Shooting Portraits on a $12,000 Lens

Shooting Portraits on a $12,000 Lens

This week, I borrowed a $12,000 600mm lens and decided to shoot portraits with it. Random? Yes. Weird? Of course. But I learned some things I never would've experienced had it not been for this, so here's my review of the 600mm behemoth for shooting portraits.

The holy grail of portrait lenses is commonly touted as the 85mm in either an f/1.8 or f/1.4 capacity. Recently, camera manufacturers have introduced long, wide-aperture lenses that produce out-of-this-world bokeh. But how many times have you seen someone shoot portraits with a lens normally designated for wildlife or sports photography?

I pulled out the AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR I had on loan this week and decided to see for myself how a lens worth $12,299.95 (£11,999) handled naturally lit portraits. I had no idea what to expect, so read on to discover the benefits and drawbacks I had while shooting portraits with it.

You Feel Conspicuous

Portrait of woman outdoors

This 600mm lens is huge, and everyone who passed by while I was shooting glanced over to look, which made me aware of just how careful I had to be during the shoot

This was by far and away the most obvious feeling I had while shooting. The 600mm has its own suitcase, and it's as long as my arm and weighs almost 4 kg, which is heavy when you think how far it's stretching far out beyond where lenses would normally end. My main worry was that someone would come along and steal it. It looks big and expensive, and that's because it is. Everyone who walked or drove by saw that I was shooting with this beast.

It's Hard to Communicate

Portrait of woman in flowers

To get back far enough to take a head and shoulder shot like this, I had to shout to my subject for changes in postures

Because I was shooting at 600mm, I had to get a long way back from my subject, and that made it difficult to communicate postures. Most of the time, I found myself yelling out loud: "Yes that's great, look up towards the treetops!" or "Take a small step to your left!"If you're shooting a client, this isn't going to be the most friendly way of setting up a nice, relaxed portrait session. 

Settings Are Extreme

I was shooting handheld under the canopy of a tree-lined road during an overcast sunset, so to say things were going to be difficult would be an understatement. The low light levels and the fact I was handholding the camera and lens meant my settings had to be maxed out on almost every level.

Woman walking along road

In darker conditions, I relied on a fast shutter speed and high ISO to retain sharp shots

The maximum aperture of the 600mm is f/4, so that was my starting point. The law of reciprocals for shutter speed normally indicates that my exposure time not be any slower than 1/600 sec. But in order to achieve a balanced exposure at that shutter speed, I had to whack my ISO up to 10,000, which is doable on my Nikon D750, but not ideal.

I Had to Underexpose

Headshot of woman outdoors

In order to keep a fast shutter speed and avoid camera shake blur, I had to underexpose my shot and boost exposure in image-editing software

In order to retain a sharp image devoid of camera shake and subject blur, I pushed my ISO to between 1,600 and 2,000, depending on the shot. I had to slow my shutter speed down to 1/500 sec and let the vibration reduction (VR) on the lens do the rest.

My Final Lens Settings

As you're probably aware, these long lenses usually have a fair amount of extra settings on them to compensate for the massive focal length and colossal size and weight. I engaged VR in normal mode and not sport. That's because my subject wasn't moving from side to side, so I didn't require any special VR treatment in that orientation. I chose to focus limit from infinity to 10 meters, which meant my autofocus could get a quicker grasp on my subject, rather than hunting all the way down to the minimum focusing distance and back up again. It felt like it made my AF about twice as fast.

Out of focus portrait of woman

Without changing the autofocus limit, the AF would hunt for so long that it meant some shots were out of focus when I got eager and hit the shutter release button when I thought focus was getting close

I left all the other settings either off or on default. 

The Background Becomes so Smooth

Like a creamy, buttery wall of... well, butter? This lens creates the most consistently plain out of focus backgrounds you can imagine. If ever you find yourself in a busy, cluttered shooting environment and you just wish you brought your own paper roll backdrop, then make sure you've packed your own $12,000 600mm — easy! It's such a long focal length that everything behind my portrait subject disappeared into a wall of color and shade. Even positioned right up against a flowery hedgerow, the surrounding environment just disappeared into bokeh behind my model. 

