Fashion photography is all about being in the right place at the right time with the right model featuring the right outfit in the right lighting.
Whether on the street, on the runway, or in a studio, having the right lens might make the difference between getting the cover shot or filling your digital trash can with unsightly images.
Before we dive into some specifics, you will see that the common thread connecting all of these lenses is wide-aperture optics.
There are two reasons fashion photographers prefer and almost require wide-aperture lenses: light gathering and depth of field. Let’s talk about both briefly.
Table of Contents
The larger the available aperture for the lens, the more light is let into the sensor or film.
This allows the fashion photographer to capture images at higher shutter speeds for a given lighting scenario, allowing them to freeze the runway, studio, and street action and avoid motion blur as people are always in some sort of motion—even the guards at Buckingham Palace.
Depth of Field
One commonly used technique in fashion photography is the shallow depth of field, where only a small segment of depth in an image is in focus, and the rest is gradually lost into a creamy blur.
This is sometimes used in studio photography where only the near eye is in sharp focus and out in the street where background objects and landscapes are rendered as soft shapes and point light sources become attractive bokeh.
Fashion and portrait photography are two similar intertwining threads intricately woven throughout the same fabric.
Each genre of photography influences one another’s a unique point of view and is then captured through a unique lens for a differing viewpoint.
While both fashion and portraiture are used to ultimately tell a story, the unique characteristics of that storyline can be greatly expounded upon with the various focal lengths paired with the angles that we choose to utilize in our captured frames.
When it comes to choosing the best lens for fashion portrait photography, there’s a multitude of choices at your disposal.
Ranging from fixed focal length prime lenses and the multiple pluralities offered by zoom lenses, there isn’t a wrong choice. It all comes down to personal preference.
Each focal length provides photographers with pieces of glass that are suitable for capturing images with unique angles, ultimate sharpness, and aesthetic or look that the lens is predominantly known for.
The season of gift-giving is now officially upon us, despite the pleas in some of the ads that have been creeping up since late July.
As photographers, it is the perfect time to give a wishlist to loved ones in hopes of fulfilment (one can hope) or even to take advantage of good deals and satisfy your business needs and began fulfilling that list personally, to start the new year on the right foot.
If you’re looking to be a fashion photographer, you may need less than you think.
Type Of Lens
Commonly referred to as ‘the portrait lens’, the 85mm lens is known for tack-sharp images and the ability to separate the subject from the background velvety smooth bokeh.
The 85mm is primarily used for tighter crops, primarily from 1/2 body to headshot, but it can also capture the full body in larger spaces.
The focal length is very true to life with very little distortion, and the depth of field is easily manipulated to control the overall mood of the shoot.
The 85mm lens is perhaps best known as the quintessential portrait lens among photographers.
The versatility of capturing striking close-ups and full-length frames with sufficient details is the prime reason this lens is attached to my camera more than 85% of the time.
These medium telephoto lenses are notoriously tack-sharp, which is ideal for the details and textures of fabrics in fashion photography. At the same time, the compression of the longer focal length creates beautiful bokeh, making it easier to separate the subject from the background, which is ideal for portraiture.
Whether shooting in natural light conditions or within the studio, these lenses track subjects and focus well.
85mm is also the perfect focal length as it creates just enough distance from the end of the photographer’s lens to the subject while still being able to communicate clearly.
When shooting tighter crops with fashion photography, use the 85mm for added drama when playing with light and shadows to accentuate the hair, skin, and clothing textures.
Although this lens is primarily used for tighter crops and headshots, the overall sharpness makes it a worthy contender for ¾ length shots and full-body images where the details are of the utmost importance.
The depth of field created by the 85mm focal length is easily manageable to create captivatingly moody portraits that make a lasting connection with the viewer.
The compression of the lens yields a lot of artistic opportunities for photographers when storytelling by providing a unique vantage point.
Simply shooting through an object while focusing on the subject adds depth and provides an element of voyeur within the environment, setting the stage to improve the overall feel of the scene.
It has to be said that the science behind the most expensive offerings of these 85mm lenses historically remains largely unchanged and is slightly antiquated at best, not to mention that these heavy hitters are sometimes seemingly as agonizingly slow to focus in less than ideal light as they are heavy.
This is not a bad thing as most of the newer mid to entry-level 85mm lenses being introduced to the market offer a competitive edge at a better price point that is difficult to say no to.
