Just like any other genre of photography, portraiture is a creative field that knows no bounds. There are no rules dictating how a portrait needs to be made, how it needs to look, or more specifically, how it was shot. On the other hand, photographers love to categorize and label things based on “best” and “typical” usage situations (and I’m certainly guilty of doing this). One of the labels that bothers me is the term, “portrait lens.” I think most photographers would have a decent sense of what kind of lens I’d be referring to if I wrote “taken with a portrait lens.” Most of the time, most people would think I’d be referring to a short to medium telephoto lens or longer focal length lens; something longer than “normal” (there’s another one of those brilliant labels) but still wide enough to give a sense of environment and context. And to pigeon-hole it even further, many people would immediately think of an 85mm f/1.4. Even though I think many of us share this sense of reductionism, we also know that a portrait can be made with any focal length, or any lens, for that matter. Here’s a look at five lenses that I’d call unconventional portrait lenses.
Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 Di III VXD
I love to be contradictory, especially with the first lens in an article like this, but I’m going to include the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 Di III VXD here because I truly believe it is an unconventional lens that excels at portraiture. If you break this lens down, it makes perfect sense as to why it’s a good match for portraits: longer-than-normal focal lengths and a fast design. However, the fact the it’s a single zoom puts it in a unique place, even when compared to other wide-to-tele zooms. Compared to a 24-70mm, or even something like a 24-120mm, it’s actually a more useful lens since the entire zoom range is useful for wedding applications. The 35mm position is great for quick group shots and a more reportage style and the 150mm position is great for isolating subjects at a distance. And then there’s the added benefit of a starting f/2 position, making it a faster lens at the wide end than other zooms. It’s a unique lens for sure, a weirdly a perfect fit for wedding shooters, and might even entice some to photograph a whole wedding with a single lens.
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
Now we get weird. Who would ever think of using a tilt-shift lens—a lens that’s very slow and tedious to use when photographing buildings, let alone moving subjects—as a portrait lens? Well, the master portrait photographer Gregory Heisler does. In his own words, “they're my favorites for a million reasons. For the portrait work I do, the kind of perspective control I can get is ideal—and not just with converging lines, but I can render space much more creatively with a tilt-shift lens. I also like that they are manual focus and that most focus close. They're crazy sharp and they have to be sharp over a bigger image circle. I just love those lenses.” Heisler is a big fan of the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, specifically, but states he uses them all, from the 17mm f/4 up to the unique 90mm f/2.8.
Nikon NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct
Unconventional and awe-inspiring, the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct is a bit shorter than what one would commonly associate with a portrait-length lens, and a fair bit faster, too. Modeled after the famed Noct NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 of the 1970s, this contemporary update is built specifically for the mirrorless Z mount and features some of Nikon’s most advanced optical capabilities to achieve truly impressive sharpness and characteristic rendering, along with the distinct depth of field of an f/0.95. Despite it being a contemporary lens, this 58mm f/0.95 is a manual focus prime and doesn’t shy away from being a physically large and imposing piece of glass. It’s a great conversation piece and something that’s sure to generate some reactions on set.
ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF
Along similar but opposite lines, the ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF is just ever so slightly wider than the 50mm mark I mentioned and, as such, this is a context lens. But it’s not as wide as a 35mm lens; it still retains that focus and selectiveness of a normal-length lens, but lets a bit more of the environment provide some additional context in your images. And another trick it has up its sleeve is the CF, or Close Focusing, design, which lets you get as close as 9.4" at 1:3.3 magnifications—it’s close, not macro. And this closeness could be used very creatively for some more intimate portraits, headshots, or detailed shots of a subject’s face without having the standard pulled-back sense of an 85mm or longer lens.
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DG DN Macro Art
My last pick for an unconventional portrait lens is a 105mm f/2.8. Okay, not exactly too unique of a focal length for portraits, but the fact that it’s a macro lens can open up some new possibilities for “portraiture.” The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DG DN Macro Art is a fairly traditional macro lens in the sense that it’s a short tele focal length, has a life-size 1:1 maximum magnification, and offers an 11.6" minimum focusing distance, which translates to a close 5.5" working distance. You can get your typical headshots and mid-length shots with this lens, but then home in on the eyes, hands, or other character-making features of your subject. It’s a perfect tool to add a dynamic touch to your portrait sessions and break up the visual repetitiveness with some close-up details and immense shallow depth of field.
These are my five picks for unconventional, unique portrait lenses. What are yours? Do you have a favorite lens for portraits that most others wouldn’t think to use? Let us know, in the Comments section.