Portrait of woman with arms in the air

The complicated tree-lined background was transformed to a paper-smooth finish for an even background, which aided subject separation

I love shooting with my AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II because it produces fantastic subject separation against busy backgrounds, but this lens is just on another level. Obviously, this is a result of the physics at play that come with a lens of this focal length, but even so, its out of focus areas are sublime.

What I Liked

The perspective compression is brilliant for flattening facial features, and it produces magnificent subject separation. The lens is super sharp from edge-to-edge, so I've no qualms with placing the subject anywhere within the frame. It focuses quickly once the focus limit button is engaged (provided that the subject isn't closer than 10 m away), and the vibration reduction holds the frame rock steady. It was a joy to shoot portraits with this lens, and the extra-long focal length produces results that I wouldn't otherwise have seen, as it brings the background perceptibly closer to the subject, creating a sense of intimacy.

What Could Be Improved

Obviously, this lens isn't designed for straight-up portraits in the traditional sense, but rather portraits of wildlife and sports or other action-based activities. But in the context of shooting traditional portraits (if you can call them that), it would've been nicer to have a smaller, lighter lens to work with. The newer telephoto lenses being released in the past few years by Nikon that are designed for the mirrorless systems are lighter in weight and smaller in form factor. 

Nikon 600mm telephoto lens

The 600mm lens does create fantastic portraits even if it's not specifically designed for that, but the shooting distance from the subject and sheer weight mean it's too impractical for everyday portrait sessions

I'd also prefer to have a zoom that allowed me to recompose without moving around, because at focal lengths such as 600mm, you have to do a lot of walking just to go from a head and shoulders to a full body shot. Although the autofocus system is fantastic, it does take some time to hunt through the range, and I found that occasionally, I'd be waiting for focus to lock on before taking the shot. I believe the new eye focus tracking of newer camera models would help alleviate this issue, though.

Should You Buy It?

If you've got $12,299.95 (or £11,999) burning a hole in your bank account, then sure, why not! It makes sense to get this beast if you're a wildlife or sports photographer because you need that extra reach to capture distant animals and players when shooting on location. But if you're planning on just using as a portrait lens, then there are obviously other lenses to reach for at a much lower price before choosing this one. The 70-200mm I mentioned above, an 85mm lens, or even a simple and cheap 50mm will give you a better portrait bang for your buck. That said, the 600mm gave amazing edge-to-edge sharpness, and there was absolutely no chromatic aberration that I could see.

Woman smelling buddleia flower

The 600mm lens makes some fantastic-looking portraits, but it's a little big and pricey for the average portrait photographer, and when I say a little, I mean a lot

It was an interesting experiment to see how the lens behaved when compared with my 70-200mm f/2.8 or my standard 50mm f/1.4. It's a lot heavier, so my arms gave out more quickly, and I had to shout loudly to communicate. So, would I take this to another portrait shoot? Probably not. But I can envision where this kind of lens would be good for portraits. Say you have a climber on a rock face or an astronomer using a telescope to see the stars: the perspective compression would help to bring the foreground and background closer together for a more impactful shot. 

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Harry Bloomberg's picture

I shoot with a 400mm f2.8 and sometimes a 1.4x teleconverter. These lenses are really intended to be used with a monopod as a support. Why were you shooting handheld???

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

See his last paragraph.

Tom Reichner's picture

But his last paragraph does not explain why he shot handheld, instead of with support.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

He wanted to experiment shooting the 600 as if it were a normal portrait lens.

Ziggy Stardust's picture

Sports and wildlife supertelephotos are widely used handheld for quick responses. Today's sensors can handle the ISOs needed.

Michael Rocktaeschel's picture

"Random? Yes. Weird? Of course." :-) Did you also rent a megaphone to direct your model from 1km distance ;-)

Peter Blaise's picture

That's what wildlife photographer do?

Yell "... hey deer, over here ..."

Versus "... hey dear, over here ..."

Fred Krowchenko's picture

At lease use a monopod, why hand hold?

