're looking, you might run into a problem like this where all of your photos the back eye is in focus and the front eye isn't. And you're looking at it and you're saying, well, I want both of her eyes in focus. If you were shooting at 1.8, really wide open, you're not going to be able to get both eyes in focus with this pose. One eye is closer to camera than the other and so only one is going to be able to be in focus at a time. If you have to choose, choose the one closest to camera as you see in this shot. That is going to be, that's the general rule of thumb. But let's say you're saying, okay, Lindsay, so I wanna shoot wide open, 'cause I like that blurry background, and I get this, you say eye closest to the camera, but I want both of her eyes in focus, how do I do that? If you want both eyes in focus you either have to shoot with more depth of field, so go from 1.8 to 2. or 3.5 to get both in focus, or you have to make sure both eyes are the same distance from the camera. They have to be on the same plane. And so if I'm, let's pretend that this is the plane of the eyes, if I'm pointed towards the camera it has to line up with the film plane or the sensor. They have to be parallel. As soon as one eye is further from the sensor than the other it's going to be more difficult to get them both in focus. So this is going to actually play in when we talk a lot later about photographing groups. Eventually I'll be talking about getting entire groups in focus. Knowing that, if I want to shoot at wider apertures if they aren't all on the same plane some people may be in focus and others not. So how do you work around this? So just keep that in mind. If you want both eyes in focus both eyes need to be the same distance from the camera. Even a couple inches at 1. will put one eye totally out of focus. So here is my example, both shooting at 1.8, when she turns straight onto camera I can get both of her eyes in focus. All right, moving on for some considerations with lenses. If you are trying to figure out what lenses you want, what are the differences. Everybody, well, not everybody, but most of us photographers are slightly nerdy, we like our gear and we like to talk about lenses. So I can talk to 10 different portrait photographers and they all have a different lens that they live and die by, the ones that they recommend. But there are a few standard ones that people use as a go-to for portrait photography, so I'm going to recommend those to you. Especially if you're trying to figure out where to make your first investment without breaking the bank, without spending all of your budget. When you're looking at lenses there are a variety of different categories, but two of the main categories are is it a fixed lens or is it a zoom lens? And so we were talking about focal length before and basically does it mean for a fixed, is it one focal length? It is a 50, it is an 85. Or is it zoom, meaning you can change your focal length, perhaps from 24 to 70, from 70 to 200. There's some pros and cons of both of these. Fixed lenses are, you know what, I use both of these, fixed lenses were great for me first starting out in portrait photography, because fixed lenses tend to be less expensive, they tend to be light-weight, and they tend to be faster glass, or be able to afford faster glass more easily, meaning wider apertures, which give me narrower depth of field. So if you're really excited and want to try that narrow depth of field look maybe going with fixed lenses to start off is going to be great. That's going to be a problem however if you like to shoot events, if you need versatility. So if you're photographing and there's somebody over here and you wanna be able to zoom in and get their headshot and then need a wide shot over here having a fixed lens is going to make that very difficult. You're going to be running around, switching your lenses constantly, or you'd have to have multiple camera bodies on you at once. The benefit of a zoom lens is just that, versatility. I can instantly zoom from 24 to 70, I can go from really wide to a mid or headshot without any waste of time, without having to switch lenses. Zoom lenses tend to be a little more expensive, they tend to be bigger and heavier, but they're that much more versatile. So the answer of whether you'd want to go with fixed or a zoom lens is it, of course, it depends. It depends on what you shoot. It depends on what other things you shoot in addition to portraits. The other question kind of related to this is okay, do I want fixed or zoom? And how fast do I need my glass? How wide open do I need to be able to get my aperture? Again, it depends, but here are some questions. How often do you shoot in low-light situations? If you shoot in concerts or events in really low light having a wide aperture lens is going to allow you to gather more light, shoot in lower lit situations, and also it helps you focus faster in those narrow, or in those really dimly lit situations. The other one is if you shoot more in the studio, you're shooting studio strobes on a seamless background you probably don't really need to shoot at 1.8 or 1.2, maybe shooting at a 4.0 is completely fine, because you're not