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When choosing which lens to use for family portraits, there are several issues to consider. Here’s some advice from my own experience as a family photographer – I hope it helps you choose the lens that will work best for your needs.
Editor's note: The author uses a full-frame camera – remember to take crop factor into account if you use APS-C or Micro Four-thirds cameras.
1: The space you’ll be working in for your family portraits
If you’re shooting outdoors, you won’t have such restrictions on focal length so you can let loose with longer focal lengths. If you’re shooting indoors in a family’s home, you’ll need to be able to cope with a smaller space. I take a long lens with me for outdoors (135mm L), but indoors I’ll mostly use an 85mm or 50mm lens.
2. How many people will be in the family portrait
If it’s just one child indoors, an 85mm lens would be a great starting point. If you generally have the whole family in a shot, you’ll want a 50mm lens for indoors or you’ll be permanently backed against the wall trying to fit everyone in with an 85mm lens!
3. The age of the children
Newborns: My favorite lens for newborns is a Canon EF 100m f/2.8L, as the close-ups from it are stunning and it also works really well as a portrait lens – but you do need enough space to get back in order to use it as a portrait lens. It’s slow to focus though, so I wouldn’t use it on toddlers or children who move more erratically. Newborns are generally pretty still, and they can’t move so your focal plane is pre-determined!
A budget option for newborn close-ups is using an extension tube with a 50mm lens. The photographs won’t have the same wow factor, but the results are still pretty good – and it might bide you time while you save up for a macro lens.
Toddlers: Little children will often be running circles around you, so you need a lens that can keep up. I generally use an 85mm for individual portraits of toddlers, and a 50mm lens if they’re super fast on their feet and I want more flexibility from the lens.
Pre-school or school age: I choose a lens based more on their characters at this point. If they’re fairly low-key and relaxed, I’ll use the 85mm lens. If they’re full of beans and engaging in lots of unpredictable activities, I’ll opt for the 50mm.
4. Your style
If you tend to shoot quite close in, you’ll find an 85mm lens more comfortable. If you find you shoot more environmental portraits, a wider lens like a 35mm will be a good choice for you.
If you’re not sure yet how you might work, give yourself the flexibility to find out with a more general lens like a 50mm. You could always start with a more basic lens, and invest in better quality lenses when you’re more in tune with the kind of family portraits you’ll be taking.
5. How many lenses you can choose between
Budget: If you can only stretch to one lens, you’ll need it to work hard for you. I prefer using prime lenses (with fixed focal lengths) but if you’re starting out with one lens, you might find a zoom lens is more practical. When I started out, I opted for a 50mm lens – it’s known as the nifty fifty for good reason, it’s a very useful and adaptable lens!
You can always gradually add to your arsenal of lenses – adding in one that’s more specific to portraits like an 85mm lens, a longer lens for outdoors, or a wide angle lens if you find you’re shooting more environmental portraits.
Logistics: I use two camera bodies in every family portrait session, with different lenses on each camera so I can switch between different situations quickly and easily. If I have an 85mm on one camera body, I’ll put a wider lens like a 50mm or 35mm on the second camera body so I have lots of variety in the shots I can take.
Equally, if I’m outdoors and have a 135mm lens on my main camera body, I’ll put a ‘safety’ lens like a 50mm on the other camera body – just in case I suddenly need to fit more in, or the children run much closer to me.
Exceptions to the rules
Ok, none of this is cast in stone. Sometimes I’ll have a particular lens on for a certain situation, and then a lovely moment presents itself and I’ll photograph it with a different lens that I might have chosen deliberately.
Be flexible, and don’t worry too much if things change – that’s life! Here’s a photograph of this exuberant little girl taken on a 100mm macro lens – which is slow to focus as mentioned earlier, but I managed to take this in a quiet moment.
These are the lenses I use.
- Canon 35mm f/1.4 L
- Canon 100 macro f/2.8 L
- Canon 85mm f/1.8
- Canon 135mm f/2.0 L
- Canon 50mm f/1.2 L
- Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L
Choosing the right lens for you is quite a personal decision, but it’s one that’s well worth spending some time thinking about. If you’re not sure which will be right for you, consider hiring some different lenses from your local camera shop – trying them out in real life situations really brings home the difference between each lens.
The lens you choose will have quite an impact on the kind of photographs you can take on a family portrait session, so it’s an important decision – let me know how you get on!
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