For example, Sony created an entry-level f/1.8 85mm lens a few years back that performed more akin to a mid-level lens from a prominent competitor that was double the cost.
It is quick to focus in an arena of lighting and shooting situations, and the image quality is superb.
This particular lens is a delight to shoot with, and the image quality does not disappoint.
Other companies have since followed suit by introducing lenses that provide image stabilization, a necessary evil as the megapixel arms race continues and the world of photography is migrating to the land of mirrorless at the cost of a mere fraction of a stop reduction. Canon’s 85mm f/1.4L is another shining example of this market trend.
Simply put, it is not necessary to purchase the most expensive 85mm lens in this case if you are shooting with a DSLR or you have been shooting with mirrorless for a while.
Now, if you are changing over to the newest mirrorless offerings from either Canon or Nikon, be prepared to shell out a lot of money.
Finally, if the opportunity presents itself to rent the creme de la creme Zeiss 85mm lens, I highly recommend indulging in the beauty and change of pace the manual masterpiece has to offer.
If there were to be a recommendation for the single most versatile lens on the market, the 50mm lens would be it.
Often referred to as the nifty fifty, the focal length is the best all-around prime lens for portraiture and fashion photography.
The 50mm lens is known as one of the most powerful workhorses in the industry because of its portability and adaptability.
They are one of the lighter lenses in the photography industry and are quick to focus on almost any and all lighting conditions, making them an ideal lens in the fast-paced world of fashion where speed is of virtue.
The focal length of the 50mm lens is wide enough to capture full body length as well as 3/4 body length frames in tighter spaces that fashion photographers rely on to showcase the designs.
The slight distortion of this particular prime lens creates more angular frames that are ideal for lengthening our subjects while simultaneously creating a subtle slimming effect.
This focal length is my personal lens of choice when it comes to working with men’s portraiture and enhancing the architectural curvature of their bone structure without depending on the light to carve out their visage.50mm is also a natural focal length choice when it comes to providing a little more height to female models and women in general.
Portrait photographers rely heavily on the 50mm lens because it offers a striking balance of the background with closer proximity to the subject for environmental portraits.
This compromise makes it easier to establish a scene within a narrative for a fashion story or editorial. It also is ideal for photographers who specialize in personal branding as the prime focus.
While there is a slight distortion, it is minimal enough that the 50mm focal length can also be used to capture tighter crops and portraits in a desirable manner.
The 50mm lens is just wide enough to begin to achieve the unique ground-up perspective for unique angles that are heavily sought after in fashion while providing the option for sufficient bokeh from a slightly different perspective.
It is also light enough that image stabilization isn’t a prerequisite to achieving stunning results. Because of this simplicity and versatility, fashion photographers have orchestrated entire model test shoots using only a 50mm lens.
Pricing for 50mm lenses is relatively inexpensive, starting under two hundred dollars for an entry-level f/1.8.
The price tag naturally compounds as we move towards an aperture of f/1.2 and the newest highly esteemed mirrorless options.
The more expensive offerings come equipped with weather sealing as well as better bokeh.
Seeing as how the 50mm easily adapts to other genres of photography which aren’t often in a fixed environment, such as weddings, street photography, and photojournalism, it is worth it, in the long run, to invest in the glass that will stand up to the environment.
Additionally, the wider aperture is ideal for low light situations as well as creating better bokeh which is more suitable for portraiture.
35mm lenses are tools of specificity, and they are often revered as the storytelling lens for their ability to capture more than simply a pretty picture.
The 35mm focal length is ideal for incredible environmental portraits where the subject is the main focus for both portrait and fashion photography.
It can also be used to create a more intimate connection with the viewer by creating portraits that feel as though the subject or model is in close enough proximity to reach out and touch.
Fashion photographers often rely on this viewpoint and capitalize on this in order to create a sense of intimacy and connection with the viewer when bringing a fashion story to life.
The 35mm focal length is an interesting lens because it can be rather challenging for photographers to utilize when it comes to incorporating people into the environment, and it does require to practise to become well versed with the desired angles to facilitate the overall scene.
That being said, it is easy to fall in love with this lens once the user has become acquainted with and embraced its nuances.
The 35mm focal length is one of the very best lens choices to successfully incorporate and communicate a story within our imagery for portrait and fashion photography.