really using the narrow aperture, so you don't need to have really fast glass if you're shooting in all controlled situations where you're not trying to have a narrow depth of field. The next down the line would be do you like to have creative bokeh effects? Which bokeh, or bokeh as some people say, is basically the blur in the background and Canon has a lens, it's the Canon 85 millimeter 1.2. And often when you see a photo taken with this lens you know it was taken with this lens, 'cause it has a very distinctive blur in the background. And maybe you just love that look, so you've gotta have it, you have to have that fast glass, but you'll pay for it. So it might be more of a creative decision of how fast you want your glass. And then the last part, which is really important, is what's your budget? It's going to cost you a lot more if you want to have really, really wide apertures. But there's a balance. You can get wide aperture lenses without breaking the bank and I'm going to recommend those to you. So my recommended lenses are as follows. And this is going to be for beginning portrait photographers or people that are enthusiasts or inspiring pros. My very first purchase would probably be these next two lenses. See, I got around the first, I kind of combined two. I would recommend the nifty 50 to start off with. And the nifty 50 just means a 50 millimeter lens. It is a normal or average lens. It's not wide angle, it's not telephoto or zoom, it is just an average lens. But the 85 millimeter 1.8 that Canon makes is extremely inexpensive. You can get it for around $ and you can shoot at 1.8, so 1.8 is going to give you nice and narrow depth of field. This is a good standard lens to start with. Sigma also has an 85 millimeter 1.4, which is beautifully sharp, really great narrow depth of field, and then Canon has their 50 millimeter 1.2, which again, has incredibly narrow depth of field, really sharp, but the wider you go with those apertures the more you pay. You might pay 125 for a 1. and significantly over 1,000 for a 1.2. So it kind of depends on what your budget is, but it also depends on what look you like. So you wanna make sure you at least have some kind of when you're getting started. But the one that I recommend really for portrait photography is an 85 millimeter lens of some sort if you're shooting with natural light on location. The one that I started with that I professed my love for in the beginning, my very first portrait lens was that Canon 85 millimeter 1.8. And it's under $400. It kind of ranges in price, but it's under 400. And I was instantly able to get those images I looked at and said, oh, that's a real portrait, that looks professional to me. And again, Sigma actually just announced an 85 1.4 Art like two days ago. And then Canon has their world famous and world loved 85 1.2 with that beautiful narrow depth of field. And again, the wider you go with those apertures the more you pay. But the nifty 50 and the are going to be definitely something I would recommend if you are a natural light shooter, if you're going out on location to do a lot of portraits, so that you can have that narrow depth of field, focus on your subject, simplify the background. The pairing of those two is going to be a fixed solution that's fast and inexpensive. They're both super light-weight if you go for the 85 and the 50 1. and they become heavier and bulkier as you go for bigger apertures. But I love, 'cause it's compact and it's inexpensive, it's a good place to start. However, they're somewhat limited in their flexibility. Because they're fixed you're gonna do a lot of moving in and out, and if you're shooting events and weddings or other types of photography other than portraits it probably doesn't have the versatility you need. So if I were going to recommend my next one-two punch, this one is my first one, the next one would be a zoom kit. And the zoom kit that I would recommend, whatever brand you shoot, it's going to be a 24 to 70 2. and a 70 to 200 2.8, because that gives me 2.8, a wide aperture, all the way from really wide angle to a beautiful telephoto lens. And when I was first getting started in portrait photography a solid standard portrait lens that so many people used for weddings, for portraits, is going to be that 70 to 200. The downside, the thing's heavy. Especially if you're trying to keep really light-weight and very mobile it is definitely heavy, but I use it, because it's my excuse for why I don't need to work out, so I just use that all the time and it works out great. But that would actually be my next recommendation to you and as a wedding photographer I would have my 24 to 70 on one camera on one side and my 70 to 200 on another camera on the other side, so I could instantly have access to pretty much all the focal lengths I needed at a fast aperture almost instantly. And by the way, for those of you that opted to go with a crop sensor, be aware that I would recommend lenses that cover these focal lengths. For example, I know that for crop sensor Sigma makes a 50 to 150 lens that is equivalent to the 70 to 200, but it's smaller and lighter, but it gives you a similar crop or zoom effect, although it's not truly the same compression, which we've talked about already. So just make sure that you do your research. I'm talking about approximate focal lengths that I would suggest. Okay, so I recommended my fast fixed lenses, the ones that are light, that are inexpensive, gives you narrow depth of field, great. And I recommended my zoom combo if you want to be able to cover everything and you wanna have a lot of flexibility and really narrow depth of field. But what happens if you look at this and be like, well, I don't want to, I don't want to be stuck with a fixed lens, but I really don't wanna carry two lenses with me, plus these are heavy. One other thing I would recommend you look at is something around a 24 to 105. 