Critically sharp: The Phase One Sekor AF 110mm f/2.8 LS D (top left).
Portrait lenses have come a long way since Josef Petzval’s first 19th-century design, but while photographers’ tastes have changed, the basic requirements are still the same. David Kilpatrick picks out six of the best currently available.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the best portrait lens was Josef Petzval’s f/3.6 design, which gathered enough light to allow a short exposure but, in the process, graded from a sharp centre to a gently darkened, softer margin. Its field of view was similar to a 135mm lens used on full-frame 35mm. Julia Margaret Cameron’s early portraits survive as the best known examples of this look, using a fixed aperture Petzval made by Jamin, Paris.
The portrait lens has been with us ever since, as distinct from a landscape or technical lens. Petzval laid down the basics – a narrower than standard angle of view, a fast aperture for light gathering and differential focus, softening towards the edges, and only sharp if well stopped-down.
The classic 20th-century portrait lens – for all formats from 35mm to 10×8 – was the Rodenstock Imagon. Lighting and film had improved so much that a fast lens was no longer needed, even though Ernemann had won over commercial portrait photographers with the 135mm f/1.8 Ernostar for quarterplate cameras in the 1920s. This lens was sharp enough centrally for Dr Erich Salomon to use it, hand-held, to capture political figures at their summits and meetings.
The Imagon was a simple two-element achromat, with an H=4.5 widest aperture. By inserting a range of different metal stops drilled with patterns of small circular apertures, both light transmission (H-stop) and soft-focus “glow” could be controlled. With a large centre aperture and small ones round the edges, only a small amount of this glow was added. A small central aperture and larger outer ones created a strong soft focus overlaid on a sharp core.
This lens, and similar concepts such as the Leitz Thambar 90mm f/2.2 with optional centre-blocking stop, created the classic range of soft-focus portrait effects for Hollywood star portraits and top social studios alike.
The arrival of electronic flash and the need to work at apertures such as f/11 was no problem, as the apertures discs allowed this without losing the soft effect. Still, further lenses were simply made to produce soft focus wide open, sharp stopped down. Some Leitz Hektor and Voigtländer Heliar lenses had this quality but, to confuse matters, not all. The Hektor name, for example, also covered wide-angle and long-focus lenses designed for improved sharpness.
Few modern lens makers continued these ideas. A new method took over instead, as cameras acquired shutters capable of exposures less than 1/1000s, and all forms of lighting became more controllable.
Recent dedicated portrait lenses from Minolta, Canon and Pentax normally need to be used within their first three f-stops wide open (say f/2.8 to f/5.6 range) to produce soft effects, and have a moving group that sets the degree of spherical aberration you can dial in.
Zero gives a normal lens without any soft focus, settings 1 to 3 give a controlled results more or less matched as you stop down. Using the strongest setting wide open will create a highly diffused image but the optical design still provides a sharp core.
Further developments in portrait lenses have included Nikon’s DC concept, enhancing the smoothness of blur transitions, and Minolta Smooth Transition Focus (STF), where a concave lens element is made from grey tinted glass and positioned close to the aperture diaphragm. Full aperture images acquire circles of blur confusion, which don’t have sharp edges. DC and STF were (and remain) high-value niche market lenses.
A few years later, along came Lensbaby and took the portrait lens market back to the mid-1800s. How? A simple, wide-aperture achromat with plenty of spherical aberration, the glass optical unit of the Lensbaby 3G provides a vaguely sharp image centre and super-soft margin. Waterhouse-type aperture stops can be dropped in to vary light transmission and sharpness. And you can even make your own with patterns such as the Imagon, or use shapes such as a star or heart to change the bokeh.
We are no longer concerned with the polished, perfect portrait-lens glow of the Imagon as an objective for the lens designer. For half a century the Zeiss Softar portrait filters, add-on softeners, have given that look to the world’s sharpest lenses. Many filter makers have copied the Softar; and plug-ins, actions and filters for Photoshop can take a perfectly sharp original and imitate the effect well enough.
Professionals don’t like to capture images with all effects in place today. They cannot be removed. In the past there was no choice; diffusing a portrait in the darkroom produced a dark veil – not a light glow and soft focus had to be done at the taking stage. That is no longer so, and a good sharp raw file can be processed as desired without losing the original.
For those who do want to create the effects optically at capture, Lensbaby is not the only choice as it’s easy to press magnifying glasses or old plastic lenses from cheap cameras into service with today’s live-view focusing interchangeable lens cameras. But Lensbaby comes ready made with focusing and camera mount.
My selection of current portrait lenses therefore does not focus on special, optical portrait designs, but on the actual lenses a professional user is most likely to value for portrait work. I’ll admit to using all focal lengths imaginable for portraits – 24mm is a favourite for environmental editorial shots – but, for this round-up, we are looking at lenses in the range from around 70mm to 135mm, with a wide aperture allowing full control of focus depth. That is the current definition of a portrait lens.
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical IF
It may seem odd to kick off with a lens also found under multiple import brand names such as Vivitar and Rokinon; one manufactured in manual focus only, and lacking either focus confirmation or auto aperture coupling for some camera systems.
However, this solidly made (if more plastic than metal) Korean product has charmed the market since it appeared in 2009. Now the Nikon version, which has always had auto aperture operation, has been given an Exif chip, so focus confirmation works and proper image data is recorded. The close focus of 1m is not as good as most more expensive options but the central sharpness wide open is excellent, and the “look” of the image is a match for the best.
With a typical UK shop price of less than £300, only the Nikon AE mount has full aperture and metering coupling. The Canon, Sony and Pentax versions are all more basic manual preset aperture lenses. The multicoating is efficient. It takes 72mm filters, feels dense at 513g for such a compact design, and the lens hood is deep but with a far from firm bayonet.