On a full-frame camera, the 35mm lens provides an image quality that is reminiscent of a wider lens on a medium format film camera body.
This timeless look set the precedence for the standard of fashion photography from its inception, and it will continue to be sought after for years to come.
The 35mm focal length is wide enough that it provides only a slight distortion, and yet it isn’t so unrealistic that the overall frame becomes fallible; its point of view remains true.
This is an exemplary perspective when capturing environmental portraits, especially for commercial branding sessions, where the entirety of the environment is necessary to convey the specific point of view.
When it comes to shooting in small spaces such as a car or the back of an AirStream, the 35mm offers proximity to the subject that can be so close that it feels as if we are invading their personal space while at the same time providing the viewer with the sense that they are part of that scene.
It creates just enough separation from the background, maintaining the subject as the main focal point of interest.
Last but not least, the focal length of the 35mm lens allows fashion photographers and portrait photographers alike to capture entire full-length images in a thriving city background safely.
Once this lens becomes second nature, it is difficult to put down, and its unique perspective often unleashes endless creativity. I have yet to work with a 35mm lens at any price point that has failed to provide the intended results.
Fashion is all about the story and being able to properly convey it.
The 35mm lens is better known as the ‘storytelling lens’ because of its ability to capture its subject and the surrounding environment, whereas longer focal lengths focus primarily on the subject.
It does require some practice in learning to embrace the interesting angles that are very popular for fashion as well as learning to control the minimal distortion and keep it more true to life.
The 35mm focal length also provides close proximity to the subject and conveys a sense that they are close enough to reach out and touch. Because of this, the viewer feels as though they are a part of the captured experience.
For those photographers that do not naturally gravitate towards prime lenses or prefer to have more of a one size fits all option, the 24-70mm lens will be your go-to lens.
It offers a one-stop-shop for most of the focal lengths that are relied upon for fashion and portrait photography alike.
It may actually be the all-around best lens for fashion and portrait photography.
While it doesn’t offer the same bokeh as the high end 85mm lenses, the compression is more than sufficient to separate the subject from the background and not detract from the story being told.
In fact, it is a gratuitous compromise that runs parallel between the benefits of the 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm prime lenses.
The convenience of the 24-70mm focal length allows fashion photographers to stay in one place and capture a multitude of crops of the exact same image without having to work or move around the subject.
This is essential for capturing lookbooks where hundreds of looks are being shot as quickly as possible.
A 24-70mm zoom lens can be used to shoot an entire story, both fashion and commercial portraiture alike, while offering unique angles and perspectives.
The 24-70mm lens is also a lens to be used for embracing distortion. Playing around with the never-ending variety of angles and perspectives is as much fun as it is artistically liberating.
The distorted look is heavily embodied throughout the realm of fashion photography to create a mood while simultaneously accentuating the product being sold.
The distortion facilitated by shooting at a wider focal length from the ground up yields a sense of power and presence while also highlighting the fashion being worn.
Adversely, shooting down at the subject can create a sense of belonging while focusing on an item such as a purse or pair of shoes makes for a playful fashion image.
These same characteristics and ideals are used by portrait photographers to influence how we can use the 24-70mm focal length to capture our clients. We shoot up at our subjects when we want to convey a sense of strength and confidence.
We shoot at both eye level and even slightly down at our portraiture subjects in order to showcase a feeling of approachability and even slight vulnerability, making the overall frame that much more believable and impactful.
The drawback of these lenses is that they are not the most ergonomically friendly lens to work with.
Additionally, their convenience and ability to encapsulate such extreme varieties comes at a steep cost, often upwards of $1,000.
It is worthwhile, however, to invest in something of this calibre to ensure the best array of image quality options for our clients.
Proper lens choice paired with thoughtfully planned out and executed angles can take an ordinary fashion or portrait photoshoot and improve upon the overall quality of the images produced.
As the world is steadfastly moving to all things mirrorless, it isn’t necessary for portrait and fashion photographers to keep their current lineup of glass and buy a quality adaptor such as a Metabones to make the transition easier.
It is also never a bad idea to purchase one main lens and rent the other pieces of glass to explore their capabilities and ultimately choose what the best fit for your camera bag is.
Many fashion photographers working in the industry own minimal gear and will rent the best camera bodies accompanied by the best high-end lenses for the job, ensuring high overall client satisfaction.