24 to 105 is a really versatile lens. It gives you wide angle, which would be great for group shots or scenics with people in the scene for a portrait. All the way to 105, which is a pretty decent portrait lens, it's a pretty close shot. The downside is that these 24 to 105s are 4.0 lens, so you don't get that amazingly narrow depth of field that you would get with a 1.8 or a 2.8. That being said, at 105 we talked about that longer focal lengths give you narrower depth of field, so when I shoot at 105 I still get a pretty narrow depth of field, just not the same as I would get with say the 24 to, or the 70 to 200 at 2.8, but it's not bad. And a lot of people, if you're shooting a lot inside, a lot in controlled environments, a lot with backgrounds, the 24 to 105 is going to be a fantastic option, so you don't need to change your lens as often, you don't need to buy many, you don't need to carry many. Canon makes one, Sigma makes one that mounts for several different cameras. So that might actually be a perfect option, especially if you don't feel the need to have that really narrow depth of field and you really just want one lens. So those are my kit options or the lenses that I have had fantastic experiences with that I recommend that you check out if you're looking to purchase your first lenses or to build a kit. Let's continue onward for this. If you want to have sharp images, if you're looking at your photos, and I have this experience all the time, I look at my photos and they're just soft, like they just, there's something a little bit off, they just weren't quite as crisp as I would want them to be. There are a few things that can give you sharper images. One of those things is definitely the quality of lens you have. It's not usually the camera that changes the crispness of the lens, but it's the lens that you choose. And so if you were using the kit lens that came with your camera it might be a less than ideal quality lens. If you have a lens that is perhaps from 18 to 300 5.6 to 6. it's probably not the sharpest lens you could have. And so for portraits you may want to invest in something that's a bit sharper. Also, just as a side note if you're a little bit more advanced, there also is this thing called doing micro adjustments. Sometimes you need to make sure the lens and camera are talking to each other better and that will make the difference in having sharper lenses. So my first thing is if you want to have sharper images make sure you have a sharp lens, invest in a good lens. And you have to do your research for that. There are many different brands that make good lenses, so it kind of depends on what you're looking for. But then the next thing kind of down the line is going to be shooting with a tripod or monopod. If you've seen me online at all teaching and demoing here on CreativeLive, I don't use a tripod, I don't shoot with them. However, if you see one of my good friends Joel Grimes shooting he shoots with a tripod at all times. And so it, who's right or wrong? And the answer is we're both right, of course. He is going to get, just by the way it works, he is going to get sharper images on his tripod, because it is stable, there's no room for wiggling, it is on a tripod, he'll have sharper images than me. But I find that I don't get the creative angles that I want and I feel more tethered, I feel more held down when I'm shooting on a tripod for portraits. I like to be able to instantly change my mind and lay on the ground and instantly move around and that's how my brain works. So if you are shooting without a tripod or without a monopod your stance becomes important. And would it be okay if I had a camera for a second? So that's one of those things that I want to demo and we're going to talk about having different tools later on. Thank you, John. All right, so a couple things for stance. I am guilty of many incorrect stances. You will see from me at times what they call chicken wing, which is a little bit of this, okay. But this is not stable. If you see my clicking having my elbow up, this is not contributing to stability whatsoever. Really I should have my arm braced into my hips with my legs apart. If my legs are together and also locked this is unstable. And if anyone's every shot a gun just think of it as the same way, except for when you're shooting people you're shooting them with a camera, it's the same kind of idea. So I wanna have a nice, wide base, I wanna bend my knees, I kind of even wanna lean