How to Use a 50mm Lens for Portraits – Make the Most of Your Existing Gear

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Wondering how to use a 50mm Lens for portraits? You’re not alone. This is one of the most common queries we encounter online when it comes to this type of lens. The ‘nifty fifty’ format is immensely popular for a broad spectrum of shooting environments, including portraiture.

In this guide, we’ll dive into the world of portrait photography and offer some tips for how to make the most of your existing gear. Even the most ‘budget-friendly’ setup can cost hundreds of dollars. For this reason, it’s important to make sure you’re squeezing every last bit of usefulness from your equipment.

Read on to elevate your portraits and start taking photos with impact.

portrait photo

Why People Use 50mm Lenses

If you’re brand new to the world of photography, it’s worth exploring exactly what makes 50mm lenses so popular. If you’re looking for a format that will keep delivering the results you need, this format is usually an excellent choice.

It’s a firm favorite of photographers everywhere, and for good reason. Read on to learn some of the reasons why.

They’re Versatile

The FOV and light sensitivity of most 50mm lenses makes them remarkably versatile. For those who need a lens that can tackle practically anything you throw at it, this is a great format to go for.

In more specific circumstances, there are of course lenses that will do a better job. If you need a good ‘Jack of all trades,’ though, it’s hard to go wrong with a good 50mm. In fact, these lenses have grown such a strong reputation that they’re often referred to as ‘nifty fifties’ by photographers around the world!

They’re Ubiquitous

Versatile lenses are usually very popular. This is certainly the case with 50mm products. For this reason, they’re very easy to find no matter where you are. For a lens that’s easy to maintain, affordable, and compatible with your existing gear, this might just be the best format around.

They Take Great Portraits

It’s worth mentioning that this one is at least a little bit subjective. That said, 50mm lenses can take absolutely incredible portraits. Their focal length and ability to take in lots of light make them excellent accessories for portrait photographers.

The main thing is to make sure that you’re using the equipment properly. We’ll get into this a little further down the page.

They’re More ‘Human’

Many people talk about 50mm lenses as having “the same effective focal length as the human eye.” It’s important to note here that people say the same thing about 35mm lenses too.

Either way, many people prefer ‘nifty fifties’ for their natural, ‘human’ viewing angles which can make for some absolutely gorgeous shots. To get the results you need, however, you’ll have to make sure you know a thing or two about taking portrait photos.

Read on to learn more.

How to Make the Most of a 50mm Lens – Things to Consider

So, you’ve bought yourself a shiny new 50mm lens and are wondering how on earth to take decent portraits with it. Don’t worry – help is at hand. The tips below are designed to help you make the most of the gear you have available.

Keep in mind that much of this guidance will be useful no matter what kind of lens you’re using. We’ll also give specific 50mm advice throughout.

Lighting

If you take one thing away from this article, it should be that your lighting environment is the most important aspect of taking a good photo. This is true of portrait photography, but it’s universally important no matter what kind of photo you’re trying to take.

When it comes to taking portraits, the specific lighting setup you use will depend on your intended result. Generally speaking, you’ll want to be using plenty of soft diffused light that’s angled to flatter the face of your model.

50mm lenses usually come with great ISO ranges and can let a ton of light into your camera. You shouldn’t usually have to compensate much in terms of shutter speed or aperture setting.

If you nail your lighting, you’re much more likely to nail your photo. Looking for more lighting guidance? Check out our in-depth guide here.

Composition

Many newcomers to photography overlook composition when it comes to portrait photos. The reality is that composing your scene correctly is just as important with portraiture. As mentioned earlier, 50mm lenses have a very ‘human’ FOV.

It’s worth keeping this in mind when composing your shot. The scene around your model should be designed to draw attention to them. How can you position your camera and scene to best capture the person you’re working with?

Consider color, shape, framing, and your background for best results. Want to take your composition skills to the next level? We have a free guide on the subject here.

Distance

So how close should you stand to your subject when taking portraits with a 50mm lens? The good news is that the 50mm format is pretty resistant to both distortion and blur. This means that the best approach to determining the right distance is to experiment!

It’s a good idea to start about 1.5-2 metres away from your model and then adjust your distance accordingly. Do you want the background to be blurred out? How much of your model’s face do you want in your frame? Are you going for a close-up shot or a half-length photo?

Asking yourself these kinds of questions will make it much easier to find an appropriate distance when shooting.

Your Model

The model you’re working with should be one of the first things you consider when setting up for your shoot. The human face is an astonishingly varied subject so each person will take a different approach to shoot correctly.

Different faces will look better with different lighting setups. Experiment and tweak your setup appropriately for each new person you’re shooting with. Take advantage of your 50mm lens’ versatility; change your settings to adapt to each new model you encounter.

Eye and Face Detection

It should come as no surprise that the eyes and face are two of the most important visual elements of portrait photography. Most good 50mm lenses come with built-in eye and face detection these days.

If you’re looking for a specific brand recommendation, Sony tends to perform very well in this department (be sure to shop around though!). Eye and face detection works by adjusting your camera’s focus to better capture the face of your model.

If you’ve never used it before, it’s worth experimenting with it a few times to get to grips with how aggressive your specific lens can be. Remember that sometimes it’s best to stick with manual settings.

It will all come down to your specific lighting environment and model.

Focus

The focus results you’re aiming for with your portraits will likely change from scene to scene and model to model. As a general rule, however, you’ll want your subject’s face to ‘pop’ and appear sharply in focus in front of a soft background behind them.

An f-stop of f/1.8 usually works quite well for this when shooting with most 50mm lenses. Remember that your specific model will determine the settings that work best for you so you’ll almost definitely have to tweak this slightly.

Most 50mm lenses worth their salt come with at least half-decent autofocus modes. Depending on your scene, it can be very beneficial to experiment with manual settings to push things up a notch.

Consider a Tripod

We’ve already mentioned that 50mm lenses are usually pretty tolerant of things like distortion, camera shake, and image blur. That said, even the steadiest of hands could benefit from a decent tripod.

It’s just one less thing to worry about when it comes to shooting. If you can guarantee that your equipment will stay steady, you can focus your efforts on more important things like lighting and composition.

Some photographers prefer to shoot handheld and that’s fine. If you’ve never tried portraits with a tripod, though, we think it’s worth the extra setup time. Wondering which tripod to use? We have a handy guide on the subject here.

How to Make the Most of a 50mm Portrait Lens – Our Verdict

Making the most of a specific lens takes a little bit of know-how to get right. If you leave this article remembering just one thing, we think it should be that lighting is everything when it comes to taking a great photograph.

50mm lenses are typically very versatile and can handle a broad variety of different lighting conditions. With this in mind, the environment you shoot in should be considered as just as important as the equipment you’re shooting with.

If you can nail down your lighting, composition, and overall framing, a huge amount of the ‘heavy lifting’ has already been done for you. Remember to take advantage of your lens’ ‘human’ FOV and start taking photos that make a lasting impression.

Happy clicking!