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Great exercise, yes, pun intended. :D But, in terms of background blur/separation, I do think there’s a point of diminishing returns after roughly 200mm. Your distance to subject negates the subject distance to background. Using your waist up images as an example, had this been a blind test, I never would have guessed those were at 600mm f4. The first two looks like to me probably could have been 200mm f3.5/4 and f2.8 for the last one.

Juno Morrow's picture

I agree. It can make a difference in landscape shots, but at portrait distances/scales my eyes can't really tell the difference between 200mm and 600mm.

David Pavlich's picture

Pretty much. If I had a big photo piggy bank, I'd have a 200mm f2 prime for outdoor portrait work. I may have a 600 as well, but it would be hooked to a monopod or tripod/gimbal just for taking long distance kat pictures. :-)

Peter Blaise's picture

"... blind test ..." ... I see what you did there.

( See what I did there, and again? )



Deleted Account's picture

The "darker conditions" shot is awesome.

N A's picture

Someone was bound to try it :)

I've shot portraits with 300 & 400 2.8s, yeah, no go. Even the 300 handheld was too much for any length of time.

I think, if you want longer FL, extremely shallow DOF and manageable form factor, 200 f/2 fits the bill.

Juno Morrow's picture

I get that tripods and monopods can be stifling, but shooting with that thing handheld??? I cant even imagine picking it up, let alone holding it up for an entire shoot!

Peter Blaise's picture

I can't imagine paying the insurance to hand-hold it!

I've dropped little tiny light-weight plastic 50mm lens assemblies.

This thing is so big and heavy, it must have it's own gravitational field to pull itself out of my hands.


Philip Rohlik's picture

This is awesome! I randomly sign into fstoppers and see Big Sur legends Magda! Epic. Awesome post epic photos! So cool!

Peter Blaise's picture

Photography fallacy: "... perspective compression ..." has nothing to do with the lens, but only to do with the difference between
... the perspective of the photographer
... the perspective of the viewer of the final presentation.

All this lens does is ... crop in camera.

Any shorter focal length lens at that same photographer's position would have taken the same picture, and more, but when the capture image is cropped, we will see that the cropped portion from a shorter focal length lens produces the same picture.

A longer focal length lens used at the same photographer's position would require stitching in post-capture editing to produce the same capture, but it would produce the same capture nonetheless.

We crop in camera to preserve capture resolution.

Otherwise, we crop in post-capture editing and take what we get, resolution wise.

Present the final image with the same angle of view as the original capture, and the viewer will not notice anything different from what the photographer noticed.

The perceived "perspective distortion" is, in fact, the distortion between
... the photographer's taking capture angle of view
... and the presentation viewer's angle of view.

Keep them the same, and there is no perceived "perspective distortion".

Regardless of the lens used.

Yes, including a fisheye lens, capturing a circular horizon, exactly as a fish sees when looking up underwater, as you or I would see when doing the same, with no camera in front of us at all.

Let's stop assigning total system observations to one element in the system, so to speak, especially an element that is not responsible for the thing we are observing.

Thanks for exploring this and sharing.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

---"Any shorter focal length lens would have taken the same picture, and more, but cropped, would produce the same picture."

What? No. If you took a portrait with a 35mm and a 200mm, framed the same, they will *not* produce the same picture.

Peter Blaise's picture

In response to [ Black Z Eddie . ] who wrote "... What? No. If you took a portrait with a 35mm and a 200mm, framed the same, they will *not* produce the same picture ..."

The context is the author's phrase "... perspective distortion ..."

-- Perspective = where the photographer stands.

-- Distortion difference between input and output of a system.

The author of the article was claiming that the lens itself is responsible for "... perspective distortion ..." as if another lens would not produce "... perspective distortion ...".

The author of the article is comparing lenses.

The author of the article is not comparing anything else.

So, all things being equal, and comparing lenses only, let's try again:

"... Any shorter focal length lens would have taken the same picture, and more, but cropped, would produce the same picture."

Note "... and more, but cropped ...".