into it, and I wanna have my arms in tight. And if I'm shooting this way have everything in tight. But let's say that you were uncomfortable. You're shooting and you find that when you're turning your camera you automatically want to go this direction. In our accessories section I'm going to talk about grips, vertical grips and battery grips that are probably going to be a better solution for you to avoid the chicken wing unstable stance. So you wanna have a stable stance, legs apart, arms in close, bracing without having your legs locked out. So this is going to help give you more stable images, especially if you don't want to use a tripod or a monopod. If you shoot a lot of events or in a lot of low-light then maybe the tripod and monopod is going to be something you wanna try. The next thing is going to be choosing the correct shutter speed. What shutter speed should you be shooting at? There's an old saying or an old adage, which isn't totally true, but it's a good guideline, that if you're hand holding your camera, and it's not on a tripod you shouldn't be hand holding any longer than one over your focal length. So what does that mean? It means if I'm shooting with a 200 millimeter lens I shouldn't be hand holding it any longer than 1/200 of a second. So if I've got a 200 millimeter lens and I'm looking in my camera and it says 1/60 of a second I probably shouldn't be hand holding it, because I'm going to have a little bit of camera shake and it's going to give me an unstable or unfocused image. The reason this is not totally accurate is what happens if you're just not stable, what happens if you're just wiggly or if when you click your trigger you click really hard, that camera motion is going to show up. So it's just kind of a general guideline, but you wanna be careful when you're shooting with longer lenses and slower shutter speeds. So that's the guideline, one over what your focal length is the slowest that you should be hand holding. But don't forget that if you just don't have a steady hand it's going to make a difference. And so one other thing I'm sure some people are saying is well, what about image stabilization? Image stabilization is technology in your lens, it's usually in the lens, that helps counteract camera shake and wiggle. Basically the movement of your camera in the lens it kind of counteracts it to give you a more focused or a sharper, more stable image. In fact, you can probably go almost twice or even three times as long with your shutter speed with image stabilization. But don't just take my word for it, my recommendation is try it out, see how image stabilization works for you. But that might be if I'm out there shooting at 1/200 of a second with my 200 millimeter lens and all of a sudden a cloud comes over and I really need to shoot for 1/60 of a second, my go-to would be if I could bump up my ISO I'll bump up my ISO, because I'm comfortable going from 400 to 800, or even to 1,000. But if I need to, I can switch on my image stabilization. And the different brands call it different things. Canon calls it image stabilization, Nikon calls it vibration reduction, Sigma called it optical stabilization, they all have a different name. All of them have a different name for this technology, so again, figure out in your manual or look online to see what it's called for the brand of photography that you do. So when you are selecting a lens, if you know that you're going to be hand holding in lower lit situations a lot and maybe you really love that 200 millimeter lens at 200, maybe the image stabilize option is going to be better for you to help you get sharper images. But just as a side note, something you want to be careful of, a lot of the 70 to 200s have image stabilization for that reason, you don't usually want to leave it on all the time, because if you're shooting on a tripod and you have image stabilization on it can actually give you a less sharp image, it can actually be a problem. If you don't need it leave it off. And there's other fancier things, like there's different types of stabilization depending on the lens you have. For example, one of the lenses, one of the stabilize options allows you to pan from left to right. So it knows that this movement is good and it counteracts the up and down movement. It's pretty awesome technology, we just need to do your research to understand how they work. So that is a little bit about image stabilization. Let's talk about a few common focusing issues, getting your images in focus, that I've run into. And so here's a list of the problems and maybe you'll relate to this. One of them was moving subjects. When my subjects would move a lot I'd really struggle to get my photos in focus. The next one is groups. Having a group of people and having them all be in focus from front to back, but still shooting a slightly wider aperture, I found that very difficult for getting images in focus. Also, focusing and recomposing. I would focus on my image and on my subject and then put the subject in a different part of the frame. Sometimes I'd struggle with that to get that in focus, we'll talk about that as well. And then just having a really narrow depth of field where