Sunday, May 17, 2020


By Heinz Richter

I came across an article by Kurt Iswarienko about what he considers to be the five best lenses for portrait photography.  It reminded me of a presentation by Arnold Newman.  I met him on numerous occasions.  He visited Minneapolis quite often because many of his relatives live here.

His presentation covered a broad cross section of his work.  After showing a rather stunning portrait, one voice in the crowd proclaimed that the image had to be taken with a 100mm portrait lens.  Newton’s face instantly changed to a rather stern look.  He interrupted his presentation and said that he had read the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, even some of the Sanskrit, and nowhere ever did he find any indication that portraits had to be taken with a certain focal length lens.  He went on to severely criticize any of the mistaken beliefs that only a so-called portrait lens should be used to take photographs of people.

I wholeheartedly agree, and so apparently does Kurt Iswarienko.  The lenses he describes range from 35mm to 135mm with only two falling into the so-called portrait lens range.  It is also interesting to note that three out of the five lenses are Leica lenses.

They are the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux M ASPH II, the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH and the Leica 75mm f/2.0 APO Summicron M ASPH.  The other two are the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* ZF.2 and the Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZF.2, excellent lenses in their own right.

On choosing a lens for portrait photography, a lot depends on the photographer and how he or she approaches the subject.  Iswarienko writes, “Show me 10 photographers and I’ll show you at least 11 divergent opinions on which lens is right for a particular type of photograph.”  With other words, his choices are based on lens performance and on his approach to portraiture.

Leica Summilux-M 1:1,4/35mm ASPH. Silver

About the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux M ASPH II he writes, “This lens is tack sharp all the way through the entire aperture range, and wide open at 1.4 it has a 3-dimensional quality I can’t explain, but which I love. This lens is superb for any application. I use it on every shoot, especially for portraits with a more environmentally wide angle feel.”

Leica APO-Summicron-M 1:2/50mm ASPH.

The Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH “ is a focal length often considered to be boring, but Leica has achieved something sublime with this 50mm lens. It has a magical, imitable quality no other lens I’ve ever used can duplicate. Without fail, I cover every set-up I shoot with this lens because I love it so much.”

Leica APO-Summicron-M 1:2/75mm ASPH.

The Leica 75mm f/2.0 APO Summicron M ASPH is “perhaps the most obvious “portrait” focal length in my kit, this lens just has a beautiful quality that can only be described as cinematic. I won’t say more, other than it’s a must-have in any portrait photographer’s kit.”

I very much agree, although I have used essentially all focal lengths at my disposal for portrait work at one time or another.  That even includes the Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide-Heliar and of course my trusty 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit.  People have often shown surprise that I also use my 135mm f/2.8 Elmarit.  I do believe that this is one of the most underrated lenses Leica has made for M mount cameras.   For one thing it is a very well performing lens, but it also affords me to work at a greater subject distance.  Although I do work quite regularly with professional models which are used to being in front of a camera, many of my clients definitely do not fall into that category.  It has been my experience that it is much more successful to put them at ease if I don’t stick a camera right into their face.

As Arnold Newman said in his presentation, use the lens that will do the job right.  Don’t get mislead by unsubstantiated conventions to use just certain lenses because someone somewhere said so.  Our equipment is ultimately nothing more than a means to an end, the end being a good photograph.  Whatever lenses work best for the job are the ones we should use, always.

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  1. "Ultra-Sharp" used to be considered a negative factor for considering a lens for portraiture. The 5cm F1.5 Summarit was considered ideal for portraits when in production. A good, clean example free of haze and cleaning marks has those qualities.

    1. While I agree that excessive detail is not always desirable for portraits, I cannot agree that a lens which lacks overall sharpness is more desirable, unless portrait and similar work is the only photography one does. I rather have a lens with optimum sharpness and, if it's too sharp for certain kinds of work use a soft focus filter or other softening device. That certainly expands the usefulness of a lens.

    2. That's right, you can lower the resolution of a lens with a number of devices, but you can't increase it, you can't use/get, what is not there to begin with.