By Stan Sholik
Without question, macro lenses are among the most versatile type of lens for general photography. All true macro lenses focus from infinity to half life size, and most focus all the way to full life size. That ability allows you to fill the frame with the subject’s eye if you desire. In portrait sessions, a macro enables you to frame and compose your subject without being restricted to the minimum focusing distance of a non macro lens. Don’t be fooled by zoom lenses with “macro” in their names. These are not true macro lenses as they don’t focus to at least half life size and are not well corrected even for close-up photography.
True macro lenses as a class are the sharpest lenses available. Sharpness can be a blessing or a curse in portraiture, depending on your subject’s skin. But with the vast array of software tools available for softening and smoothing skin, this is not really the issue it was in the days of film. With digital capture, it is far easier to remove blemishes and smooth skin in a natural way than it is to sharpen the subject’s eyes and retain a natural look.
The biggest photographic disadvantage to using macro lenses for portraiture is their maximum aperture. While there are many portrait lenses available with apertures of f/1.4 to f/2.5, there are only a few macro lenses available with apertures larger than f/2.8. If you prefer shooting wide open to give maximum separation of your subject from the background, or your portraiture style is journalistic or uses available light, macro lenses may not be right for you.
You must have precise focus with a macro lens, so it is always best to use a tripod or camera stand. Many of the latest macro lenses incorporate image stabilization now, and this is a real advantage if you have to hand-hold the camera for a portrait or you're not using flash as your main light. If you aren't using TTL metering, remember to correct your exposure as you move closer: increase exposure by one EV step at half life size and two EV steps at 1:1.
Full frame head and shoulders portrait with the D3s and Nikkor 105mm f/4 macro lens, hand held at f/11 with studio electronic flash. Skin retouched in Lightroom 4 by brushing on negative Clarity. ©Stan Sholik
Walking closer to the model, I took more photos at various distances. This is my favorite. Same lens and exposure with a small exposure compensation and skin retouching in Lightroom 4. ©Stan Sholik
Image stabilization does increase the cost of the lens, and for a given focal length and maximum aperture, macro lenses are generally more expensive than non-macro lenses. One reason is the need for the focusing mount to travel much further in rotation. Where non-macro lenses may focus from infinity to their closest focus by turning the focusing ring through 90 degrees or less, macro lenses often require a rotation of 180 to 270 degrees to focus from infinity to 1:1. This works to your advantage in portraiture, giving you far more precision when you focus, particularly if you focus manually, which I recommend.
If you use a full-frame camera for portraiture, either film or digital, then a macro lens with a focal length of 85mm to 105mm is an excellent compromise between working distance and producing a flattering portrait. A shorter focal length tends to emphasize the nose or the side of the face closest to the camera in an unnatural way, while a longer focal length makes it difficult to interact with the subject.
For APS-C digital SLRs, macro lenses with focal lengths from 50mm to 70mm are ideal for portraiture. Lenses in these ranges for your camera also give you sufficient room to set up lighting and not to be too invasive of the subject’s personal space.
If your portraiture includes newborns and babies, don’t even think about non-macro lenses. Baby skin and their small delicate features are ideal subjects for portraiture with macro lenses.
Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. His new book on Lightroom 4 for Wiley Publishing will be available this summer.