Do You Prefer a Prime or Zoom Lens for Portraiture?

Traditional advice says that prime lenses are best for portraiture for many reasons, particularly a wider aperture and better sharpness. Nonetheless, modern zoom lenses can offer very high image quality coupled with increased flexibility, and that can cause some photographers to reach for them before a prime lens when doing portrait work. This video explores one photographer's experience with both.

Coming to you from Manny Ortiz, this video explores the benefits and drawbacks of using prime and zoom lenses for portrait work, specifically an 85mm prime and a 70-200mm zoom. Primes are lauded for their sharpness and wider apertures, which provide the ability to isolate the subject with a narrow depth of field and work in lower light conditions, but the tradeoff is the inability to change your framing without physically moving (or changing lenses). For example, notice in the boardwalk photo how Ortiz is physically unable to get closer (lest he learns how to walk on water), and the 85mm leaves him having to crop in quite a bit. It's very much a matter of personal preference, and depending on your style of work and needs, you might require one over the other. Which do you prefer?

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40 Comments

Lee Morris's picture

I'm team zoom. Sure you could get shallower dof with a prime but having the ability to zoom is so helpful and can produce so many more shots in a single environment.

Spy Black's picture

Depends on what your influences are, and of the course the particular project. I think most people today start with zooms, while back in my day I started with primes. This shapes your approach to making a composition. A zoom is generally more versatile from a composition standpoint, but primes can lock you into a look that keeps you in a particular visual frame of mind, and sometimes that's a better approach for a project, or at least certain shots. Also if a shoot has the luxury of good advanced preproduction, you can pretty much know what's gonna cut it and what won't. For more spontaneous things I carry primes and a zoom, and my bases are covered.

David Love's picture

I shoot a lot of knees up or full body but if I like an expression it's nice to be able to zoom in and get the headshot.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I get that, but if someone nails a great expression I'm taking the full body shot- then asking them to hold it as I'll take steps to hone in on the head shot. The verbal "hold that- I love your expression and am going to come in closer for it" takes almost no time, and gives a nice boost to the model. I did that a pair of times in a shoot this week and they loved it.

It's a personal thing, yes. But I personally prefer my feet in a controlled shoot rather than the prospect of the zoom. I do think if I was working with a zoom, I'll still fiddle with the length AND my feet to get the right composition. But everyone must work with what they're comfortable with. The zoom certainly works magnificently for a lot of people.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I think the gear we reach for is heavily influenced by what’s in fashion in portraiture at a particular time. In the present, extreme subject isolation is all people seem to talk about, but most of the “masters” rarely were concerned with shooting wide open unless they absolutely needed to. I think if they had access to the extremely high quality zooms of today, they wouldn’t hesitate to grab one.

Tony Clark's picture

I owned a few zoom lenses when I started my photo career nearly twenty five years ago. It was fashionable to shoot wide open but I found there were a lot of out of focus images, whether user error or autofocus. As I continued my work, I learned to shoot a little more conservative and focus manually. I moved up to medium format systems and there are few zoom lenses available.

As I transitioned to digital 35mm, I preferred fast, lighter lenses primes relative to zooms. I don’t have to worry about out of focus images and the viewfinder is over two stops brighter than the fastest zooms. I do own a 70-200/2.8 but I continue to focus manually.

user-156929's picture

Okay so, why focus manually? Are you talking about food photography, which is all I see on your site, or portraiture, which is the subject of the article?

Tony Clark's picture

My fashion and portrait (www.tcphoto.org) websites are separate from the food site. I rarely have my focus point in the center or at the same point, so it moves throughout the set. I trust my eyesight more than the camera or lenses and the shots have to go at a good pace or the clients aren’t happy.

Anonymous's picture

I'm not sure what kind of focusing screen you have in your particular camera, but at 35mm and at a focal length above 50mm, I sure as hell would not trust my eyesight more than my autofocus through a standard DSLR viewfinder... Especially not at anything resembling shallow DoF and especially not a well-lit studio environment where autofocus shouldn't have any functional problems.