It has even illumination across the frame, slightly soft wide open at the edges, but improving on stopping down until it matches the best such lenses around f/5.6. There is no sudden corner fall-off even at f/1.4.
Manual focusing is reliable and fast enough, especially in the Nikon version, and it’s a good choice for student or occasional, less-pressured professional use. It offers an image quality and smooth bokeh that would otherwise cost close to £1000, and it can be bought directly from Foto-Tip in Poland, the main European importer, for as little as £205.
Canon 85mm f/1.2 USM L II
The widest aperture out of all the portrait lenses here, Canon’s revised version II of the 85mm f/1.2 USM is best appreciated for the difference made to focusing action and speed.
The original version was already a top-class optic, but suffered from sluggish focusing action. There is a lot of glass to shift inside this very large mount.
The one issue that remains in the new 85mm design is what’s known as colour bokeh. This is a subtle effect where details in front of the focus plane take on a visible colour tint to their blurred outlines, and those behind take on the opposite hue. It doesn’t mean the lens has chromatic aberration, it’s just the way the image-forming light reacts with the digital sensor, and cannot be seen on film.
Micro AF adjustment is vital with the 85mm f/1.2 as the professional Canon bodies only see f/2.8 as the virtual aperture of the lens, so AF focus is never better than f/2.8 accuracy.
Focus error wide open is the main reason it’s not an ideal £2640 investment (£1700 street price) for owners of sub-£1000 bodies such as the EOS 550D. It is a natural pair with professional bodies, especially full-frame 1Ds and 5D variants.
Amazingly it takes 72mm filters, but weighs a hefty 1025g.
Leica 90mm f/2 APO Summicron
Over many years and in versions for the screw mount, M-bayonet and R-series SLRs, the 90mm f/2 Summicron has maintained a position that only the digital era diminished.
The latest design, the APO Summicron Aspherical for M and R, brings the design up to date for sensor compatibility and uses expensive glass types to give maximum detail resolution and contrast at f/2.
With most f/1.4 designs, there is a noticeable improvement if you stop down to f/2. The Leica lenses offer much the same f/2 with no need to buy an f/1.4 just to get that “one stop down” edge.
For portraiture, Leica lenses have the benefit of very high micro contrast relative to their overall contrast. Skin texture and hair are recorded in a way that makes them look more real and three-dimensional. The 90mm for R also focuses to 70cm, which, combined with its extra 5mm focal length, makes it a good solution for tight face shots and close-ups.
Previous generations of Summicron 90mm, both M and R, all show their own unique colour signatures, balance of resolution and contrast and can be bought for much less than the £2400 or so a new one commands (at street price).
Rangefinder Summicrons are popular for use on Micro Four Thirds and NEX compact bodies; reflex versions are often converted to fit Canon digital SLRs.
Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T*
As with the Summicron covering rangefinder and SLR systems, the CZ 85mm Planar can be called a classic cross-system choice. It has been made in different optical factories and won its current reputation as part of the defunct Yashica-Contax SLR system.
Today you can buy the 85mm Planar as a manual focus lens for Canon EF, Nikon AI and Pentax K, and as an autofocus version for Sony Alpha. The lenses are not entirely identical – the autofocus version has closer focusing and a more complex optical unit.
The Canon-fit ZE version has an electronically controlled aperture; the ZF Nikon version is like a plain Nikon F lens, the ZF.2 version is chipped for focus confirmation and Exif data. The ZK is a manual Pentax K-mount type.
All are manufactured for Zeiss by Cosina in Japan, have six elements in five groups, and focus to 1m. They have a warm image colour, slightly soft wide open, but very sharp by f/4. Prices are around £900-£1,000.
The Sony Carl Zeiss SAL 85mm f/1.4 T* ZA uses nine elements in eight groups, with AF as close as 85cm and a better wide‑open performance. It is made by Sony with Zeiss quality control and costs £1,400.
Phase One Sekor AF 110mm f/2.8 LS D
So why is it also a new classic portrait lens? Digital users will add their own softening, vignetting and similar effects. What sets this lens apart is the 1/1600s leaf shutter flash synchronisation speed, the first leaf shutter to exceed the 1/1000s sync of the linear-motor Rollei SLX lenses unveiled in 1970.
For portrait work outdoors, this allows wide lens apertures with fill-in location flash in full sunlight. Hasselblad leaf shutters at 1/500s have been the standard for this with digital backs, now the normally focal plane Phase One/Mamiya system has an extra 1.5 stops of range.
The 110mm focal length is a short portrait lens on 6x4.5cm film, but normal on the smaller format of digital backs – equal to around a 95-100mm depending on the sensor. For the photographer using this system, the complete set of leaf shutter f/2.8 LS D lenses – 55mm, 80mm and 110mm – would be a perfect portrait kit.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 G
The Nikon 85mm AF-S G f/1.4 lens is given a full test here, and is my sixth choice for reasons the review makes clear. Adding Nano Crystal Coating to a lens with such large glass surfaces, traditionally the source of dramatic flare and ghosting in 85mm designs, has improved this enhanced revision of a classic lens.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Sigma’s new 85mm must be mentioned (even if it doesn’t make the top six as it’s not actually out yet) as it’s a budget match for the operational quality of top-brand lenses. Featuring an HSM ultrasonic autofocus motor, it costs about half the price of either Canon or Nikon fast 85mm lenses with similar silent AF mechanisms.
The Sigma was announced at PMA earlier this year, and can be found offered for sale at a few dealers on pre-order for around £700.
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