Lens for family portraits

edited December 2015 Posted in » Nikon D3300 Forum
I'm new to DSLR, but I'm wanting to get into full body portraits. I have the 18-55mm lens, and 55-200mm lens, should I get a different lens for taking good family portraits? Any help or suggestions would help. I have alot to learn.


  • edited December 2015
    If you want full body portraits, it will depend a lot on how far away you can get. If you want a blurred background, try to use the longest focal length you can get away with at whatever distance you can achieve, along with the widest aperture (smallest F number). The shortest focal length will keep your backgrounds sharp, and the individual elements in the background fairly small. The longest focal length will make backgrounds less sharp, and the individual elements will look larger, which can often make them less distracting and more abstract.

    Neither of these lenses is the very best for portraiture owing to the relatively small apertures, but the 55-200mm may prove very good in the middle range if you can stand far enough back. Done right, the 18-55mm can do fine at or near 55mm too, but you'll have to be a bit more creative in placement of people versus background.

    For group portraits, and especially if the people are not all in one row, the shallow depth of field you get with a faster lens may be wasted anyway. You're more likely to need to keep all the people sharp, and let the background be visible. Try to keep backgrounds simple, and the further behind the people the better, unless the content of the background is an important element of the picture. One thing that can help some if you're doing faces (not so good for full bodies unless further away) is to get down lower than you're used to, so you're shooting upward, so that sky or further objects form more of the background.

    I would try the lenses you have first, before going for a more dedicated portrait lens, and try to see what focal lengths you're most comfortable with. A couple of the best bargains in prime lenses for the DX format are the 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, and the 50mm f/1.8, but which is best may depend on what you're most comfortable with. 35mm is a more versatile normal length, but 50mm will give you better portrait depth of field. 85mm is grand on DX if you can get far enough away.

    It's almost a cliche to say that good portraits are best when the background is blurred out. While that is often the case, it depends on what you're trying to say. One of my favorite portraits is this old one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a famous and powerful industrialist and ship builder. At a time when the usual studio portraits used abstract backgrounds, this was an innovative portrait in its time, it says a lot about its subject.


    Edit to add: since I'm in an iconoclastic mood today, here is another one of the great portrait artists, Arnold Newman, a master of the environmental portrait. The shot of Stravinsky becomes one of the greatest photographic portraits by utterly violating the everyday rules.

  • edited May 2016
    Very interesting! What is the best focus mode to be in when shooting multiple subjects? I'm using the 35mm prime lens, on manual settings.
  • edited May 2016
    A matter of taste, perhaps. If you're in a hurry and the people are all over the place, you might do all right with auto-area focusing. At least some of the subjects will be in focus.

    But my own preference would be still for one of the single area focus modes, and my default would likely be A servo mode and dynamic area. A mode will let the camera decide whether or not a subject is moving. It sometimes guesses wrong, but more often does OK and it's a good default when you're not sure what you'll be shooting next. Dynamic area will follow a moving subject to some degree. 3D will do so too, sometimes better, but sometimes can jump to the wrong subject if the scene is complex.

    Whatever your overall depth of field is, the focus point will be nearer to the close side than the long side. A sort of general, rough rule is that if you have a set of subjects at various distances, your best point of focus will be at about 1/3 of the total depth, or a little closer than the halfway point. Multi area focusing will often find the closest subject, which may be all right, but may be a little too much. There are some on line resources and charts that can help make sense of depth of field at different focal lengths and apertures. Once upon a time, manual lenses had some of this information printed on them, making it easier to estimate, but AF lenses rarely do.

    Of course, depth of field will increase considerably as you stop down the lens too, and at normal distances the 35mm should give you quite a bit of latitude at f/8 and better. You'll begin to lose a little definition at smaller apertures than that, but the gain in depth of field can be a worthwhile trade off.
  • Great I'll give it a try, thanks!
  • edited December 2016
    I think the NIKON D4 with 85mm f/1.8 is the best lens for family photos.
  • edited December 2016
    "I think the NIKON D4 with 85mm f/1.8 is the best lens for family photos. "

    Indeed, that's a wonderful rig, and likely to be about as good as it gets. Back when I shot a lot of film, I had the older manual 85mm f/1.8 and it produced delicious results. Alas, it's a little beyond the price range usually seen around here, as a D4 new cost something around 6 thousand dollars and a used one still is close to 3.

    The D4 is a full frame camera, while those discussed here are APS cropped frame. An 85mm lens is an ideal focal length for indoor portraiture on a full frame, but a bit narrow for APS. An equivalent field of view on APS would be closer to 63. Not many prime lenses exist in this range, and the 50mm is the likeliest one to get into the ball park, as well as a good bit better budget match to the D3300.

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