The desire to capture moments in human history through portraiture has existed since early hominids drew stick figures on cave walls. Since the invention of the camera, no longer do you have to sit for days while an artist paints your likeness, these moments in a fraction of a second with a shutter click.
Photography has never been more accessible, but to stand out above the rest you’ve got to have the right gear.
Whether your intent is making money with your camera or expressing your artistic vision, I will break down some of the essential lens considerations when shooting family portraits.
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 | Best Overall For Family Portraits
The 50mm lens has been a staple in the photographer’s arsenal since the inception of the handheld camera. It became standard in the early 1900s as the most effective focal distance for shooting onto 35mm film and was understood at the time to be an equivalent angle of view to the human eye.
The beauty of the Nikon 50mm lens is in its simplicity and time tested usability. Prime lenses are simple and easy to use – you move around until your frame is desirably filled, then you shoot. Want more space around the subject? Take a few steps back. Want your subject to fill the frame a little more? Take a few steps forward. It’s really that simple.
When shooting family portraits it is important to balance the desirable “compression” given to an image shot at a higher angle, with having a wide enough view to capture the entire subject or scene. The 50mm sits right in that sweet spot. The medium focal length gives just enough compression to make your subjects look attractive, and just wide enough that you don’t have to walk half a football field away to get the whole family in the shot.
The large aperture value of the Nikon 50mm is certainly a selling point, and another reason to have this lens in your camera bag. Being able to really open the aperture up makes this lens invaluable when shooting in low light. Maintaining a higher shutter speed will help reduce motion blur, giving sharp, well-exposed images of your subjects. This is especially useful for freezing the action of large groups, or families with small children when it can be difficult to maintain everyone’s attention on the camera. The wide f1.8 aperture of the Nikon 50mm, when used at its full capacity, provides great foreground and background blur (or bokeh) while leaving your subjects in perfect focus. This is seen as more beautiful and produces more striking, professional-looking images.
When talking about portrait photography it is worth differentiating between art and commercial photography. Time is money, and when shooting commercially you want every shot to count. Likely this would mean running your camera settings more conservatively – more than likely a higher f-stop to ensure that more of your subject is in focus and less out of focus shots are left on the cutting room floor. But, if your focus is high-end art portraiture then Nikon does offer a version of the 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4. This will allow more background blurring and a smaller area of sharp focus. Think photographs where the eyes of your subject are in focus, but the tip of the nose, the ears and the rest of the head are blurry.
All things considered, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is truly a portrait photography classic, made popular by its simple design, usability, and ability to produce professional eye-catching images.
Nikon 85mm f/1.4 | Best Image Quality
A general rule of thumb in photography is that the longer the focal point the less distorted the image will be. You may have heard of this referred to as “image compression”. Distortion is not so problematic when shooting landscapes, but becomes obvious when shooting photographs of people and faces. You might notice straight lines (such as a fence) appearing curved towards the edges of an image, or the appearance of bulging noses and facial features of images taken with a wide-angle lens. This is distortion.
When photographing people the longer your focal length, the more compresses, and therefore more attractive your subjects will appear. Nikon 85mm really plays into this, producing sharp, attractive images, with very little noticeable distortion. Again, this is a prime lens (fixed focal length), so it is simple and easy to use – slap it on and what you see is what you get. Move around, fill the frame, take the shot.
Typically, as focal length increases the maximum aperture decreases (a larger f-stop), and less light makes its way through your lens to the camera sensor. Nikon has managed to overcome this, equipping the 85mm lens with a wide f/1.4 aperture, making it highly capable of producing high-quality images in low light, and beautiful background bokeh.
This lens is great for shooting single portraits, but when considering this lens as an ideal candidate for shooting family portraits, its long focal length becomes less ideal. Getting an entire family framed nicely in a shot with an 85mm lens will mean having to move quite far from the subjects. If you are shooting inside, or in a studio, it might be impossible to back up far enough. If it were your only lens you would be in trouble. But for grabbing beautiful headshots and close-ups, this is your go-to.
Consider the Nikon 85mm as a specialty second lens to something wider, like the Nikon 50mm… or roll it all into one, like the Tamron 24-70mm.
Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 G2 | Best For Versatility
The previous two Nikon lenses have both been fixed focal length prime lenses… So, let’s delve into the world of versatile zoom lenses with the Tamron 24-70mm lens!
Every photographer desires versatility. Versatility means fewer lenses to carry, fewer lenses to purchase, and less time spent changing lenses and exposing the innards of your camera body to the environment.
For less than the price of the two previous Nikon lenses, you can have one lens that does it all. Time is money, and for the commercial portrait photographer versatility in your gear is a premium. Throw this lens on and get the job done!
