The Unsung Heroes of Portrait Lenses

The Unsung Heroes of Portrait Lenses

There are many staple lenses in portrait photography that are recommended to beginners and professionals alike. However, there is something of an unsung hero lurking in a different genre entirely that could complement your gear arsenal perfectly.

I have mentioned how I got into photography on several occasions, but really, there were two different areas of the craft that lured me in. One was portraiture ,and it had captivated me for as long as I could remember. I didn't much care for the glamour or beauty portraits of the aesthetically fortunate, but rather portraits that told a story. I have a long-standing love for street photography and the portraiture that would regularly feature in it, as well as the portraiture of musicians, artists, and people of note.

The second prong that poked me towards buying my first camera was far more unusual: macro. For years, I had been admiring the work of photographers who I vaguely knew and their obsession with capturing tiny insects in great detail. I had zero interest in entomology before I saw macro stacks of things I'd batted away previously without a second thought. I couldn't shed the desire to try it myself, and so, that's what I did.

Eventually, after using a macro filter and being reasonably impressed with the results, I decided my interest in photography and macro wasn't a fad, and so, I invested in a macro lens. This purchase is a weird story in its own right, as in my inexperience, I bought a lens that, while genuinely made by Canon, took me a few years to identify. It was not what I wanted to buy, but it ended up being a hidden gem from 1990, and I've still got it today!

My accidental purchase: a 1990 Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.

While I wanted to buy a dedicated macro lens — that is, one that can perform macro photography and little else, like the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro — I couldn't afford it. So, I settled for a 100mm f/2.8, which is a popular focal length for macro lenses anyway. The benefit of this particular type of lens is that not only can it perform macro, it functions as an ordinary 100mm prime lens too. It is in essence your standard prime lens, but with a much closer minimum focus distance.

It wasn't long before I decided to try my hand at portraiture and my only two lens options were a nifty-fifty and an accidentally purchased 100mm macro relic. To my pleasant surprise, the macro lens was an excellent portrait lens too. This is a trend I have observed and leaned into for over a decade, and while many other photographers enjoy these versatile lenses, I wanted to draw some more attention to them.

Why Macro Lenses Make Great Additions to Your Kit Bag

The first reason macro lenses make for great portrait lenses is simply the focal length. Longer focal lengths tend to be preferred for many types of portraiture, from 50mm through to 200mm. I have opined regularly about my love for the Canon 135mm f/2, lovingly known as "Lord of the Red Rings," as well as the Fujifilm GF 110mm f/2 R LM WR on a medium format body. I have then conducted entire portrait series with the Canon 85mm f/1.8 — another low-cost gem — and my most used lens for headshots is a Sony 90mm.

Macro lens portrait by Alex Cooke.

Fortunately, many macro lenses that can double up as portrait lenses are within this range of 85mm to 200mm (on a full frame sensor). The aforementioned most-used lens for headshots is the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS, which I bought for my commercial macro work (and served me brilliantly in that capacity alone). So, why are these focal lengths so attractive? For me, it's twofold: compression and subject separation. When taking most portraits, the longer the focal length, the better (within reason) for making features flattering and proportionate, and my favorite look is in the range of 85mm and 135mm.

Macro lens portrait by Alex Cooke.

As for subject separation, this is, of course, heavily influenced by the widest aperture, and f/2.8 isn't that wide, but when paired with a longer focal length, it really is enough. Many of the times I use a macro lens for portraiture, I will want the background to be blurred enough that the subject is the only thing that will catch the eye, and whether I'm using the 100mm relic by Canon or the 90mm by Sony, I've never had a problem with that.

Musician, Ryan Beatty, part of an editorial shot for FAULT Magazine.

The second reason macro lenses are useful for portraits is the minimum focus distance that makes them macro in the first place. Although there aren't quite as many occasions to shoot extremely close to a subject (and even fewer subjects who will let you), it does come in handy, as you can see in the image above and the image of Ryan Beatty. It will allow you to get creative with details, it will allow you to shoot some specific types of beauty images, and my personal favorite reason, which was a key objective in both example images in this article, it allows you to create an intimate feel.

Close-up of model and musician, Rachel Wilkinson.

Conclusion

There are a plethora of great portrait lenses out there for varying prices. But, whether you're focused purely on portraiture or you like to shoot multiple genres, macro lenses are worth a look. The macro lenses that aren't dedicated to only macro usually come in the right sorts of focal lengths for pleasing portraits, they are typically fast enough wide open, and best of all, secondhand examples can be found for reasonable prices. If you are in the market for a longer prime and plan to use it for headshots and portraiture, perhaps you ought to have a look at the many macro lenses on the market that too often get overlooked.

Do you use macro lenses for portraiture? Share your favorite image in the comments below.

Lead image of KALEO frontman, shot by me for EUPHORIA Magazine.

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7 Comments
charles hoffman's picture

it's not that macro lenses are good for portraiture, it's just that any decent lens in the 75-110 mm range for full frame cameras will allow you to shoot from a distance where you're not distorting facial features from too much proximity

a good portait has a natural sense of viewing a face from 4-7 ft away. get too close, and the nose is measurably closer than the ears, so it looks larger.

But using a macro lens proves one thing - you don't need an f1.2 or f1.4 lens for natural portraiture. If anything, shooting at less than f2.8 will too often make part of the face or the hair go soft.

The world's best natural portraits were shot with Leica 2.8 90mm lenses. Nothing bigger is needed

Rodney Johnson's picture

I wholeheartedly agree. This is a good focal length at the perfect max aperature.

S M's picture

Now I know what to do with the exact same lens I accidentally purchased 4 years ago when I was first getting into photography. Macro never stuck, and that lens has been a bit of a detail timelapse lens now, but portraiture might be the way

Alex Cooke's picture

Macro lenses are such sleeper hits. Sharp, often have great stabilization, easy to handle, and way more affordable than top portrait lenses.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

Pentax 100mm macro definitely fits this thought

barry cash's picture

https://fstoppers.com/originals/ups-and-downs-using-macro-lenses-portrai...

https://www.apexeloptic.com/using-a-macro-lens-to-shoot-portraits/

Biggest downside for me is the extreme fall off and they are to crispy no model wants to see all their pore’s.

Ivar Dahl Larsen's picture

For many, many years I have used a Canon 85mm/f1,8 on an aps-c format and lately a 60mm/f2,4 xf for Fuji equivalent to 90mm full frame. They both do the trick wonderfully.