Are you using an aftermarket focus screen (ground glass, split screen, micro prism)? A loupe (eg. Zacuto)? Shooting tethered or in live view and focusing off the bigger screen?
Just using the confirmation dot? In short, how the hell are you focusing accurately through that little viewfinder with a focusing screen that's not even remotely designed manual focusing? I'm genuinely curious because it's been an eternal struggle for me with my manual lenses on my DSLR's.

Seriously, put me on my Nikon FM2n and I'll nail focus all day long. Make me chase that stupid confirmation dot on my DSLR with a manual focus lens and I'm tempted to throw it against the wall and go out and buy a mirrorless.

user-156929's picture

Really nice shots but it looks like there are a few misses, mixed in with the hits. Since you're probably posting a representation of your best work, I'm guessing (GUESSING mind you), your manual focusing isn't as accurate as autofocus would be. I'll take your word for the shooting pace but I've never had an issue with that using autofocus. Of course, some lenses focus faster, and more accurately, than others.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

For anything then action portraits pretty much any skilled photographer should be able to nail focus exactly where he wants it. I just like Tony I shoot 99% manual even though i have AF lenses and a very capable AF in camera. Why ? Simply because i know exactly where i want to place my focus. Now i shoot with A99ii's which has one of the best focusing aid available which sure makes it easy to confirm focus. Still i'v shot weddings with fully manual lenses (ZF lenses) on a D3 with optical VF with no issues at all.

So it comes down to preference, skill and workflow.

user-156929's picture

"...pretty much any skilled photographer should be able to nail focus exactly where he wants it..."
I don't even know where to begin with this, there are so many variables and varying expectations. Suffice to say, your comment, while maybe well intentioned, is surprisingly naïve from someone with your obvious experience.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Well my expectations is to nail focus precisely where i want it.

As for variables.. for static subjects this really isn't that hard given you know what your doing. Understanding the basic as dof and HPFL is of course a given.

I'v shoot with fast manual lenses for years, and while many (mostly hobbyists) claiming this and that none haven't really told me why it's so bad/hard to nail focus with a static subject. I can do it with moving objects as well, panning and pulling focus is a skill you can hone. Ask a focus puller..

Sure if you have a eyesight that's not up for it i can understand. But mostly i think it's inexperience talking then anything else. (when it comes to static subjects)

user-156929's picture

Still too much to address and I'm lazy. Merry Christmas!

Anonymous's picture

I'm also curious about why you would manually focus a 70-200 as opposed to autofocusing.

Fritz Asuro's picture

I don't know, but just a couple months ago I sold all of my zoom and now got myself a 35, 58, & 85... I'll never go back.

Spy Black's picture

A second body is handy when shooting primes exclusively.

user-156929's picture

I'm more of a toolbox kinda guy. I carry, and use, both.

I really like fstopper's original content.

It seems like more and more articles are ones like this where Alex reposts a video that another photographer has made and writes a paragraph or two summarizing it. I think featuring other creators in some venue is valuable but it seems my feed is filling up with these faux articles. If I want to know every time that Thomas Heaton posts a new video I can always subscribe on YouTube!

I've loved a lot of Lee's recent content (it convinced me to but the Tamron 24-70 G2) and i'd like to hear more of Fstopper's unique take join these other voices in the photographic community rather than just re-post theirs.

Keep up the good work!

I appreciate the link. It would be great to have some separate RSS feeds for article categories like that (originals, news, reviews, etc.) to help sort through the large number of posts y'all are putting out.

Alex Cooke's picture

The other thing, Conor, is that most people don't have the time to sift through literally hundreds of YouTube channels, and often, beginners don't know who they should be listening to and not. Part of my job is being a trusted source who can curate the best of the best and present it in an aggregated form. Yes, a lot of people can easily find Thomas Heaton, but how many are going to find that photographer with 50 subscribers that I just featured? It's a win-win: readers get a curated source of the best content and those who create it get broader reach and increased views.