I just couldn't, I just couldn't get my subject in focus. For example, if I shoot with the Canon 85 millimeter 1.2, I have the subject sitting on the ground, and I focus on their eyes at 1.2, I'm shooting wide open, and I breathe they'll be out of focus, the eyes will be out of focus. So you have to actually just understand that sometimes there's that little bit of limitations of even just my breath in that much of movement at 1.2 will throw off my focus. So maybe I shoot at my magic made-up aperture of 2.2, 'cause that's what I know I can get it in focus at. So you become comfortable with the gear. So let's talk about some of these things. All right, if you are shooting groups, and I'm going to dive into this more in-depth as I photograph and demonstrate photographing groups, but if you're photographing groups of people we're going to go back to that rule that I had before, is that if everybody, let's talk about the eyes again, if the eyes are on the same plane as the camera, if they're both equidistant to the camera they'll both be in focus. But at a wide aperture if one gets farther away then one of them has to be or will often be out of focus. Well, I run into that problem with groups. Some people are going to be closer to the camera, some are going to be further away. So if you shoot with really wide apertures you're going to have a problem. And so perhaps what you need to do is not shoot at 1.8, but maybe shoot at 4.0 or 5.6. And this is going to come with practice, because this all works together with the focal length that you've chosen. For example, shooting at wider aperture lens, or sorry, a wider focal length lens, like a 24, shooting a group at 24 and shooting without a lot of depth to the group I can probably get them all in focus, versus if I back up and I use a longer lens with a wide aperture all of a sudden it's going to make a little bit of difference. The wider focal length gives me more depth of field, the longer focal length gives me less. So my recommendation is this, don't shoot extremely wide apertures, and try to get everyone more or less on the same plane. So don't stack 10 rows deep, instead try a little bit more side to side. Have your subjects in the back row lean forward a little bit, so that their heads line up with say the group sitting below them. And I'll demonstrate this more. And then one other tip, which you'll see later on in this boot camp, is going to be where to focus. In a group you don't usually want to focus on the people in the back, because how focus works is usually it's 1/3 in front of where you've focused will be sharp and 2/3 behind. And so that means the person in the front might be out of focus. So if you stay tuned for the rest of the boot camp you will be able to see this in practice and kind of see how it works. So for groups keep everybody on the same plane, don't shoot extremely wide open, there are actually apps for your iPhone that will allow you to plug in your lens choice and your distance and your focal length and your aperture, all of this, and it will tell you how much depth of focus you have. I don't do that, but if you're curious you can actually plug it in and see how they're all correlated. Especially if your brain is wired that way you might find that interesting. Okay, let's talk about this one, focusing and recomposing, back button focus. All right, this was my favorite thing that I have learned in the last five years. This was one of the best things that I learned. And here's why, and I will put this back on the tripod momentarily, let me just demo something. Okay, if I'm shooting with a wider aperture what I find a lot of times I would do is I would focus on my subject and I'd use my trigger finger to push halfway to focus and then I'd recompose. I'd focus on them and then I'd put them in the corner and I'd take a picture. And then when I would click again it would search for focus, it'd go, it wouldn't know where to focus. So I'd have to go back, focus, recompose, focus, and recompose, because that focus point would no longer be on my subject. And so every single time you'd just see me doing this over and over and over and over and over again. There are a couple of challenges with this. And one of these challenges is solved by something called back button focus. I love back button focus. So usually, typically your focus is on your trigger right in the front. You click on your trigger to push halfway to focus, all the way to take a picture. What back button focus allows you to do is move your focus control to the back of your camera. And you can actually select which button is going to focus, but typically it's the one that says A-F, auto-focus. So I can set this so all my trigger is doing is taking the picture, or I could set it to take the exposure. And this is where I can select my focus. But even more importantly than that is I can lock my focus in place. So now when I focus I can focus on the back button and hold that button in and now as I recompose I can keep clicking. I don't have keep focus and recompose, focus and recompose, 'cause I've locked that focus in. So as long as my subject isn't moving their distance to me the focus is going to stay the same. So