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It’s Not a Portrait Lens!

· 29.April.2024

In this month’s article, we’ll discuss my approach to choosing lenses for photography. I’ll use portraiture as the example here because it’s the genre of photography I mostly work in and also there’s a bit of a misnomer I want to break before we get going. However, the things I discuss here apply to all photography, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent as we go on. What I hope you’ll take away from this article is a way to approach lens (focal length) selection for your own photography.

What is a portrait?
According to dictionary.com, a portrait is one of the following things in common English usage:
1. a likeness of a person, especially of the face, as a painting, drawing, or photograph
2. a verbal picture or description, usually of a person

One of these relates directly to visual arts while the other relies on words to conjure a visualisation of a person. However, what we can take from both of those definitions is that a portrait is some sort of representation of a person or persons.

It can mean many things and take on many forms for different people. A traditional portrait photographer may tell you that it is a head-and-shoulders image of a person in perfect proportion, specifically designed to represent them. A more modern or experimental photographer may tell you that it is a representation of a person that captures some aspect of their essence. An editorial photographer may tell you that it is a collection of images that tell a story about the subject. None of these are correct and none of them are incorrect. They are all aspects of what a portrait can be.

The misnomer
People often talk about a portrait lens as though such a thing exists. It’s often also suggested that the 85mm equivalent lenses of the world (the XF56mmF1.2 and GF110mmF2 on Fujifilm’s systems) offer the best focal length for portraiture. If such a thing as a portrait lens exists, what happens when you photograph an item of food with it? Does that photograph automatically become a portrait? Or perhaps you photograph a person with a so-called landscape lens. Does that person suddenly become a sweeping vista?

Of course not. Those are absurd suggestions. The point is that a lens is a lens. It doesn’t care what it’s pointed at. It is a few pieces of shaped glass with some form of enclosure around it and perhaps some controls for exposure and focusing. Looking at lenses in terms of subject matter is counterintuitive. We would be much better served by asking how a particular lens renders the things in front of it rather than asking if it is “good” for a particular thing…

This is an excerpt from an article by Dylan Goldby in issue 97 of FUJILOVE MAGAZINE (April 2024). Subscribers, you can find this article by downloading this issue from your subscriber area.

You will find the remaining part of this article in FUJILOVE MAGAZINE.

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