By the way, I do write originals too. :)

Dan Howell's picture

He equates a photographer's personality with lens choice at end of video. That's a bit reductive.

I do wonder why Fstoppers continues to feature Manny Ortiz' videos.

david kidd's picture

the more we comment the more fstoppers will keep featured Manny Ortiz's video :)

Alex Cooke's picture

He didn't equate the two; he offered that as *one* of the reasons he might choose a prime lens. And there's nothing wrong with that, particularly when the lens choice affects the working distance and thus, the interaction with the model.

Dan Howell's picture

You know that's factually inaccurate, right? Or at least incomplete. Working distance is a function of BOTH crop and lens length. If the video author knows a photographer who chooses lens length based on his personality, truly, that would be worthy of an article. I sincerely doubt that is the case.

Alex Cooke's picture

Yes, Dan, I understand what working distance is; I'm a photographer just like you. I think it's pretty abundantly clear that he's using the same camera throughout and has thus normalized crop out of the equation, as would most any other photographer in this specific situation. If you're referring to absolute distance as opposed to relative, he's using a full-frame camera, by and large the prevailing choice for portraiture work these days. His point was that longer focal lengths mean a longer working distance; I think the majority of photographers understand that a crop effectively changes that. He's speaking of relative changes as they depend on focal length; he made no assertion of that being the sole variable. Since you're talking about the function of working distance, it's perfectly normal in math to say f(C,L)=w; now, let's hold C constant and examine changes in the other independent variable. What Ortiz is essentially examining is the dimensionally collapsed function given by the trace of C=1, aka f(1,L). That's a perfectly fine thing to do.

I can name you many photographers who consider their personality and the way they interact with models when they choose a lens. Note I said "consider." You keep trying to say that Ortiz equated the two as if that's the only reason he chooses a lens. He didn't say that. He said it's one of the reasons.

In fact, I've talked about it before: https://fstoppers.com/originals/what-canons-ultimate-portrait-lens-85mm-...

And here: https://fstoppers.com/comment/265983

thomas Palmer's picture

Team prime, my only zoom was my first kit lens. The reason at first was budget alone, but now I have 0 interest in switching. Zoom would make me lazy

Anonymous's picture

I think it really depends a lot on the situation. Generally, I use primes (usually 28mm, 58mm, 105mm), but I also don't do much shooting that involves me thrown into unexpected circumstances. If you're going into a shoot with a solid plan and carrying multiple lenses isn't an issue, then primes are a good option because they will generally edge out the quality of zooms (although zooms have gotten a LOT better than they once were). If you're going into a shoot blind or you're the type of photographer that leans toward more spontaneous exploration, then a zoom is probably your best bet because of the versatility it offers without having to carry 3 or 4 lenses to cover the same focal range.

For my personal shooting, I've found that zoom lenses just cause paralysis from indecision. With any of my primes, I can get a general sense of what the scene will look like from a given position. With a zoom, there's just so much possibility that I just end up second guessing myself constantly. Others, I'm sure don't have this problem, but it just has something to do with the way I process things I guess. It's basically the same reason that I set my DSLR's to only adjust in full 1-stop increments rather than the 1/3-stop that's default. It just helps me make quicker decisions and get shooting quicker rather than fiddling with my gear.

As far as the video goes, for the boardwalk shot, clearly if you wanted to shoot with a prime but get closer in on her, the 85mm would not work, but that's also why we have primes at lengths like 135mm, 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, etc. A 25-70mm zoom lens would have been just as useless as that 85mm for that particular task so the limitation wasn't the fact that it was a prime lens. Prime or zoom, in the end it's all about bringing the gear that's appropriate for what you want to shoot.

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