The Tamron 24-70mm allows you to capture the whole family, then immediately zoom to photograph the laughing faces of the children. Fluidity is key in family portraiture, and being able to zoom and capture those candid moments during the shoot will result in unique photos, impressed clients, and more money in your pocket.
As I mentioned before, there is a distinction between the needs and desires of the art and commercial photographer. This lens is truly geared towards the commercial family portrait photographer. The f/2.8 aperture may appear less desirable than its Nikon prime lens counterparts, but in a commercial setting, it is unlikely to be running the aperture that wide anyway. If you are working in a studio with a flash unit, then your shutter speed will likely be synced at 1/200 of a second, and your aperture much smaller to compensate, making wide maximum apertures a moot point in the decision to purchase. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be concerned about shooting in low light with this lens. The f/2.8 aperture is still acceptable, and modern camera bodies are capable of handling higher ISO levels with little noticeable grain.
I will choose to take a zoom lens over a prime lens for any commercial job where I am on the clock. The confidence in knowing that the one lens on my camera can get it all done is key. When working with a family, especially one with young children, you don’t have all the time in the world to change lenses and restage shoots. You need to be able to capture those candid moments, and the Tamron 24-70mm won’t let you down.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art | Best For Environmental Portraits
As the name implies, the Sigma 35mm is geared towards the art photographer and is a more niche product than a camera-bag staple. But, the large aperture and high-quality glass make it an intriguing lens choice for any professional photographer looking to up their game.
At 35mm, this lens is great for capturing wide shots. You can feel confident getting the whole family in the frame when shooting in tighter spaces. And, while not as compressing as the Nikon 50mm or 85mm, image distortion will appear minimal with good distance to your subjects. But get up close and you will notice the bulging features and less attractive qualities associated with wide-angle photography.
One of the main selling points of the Sigma 35mm is the large f/1.4 aperture. This lens excels in low light conditions. Shoot confidently, with crisp focus and beautiful background bokeh without having to crank the ISO. When wide open you can achieve an extremely shallow depth of field – a trademark effect for the professional art-portrait photographer.
The Sigma 35mm is a high-quality lens, and it is obvious in the images it produces. You will notice a distinct sharpness in the photos you take, and good contrast, even with your aperture wide open. As I mentioned, the lens is a niche product, and not necessarily one I would recommend to the photographer beginning to dabble in family portraiture. But for the professionals looking for a high-quality product to add to their arsenal, the Sigma 35mm has what it takes to inspire a new photographic direction.
What To Look For When Choosing A Nikon Lens For Family Portraits
The first step in choosing a lens for family portraits is to define your intentions as a photographer. Are you pursuing high-end fine art portraiture, shooting commercially in a studio, or just photographing family and friends as you build your skills and portfolio? There are no right or wrong answers when choosing a lens – your direction ultimately defines your requirements.
Large Maximum Aperture
Wide maximum apertures will surely be a strong selling point for shooting family portraits. Shooting at f/1.4-1.8 will give your images a deep and appealing background blur, with beautiful bokeh, and with such a shallow depth of field you can really focus the viewer’s attention on minute details in your images.
The maximum wide aperture is also going to be important if you are going to be frequently shooting at night, or in low light situations. Having your aperture opened wide will let more light onto your camera sensor, and allow you to maintain a high enough shutter speed to eliminate any motion blur or camera shake.
If you are shooting commercial family portraits, then maximum aperture may not be as important as versatility, or usability. You’re going to want something that you can rely on to get the job done. The Nikon 50mm lens is a tried and true classic – a wide enough angle to capture an entire scene, yet just narrow enough to avoid significant lens distortion. It’s so easy to use and capture great images, it’s almost a crime!
The Tamron 24-70mm similarly fits into this category, but with the added versatility of zoom capabilities. No longer do you have to take a few steps back to fit the whole family in the frame, but just a little twist of the wrist, and a click of the shutter. You can go out on the job with only this lens and be confident in getting all the shots you need, and getting it done with ease.
Finally, it is worth noting the value of inspiration in photography. A new piece of gear always inspires a new vision. It’s a new toy to play with. A new way to view the world around us. Consider the gear you have, and choose something different from the rest. Get the lens that fills the gap in your camera bag. There is something so satisfying in the simplicity of prime lenses, that will fill you with a renewed joy in photography if you have not owned one before.
I could say the same about zoom lenses if you had only owned prime lenses. It is so exciting to be able to quickly zoom and immediately grab that piece of the action, that you otherwise would have been unable to capture with a fixed-length lens.
Weigh up your intentions and what you value. But don’t be afraid to follow your heart. There are no wrong decisions. After all, an inspired photographer is a successful photographer.