This happened today at 1pm, organised by sister-in-law Diane, and we walked around Pennington Flash as a tribute to Sue’s late brother Mark. There was quite a group gathered, and I made a group shot to commemorate the event.
After the walk, the magnetic attraction of an ice cream van overcame most of us.
Until there was but one buyer left.
Also at Pennington Flash was the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.
It was good to see such a great turnout and a great opportunity to share thoughts and memories.
Kirklinto Hall is near Carlisle and another place worth a photographic visit. It is under a slow restoration, so return visits every now and again may see some progression. Our visit was way back in 2018, so here are some pictures from then. Hopefully soon we will be back for an update!
I came across a lovely description of the MR Jamess voice while reading a lesson in church as being delightful: he lend you his understanding of the text. Even 100 years ago, this was quite an achievement for most listeners with a lesson from the King James Bible.
This is something that we should aspire to achieving without photographs, showing people not only what was in front of us, but sharing more of the background, more of the facts about the situation. The question is, though, how we can achieve it.
Unless youre very lucky indeed this is going to require a lot of thought. You will need to consider what a viewpoint gives you a birds eye view of your subject, so that a landscape resembles a map, and you can trace routes through the geography and relate one part of the scene to another in a way which reflects reality. This isnt as easy as it seems perhaps there is a curve in a path as it passes through a dip, or a gate which is at right angles to the film plane so that it isnt visible.
If you are photographing a workshop the image needs to show what is done there and the tools used to do it in a way that reduces or eliminates the need for a written explanation. How do you make it clear that the pieces of wood on the bench will be assembled into a camera? Or how would you convey the idea that the round thing in the vice is the alternator from a car under repair?
Trying to find a good example in my own portfolio proved somewhere between difficult and impossible. Well have to make do with a view of Symi from the room we stayed in in 2015, which at least shows the complexity of this town. (Id planned to use a view of Lindos but Symi is an easier place to explain, visually ) And it makes me want to go back for another holiday on Rhodes: sadly, it would be this year.
Simply seeing the Milky Way is already an awe-inspiring experience, and photographing it is one of my favorite things in the world. Although I’ve already written several articles about photographing the stars, today I wanted to specifically cover the gear needed to get great night sky photos.
This article is a continuation of my recent article on the best equipment for landscape photography. As such, I’ll be using the same rating scale to judge the usefulness of each type of astrophotography gear:
1/4: Rarely worth getting
2/4: Can be useful
3/4: Very useful
4/4: Must buy!
However, this time I couldn’t think of any “rarely worth getting” equipment that is popular among astrophotographers, so there is nothing rated “1/4” in this article! Almost every common accessory for Milky Way photography can be useful under some circumstances, even if I don’t tend to use it for my own photography.
Without further ado, here’s my analysis of the necessary gear for capturing great photos of the Milky Way at night.
It should go without saying that you need a tripod for Milky Way photography. I’m sure there are some people out there who take handheld Milky Way shots just to say they can, but they’re losing a massive amount of image quality that way.
One time, I didn’t bring a tripod along because I was traveling with some friends and didn’t expect to do much photography. Our view of the Milky Way ended up being amazing. I tried to take some shots by putting my camera on the ground, pointing toward the sky with a self-timer. I ended up with bad compositions, bad focus, and blur from the camera slipping in the grass. My friends took better Milky Way photos with their phones. It was humiliating. Bring a tripod!
Full-Frame Camera (3/4)
The usual advice for Milky Way photography is to get a camera with the best possible high ISO noise performance. And while that’s true, two techniques I’ll cover in a moment (star trackers and image averaging) mean that it’s not a necessity. You can theoretically take top-quality Milky Way photos with even a point-and-shoot so long as it has manual mode and shoots raw.
But boy does a good camera make things easier. Full frame is the way to go if you can. They also tend to have better lens options for shooting the Milky Way than aps-c cameras.
Wide-Angle Lens with f/2.8 or Greater Maximum Aperture (3/4)
Wide lenses allow you to use longer shutter speeds without blurring the stars. And large apertures allow you to capture more light – critical considering that a lack of light is the biggest barrier to high-quality Milky Way shots.
However, as with using lower-quality cameras, you can also use slower lenses or telephotos for Milky Way photography these days without actually sacrificing image quality. You just need to be using a tracking head or image averaging.
But wide-angle lenses with a large maximum aperture are still the ones to beat. That’s particularly true if you want to do some special case photography like capturing details in the Northern Lights, which can’t readily be improved with star tracking or image averaging.