my recommendation is that you set that and practice, because now it's going to allow you to shoot more quickly and also a little more accurately. And so there's the Canon and Nikon and my 5D Mark III, when I had it set up or when I received it, it actually had back button focus automatically set as an option. Otherwise, depending on your camera, it's going to be a custom control or a custom function in your camera that you can change. So for the 5D Mark III I'm gonna switch over to the live view on the back of this if you can. I'm gonna click on my menu options and I'm gonna show you kind of what it looks like or what you're looking for. So what I want to do is I want to find in my menus where I can change these controls. And typically it's going to be all the way at the end here, for example, Custom Controls. Each camera's going to be different. So when I hit set it lets me choose what all of the different buttons do on my camera. So right now I can click on the trigger, that's what's highlighted, it actually highlights it in red for me, and I can decide if the trigger takes the picture, if it does the metering, if it locks things in focus, or if it's just the trigger. Or what I can do is if I mouse around I can see that's what I want to set as back button focus. I can select on it and I can choose if it's metering or doing auto-focus or it tells you what I have the options to do. So right now I have it set so that I can take metering from the front or back and I can lock my focus with this A-F button. All right, so let me just expand on that a tiny bit more, there's a few more things I wanna talk about. One of the other reasons that this is so awesome is that what I would typically have to do, let's say I'm photographing a bride walking down the aisle towards me, usually what I had to do is if I'm focusing and firing with my trigger finger is I'd push halfway to focus, all the way to take the picture. And as she's walking down the aisle to me I'd have to focus, push halfway, take the picture, and a lot of times I'd miss her focus, because I had to do that extra movement to push halfway, all the way to take the picture. When I switched to back button focus I could actually change my focus settings and depending on if it's Canon or Nikon I could do AI servo or I could do continuous focus. So as long as I hold in that back button it will constantly be searching for focus on whatever I set my focus point at. So as long as I keep, say, the center focus point on my bride's head or face, if I'm shooting in continuous or shooting in AI servo as she's walking towards me, as I'm holding that back button it's constantly refocusing and I don't have to push halfway to focus, all the way to take the picture. And it makes sure that I get her in focus. And so the other day I was doing kind of a fitness shoot and I had my subject running across kind of at me in the scene and I wanted her hair big and I wanted her to look like she was jogging. If I weren't using back button focus and if I weren't doing continuous focus or AI servo I would miss every other shot, I would miss all the shots, because by the time I pushed halfway and took the picture she would already come at me, she'd already be closer and out of the range of the focus of my camera. So that's another benefit of back button focus, is when you combine it with continuous focus or AI servo you're going to be able to constantly track motion. And these cameras now have all of these different focusing capabilities set in the back, so I can say focus this way, because the subject's coming at me or moving in and out, all of that stuff is actually built into this little computer that we have in our camera. All right, so now I wanna throw one little wrench into this whole thing. The one little wrench is that I love back button focus, I use it all of the time, focus on my subject, lock it in, recompose and shoot. However, if you are shooting really wide apertures, 1.2, 1.8, really, really wide, when I focus and recompose the movement of my camera to the side, what it might do at a 1.8 or a 1.2 aperture is if I have my camera's film plane and I, we'll say this is my camera's film plane and this is my subject, and I lock my focus, and then I move my camera they're not parallel anymore. And all of a sudden the movement, the recomposing of my camera just made my photo go out of focus. So focus and recompose you should do carefully. It's not like back button focus completely locks it in and now I can move drastically, no. If I'm shooting at 1.2, 1. I can still only recompose with little movements, trying to keep the subject and my sensor plane so that they're parallel. If they're not parallel anymore and I'm shooting really wide open I'll still get an out of focus subject. So, in other words, a back button focus doesn't fix every focus problem, but it does help you lock in focus and save you time. So back button focus is absolutely, positively something that I recommend that you look up and you set in your camera. Okay, and I talked about that. Perfect, so to kind of wrap this up or to bring together focus and depth of field I really think that understanding your lens choice and understanding depth