Need a fast lens for group portraits...need recommendations

Question about lenses. I’ve been asked to do an outside family portrait…11 people including 2 babies and one young man (age 8?). I’m looking for a faster lens because I’m not sure what the lighting conditions will be, and we’ll most likely be in the shade. I shoot Canon and only have 3 lenses…24-70mm, 100-400mm, and 10-22mm. I also shoot Sony mirrorless. I’d like a 1.2 lens, but probably don’t want to spend that much at this point. So maybe a 1.4 or 1.8. Can you recommend any non-proprietary lenses like Sigma or Tamron that would work well for shooting group portraits with a nice bokeh?

My personal favorite for any kind of portrait is a nifty fifty (50mm) its just so capable even outside of portrait photography. Canon offers a 1.2 ($1300 new-$800 used), my personal favorite the 1.4 prime ($350 new-$250 used), and a 1.8 ($125 new-$75 used). The 1.4 is one of the most capable lenses I have ever owned. Maybe a 35mm as well for a wider shot. I have not shot with sigma lenses so I don’t feel comfortable recommending any of them. Hope this helps!

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Since you say you have a 10-22mm lens, I’m assuming that means you have a cropped sensor camera? And your 24-70… is that the f/2.8 version or the f/4?

So I don’t think you’ll even need a 1.2/1.4/1.8 lens for the light level. Outside, even in shade, you should have enough ambient light for a smaller aperture. You may have to raise your ISO, but you really should be okay unless you are shooting quite late in the day. And frankly, a group that size, you will need a higher f-stop anyway to ensure enough depth of field to get all of your subjects to be in focus. If nice background blur/bokeh is important, then you need to shoot at the telephoto end and maximize the distance between your family group and whatever is behind them. Groups have a tendency to want to pose in front of something… a house, a wall, a hedge… you need empty space behind them with some far off trees or something. If I was working with your existing gear, I’d probably use the 24-70 zoomed out to 70 (which will be like 112mm) and then just back up until I could fit them all in the frame… if you have that kind of space. Try to keep them to no more than 2 rows and then shoot at f/4-5.6. If you are 20 feet away from them, you’ll have about 4ft of depth of field at f/4-4.5, which should be plenty for 11 people in 2 lines front to back. If you are only 15 feet away, you’ll need to be at f/5.6 to get 3 feet of depth of field.

If you don’t have the luxury of space, then you could shoot closer and zoom out on your 24-70… the wider you zoom out, the more your depth of field will increase. However, as you get closer to your subject, it will decrease again. At 35mm, you only need to be 10 feet away at f/4 to get 4 feet of depth of field. But you’ll have more background definition with the wider angle as well.

You could consider getting something like the 35 f/2 IS lens (comparable in price to 50/1.4) if you really want to add some faster lenses to your bag. It will provide the field of view of a 50mm on your cropped sensor camera, which should be wide enough for you to shoot this group outside. You could shoot at f/2 from 15 feet away and have 4 feet of DOF. Again, you won’t have a ton of blurry bokeh because of the wider angle, but it really just depends on how distant the background is.

Another option is the 50/1.4… it’s a pretty decent lens for the price and it will give a field of view comparable to about 80mm. At 15 feet away, shooting at f/2.8, you’ll have about 3 feet of DOF; at 20 feet, f/2.2 will give you 4 feet of DOF.

Do not buy the 50/1.8… you’ll regret it. I had one. It was okay for close up subjects, but the resolving power of the lens fell apart on full body shots.

I would stay away from the Sigma lenses unless you want to become an expert at calibrating them. They’re usually good for about a year and then they need recalibrating a lot. Also, the reports from users are that they have a higher percentage of missed focus shots than with Canon lenses.

You could always rent a couple lenses too to see what would be best for you to buy. To rent either the 35 f/2 or the 50 f/1.4 (or both together) is not a lot.

This image was shot on a cropped sensor Fuji camera with a 35mm f/2 lens at f/4.0, ISO 400, 1/340s (so it’s a 50mm full-frame equivalent field of view). Taken mid-day, in an open shade area.

DOF calculations by

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For comparison, this image was shot after sunset, in the open/no shade, on my full-frame Canon 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens at 70mm from a long distance away. Settings were f/2.8, 1/80s, ISO 400. (Really should have upped the ISO and shutter speed!) We could shoot it at f/2.8 though because they were all single file and we were shooting from so far away. If they were double-stacked… we still might have been okay due to our distance, but might have needed to up the f-stop.

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@erin Has encapsulated it pretty well here!

I recently wrote a piece for the RMSP blog on this topic @fiddleddd

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Thanks, William…just getting back here to find these responses! I may try to rent the 1.4 for the weekend and try it out. We have a high-end camera store in town with a great selection of lenses to borrow. Perhaps they’ll have that lens. The photo shoot isn’t until Aug. 22nd, so I have some time to experiment. Thanks for your input!

Gee, thanks for this very long and detailed description and explanation. Sounds like you’re quite experienced with the technical aspects of shooting groups of people…something I haven’t done much of. And with the young children I want to make sure I have a fast enough shutter speed because of possible slight movement. That DOF calculator is great! And interesting about the Sigma lenses. I’ve always preferred proprietary lenses. The Sigma 150-600 (?I believe) was awful, even after calibration. I have the Tamron version of that now, and I much prefer it. I read some reviews for the 50/1.4 and it sounds like it would be a not-too-expensive lens to have in my kit, and not necessarily for this upcoming shoot. My 24-70 is 2.8, and I love that lens. That’s the lens that I borrowed when I was in school, and I fell in love with it. It was the first lens I purchased after returning home. Just curious…I use a tripod a lot, but I think that would restrict me while shooting people. What is your thought on that? And one last thing…my client showed me a previous family portrait by another photographer, and she hated the busy background. (It was awful). So I definitely want to create a soft bokeh and will place them away from any background. Thanks again for all of this great info and your photos as examples.

I will take some group pictures, probably in 2 rows, though your image works well for a wedding party. My client really wants to see the faces and upper bodies, not full body. I’ll do both, and then we’ll also break into smaller groups and take the individual families, the grandkids with the grandparents, etc. The smaller groups I’ll be fine with, but I’m going to get on Pinterest and start getting some ideas for posing a larger group.

Wow! Thanks, Jeff! I read every word, and I’m going to bookmark the article for future reference. Much of it I knew, but it was good to have a refresher. And some new info is greatly appreciated. And I love your bio. I’m a musician (1st career), so I love the way you wind with your musical pursuits! Thanks for sharing!

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