And I can and will edit my post to be unambiguously clear:

"... Any shorter focal length lens at that same photographer's position would have taken the same picture, and more, but when the capture image is cropped, we will see that the cropped portion from a shorter focal length lens produces the same picture."

And it does.

Thanks for exploring this and sharing.

William Faucher's picture

Framed the same, no, you are correct. But both shot from the same distance, then cropped in post? Yes. Of course the 35mm would be extremely low-resolution, but the framing and look should be about the same.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

No. Even shot at the same distance, a 35 and 200 will not look the same. If you crop in post, of course you can frame it the same, but, the compression and out of focus areas still won't be the same. Hence, not the same photo.

*Edit*: Oooops, I was wrong. There is no compression difference.

William Faucher's picture

Maybe you want to do a bit of research before criticizing others.

As we said, if you are the same distance from the subject, and crop the wide lens shot to frame it the same as the telephoto, your result will be very similar. There is a gif in the article above that clearly demonstrates this, shooting wide and cropping, vs, using a long lens. Overlaid on top of each other and you can see it's the same.

Of course the physics behind each lens will attribute some differences in the DoF falloff, field curvature distortion, etc. But the general look will be the same. Of course you're not going to get a pixel-perfect match because of so many factors, the longer lens will give a much cleaner, sharper result, but you get the point.

The lens compression you speak of is actually perspective distortion. The longer lens doesn't compress anything. It's just how things look from that distance.

Don't get me wrong, I totally thought the same as you until only a year or two ago.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Yes, I've seen those articles before.

And, I stand corrected. I did the test with a 35 vs 75 and 35 vs 200 at a typical portrait distance. Framing wise, the 35/75 was almost identical. The 35/200 was pretty close.

Out of focus area wise, as expected, the 200 was more pronounced than the 35.

With all that, they still do not produce the same photo, which was my whole contention.

Jan Holler's picture

Quit an experience! Thank you for sharing. For portraits, I'd go for the 300mm f/2.8 instead. The background gets very smooth also.

Peter Blaise's picture

... the background gets smooth ... not because of the lens, which is just a thoughtless, decisionless magnifier ... but because of the photographer's distance from the subject elements.

Jan Holler's picture

Ah, I did not know that, thank you so much for explaining. I thought it was because of the shallow depth of field (which depends on the distance to the subject, the f-number and the focal length). Still, two out of three variables in the formula coming from the lens...

Peter Blaise's picture

What would the focal length -- the magnification of the formed image -- have to do with the relative contents within the subject scene itself?

How would the various subject scene elements know that someone was looking at it all with different magnification, and then change itself for each different looker, depending on the looker's magnification capabilities?

The scene must go crazy trying to accommodate two people standing side by side, each with different focal length lenses, the poor scene trying to look ... not smooth? ... for the person with a shorter focal length lens, with less magnification, and the scene trying to look smoother for the person with a longer focal length lens, with more magnification.

Yeah ... no.

All that different focal lengths do is change the magnification of the projected capture image.

The subject scene, and the resulting capture images and presentation images themselves are the same for all lenses, only requiring cropping or stitching in-camera or in post-capture, to present the same total system magnification, all lenses are capable of producing essentially the same presentation, plus or minus cropping or stitching.

What a pain, though, to do all that cropping and stitching just to cobble together the desired enlargement presentation.

When, instead, we could accomplish all that cropping and stitching in-camera, and simplify our work of creating presentations images.

And that is why we want, have, and use different focal length lenses -- in order to simplify our photographic pathway to the presentation image we want, without a lot of cropping and stitching post-capture

And, no, "... shallow depth of field ..." has nothing to do with the lens, all lenses have the same subject field element relative depth of field at the same aperture and distance from the subject elements, again, only requiring cropping or stitching to produce the same final magnification/enlargement of a presentation image.

All that changing focal length does is change magnification, resulting in cropping in-camera, or requiring stitching post-capture, but all lenses producing essentially the same image at the same distance and at the same aperture.

How could it be any other way?

Thanks for exploring this and sharing.

Jan Holler's picture

It is the circle of confusion what you are looking for. Go, read about it and you'll understand.

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