of field takes you from being a person that takes a photo of people to making a little bit more of a portrait. Like you've taken a little bit more control. Having a narrow depth of field often helps you stand apart from the snapshots, because your wide aperture, your narrow depth of field brings all of the focus onto your subject. It simplifies the background. It makes the connection with your subject a little bit more intense, a little bit more immediate. And as I talked about in this whole section, there are many different ways that you can control your depth of field. And that can be your aperture, that could be your lens choice, it could be the distance of your subject to the background. Each of those change your depth of field. But changing each of those will change things, like your focal length would change the field of view, so all of these things are kind of interrelated. And to select the correct lens for you it kind of depends on what your needs are. Do you want something that's more compact? Do you want something that's lighter? Are you shooting for something, do you wanna keep it on a budget? So maybe you'd go with fixed lenses. Or maybe you need a lot more versatility and so you want to pair up some telephoto lenses or some zoom lenses for the type of work that you do. Or maybe you just wanna have one lens. Or maybe you know that you wanna have the widest aperture possible. So there's all of these different variables that work together. So that's your depth of field and that's your lens choice. But there are several things that you can set up in your camera as well to give you more success with getting things in focus. And one of them is definitely to check out that back button focus. Most of the pros that I know use and love back button focus. But my caution to you is that it takes a little bit getting used to, like anything in photography, so give it a try, practice with it, and you're probably going to see some improvement in the number of shots you have in focus.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Lighting on Location
Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews


One of my favorite courses thus far on Creative Live, and definitely well worth the purchase price. Lindsay effectively demystifies many of the critical stumbling blocks to achieving a practical understanding of many critical elements of portrait photography. I would rate this course as being perfect for the advanced photographer - a couple of the concepts might be beyond that of a casual/intermediate photographer, but even they would probably gain a great deal from this course. Her discussion on equipment, in particular was superbly done, and allows one to move forward in beginning to make the right choices to achieve whatever effect one is after in terms of capturing the subject. Finally, the great thing about this course, and the thing which makes it such a great value, is the overall scope of what is being taught. Lindsay covers almost everything imaginable, and does it all in a manner which is enjoyable, and makes the time fly by. There were many, many times during the various days of this course during which Lindsay would share some particularly great tip or technique, and I would think "Insert bookmark here." I don't dole out praise easily (actually left a fairly scathing review on another course here recently) but this course has won me over. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I'm definitely going to check out her other courses as well.

a Creativelive Student

This is Lindsay's best course to date and believe me, she has given us some good ones already on Creative Live. She hit this one out of the park! She was very well prepared and organized. I could tell that Lindsay put a lot of work into preparation for the class because she just kept giving us great information non stop. There was no down time or wasted moments. All future instructors on Creative Live should be encouraged to watch this course just to see what good instruction looks like. Lindsay has evolved over the past few years and just keeps getting better as time passes. Thank you Lindsay and thank you Creative Live for a job well done! Craig Banton


This class is one of the best investments I have made in my photography business. Lindsay is an excellent teacher. She is a seasoned, yet humble, professional. Unlike some other instructors I have seen on creative live, there isn’t a lot of fluff in her teaching. She sticks to the topics, gets all the information in, but still manages to engage and relate to the audience with real life examples of her own experiences in photography. I have been a professional photographer for several years, but have mostly stuck to natural light. This course gave me the confidence to tackle more advanced lighting setups and expand my capabilities as a photographer. I really appreciate that she doesn’t bash flat lighting, like other lighting videos I have tried to watch. Most portrait clients do not want photographs with dramatic lighting, they want to look their best, and I’m glad that she acknowledges this. This class gives you the information you need to create whatever photos you want to create.

Student Work