Headlamp with Red Light Mode (4/4)
One of the most important pieces of gear you can bring along for Milky Way photography is a headlamp. With a headlamp, you free your hands to set your camera and adjust composition. Most headlamps also have a low-light mode, unlike a lot of flashlights.
Try to get one with a red light mode because it doesn’t strain your night vision as much as white light. Just remember to turn off the headlamp before taking your photos, or you’ll end up with a red foreground!
Bright Flashlight (3/4)
Even though I generally navigate with a headlamp at night, it’s always helpful to bring along a bright flashlight as well. One of the easiest ways to focus on the night sky is to shine a flashlight at something in the distance and focus on that instead, approximating infinity focus.
This is the one I use because it’s small, light, and has variable brightness. If you already have a good one, just use that.
Light Painting Gear (2/4)
I’m not much of a light painter in my Milky Way photos. Some people love it and consider it a necessity. The best light painting gear varies from flashes to lightsticks to even drones with lights attached, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
In the rare case where I’ve wanted some light painting, as in the bridge photo below, I’ve used my flashlight or headlamp to provide slight foreground illumination.
Focus Aid Filter (2/4)
Generally, lens filters aren’t closely associated with Milky Way photography, but there are a couple types that photographers occasionally use. One of those is a focusing aid filter. It works by adding streaks to the stars in your photo – streaks which are misaligned when the star is out of focus and aligned when it’s in focus. The idea is that you’d attach the filter, focus, and then detach the filter.
There’s nothing wrong with them (they do work well) but I find them no faster or easier than the other focusing methods I tend to use at night. Feel free to get one if the other methods cause you to strain your eyes, though.
Light Pollution Filter (2/4)
The other somewhat common filter for Milky Way photography is a light pollution filter, designed to filter out some of the yellow colors of light that are common near cities and towns. While light pollution filters may seem like a good idea, they often cause enough color shifts in the foreground (and blurry corners on the cheaper filters) that I tend not to recommend them. The situation where they’re the most helpful is for deep-sky astrophotography in polluted areas, where you’re using a star tracking head (see below) to maximize image quality.
Star Tracking Head (3/4)
One of my favorite accessories for capturing high-quality photos of the night sky is a star tracking head. To use it, you just point the head at the North Star – or equivalent area in the Southern Hemisphere – and it follows the rotation of the stars all night (technically the rotation of the Earth, but we all know what I mean). You can attach an ordinary tripod head and compose your photo however you want. Wherever you point, star trails will be eliminated.
However, the downside is that “earth trails” – i.e., a blurred foreground – is inevitable when you use a star tracker. Some photographers choose to take a second, non-tracked photo of the foreground to merge the two together in Photoshop. Other photographers use star tracking heads for deep-sky astrophotography anyway and don’t have a foreground to worry about in the first place.
Whatever you choose, star tracking heads can give you absurd levels of image quality at night. I took the photo below with a fourteen minute exposure (plus a separate shot for the foreground). You can see in the crop afterwards just how much detail is in those stars.
Tripod Leveling Base (2/4)
If you want to take panoramas at night in order to capture the whole Milky Way, a useful tool is a tripod leveling base. Leveling bases go directly underneath the tripod head, and they have a few degrees of motion in each direction to allow your tripod head to be completely level even if the tripod legs aren’t. This way, you can rotate the tripod head to take multi-image panoramas without introducing a major tilt to your shots.
There are certainly more advanced setups if you want to do complex nighttime panoramas (our friend Aaron Priest is known for that) but a leveling base is a good starting point if you’re after basic panoramas.
Remote Shutter Release (3/4)
It’s common in Milky Way photography to be shooting with unusual settings that are much easier with a remote shutter release. Whether you’re trying to capture star trails with an hour-long exposure, a timelapse movie, a sequence of images to blend later, or anything else unusual, a remote release of some kind can be very useful. Although most cameras have built-in intervalometers, a separate remote will usually have much more functionality.
Battery Management System (3/4)
If you’re shooting a timelapse or sequence of images at night, you should make sure you have enough batteries to last. Cold nights sap away battery life faster than you may be used to, and the same is true of constantly recording images one after another.
Plenty of cameras these days have an option for continuous power over USB, which means you can use a high-capacity external battery pack to keep your camera charged all night. If yours doesn’t, you may want to look into a standard battery grip that can at least double the capacity on most cameras.
The easiest option, if you’re not shooting a timelapse and don’t mind interrupting your camera for a minute, is just to bring a bunch of extra batteries and swap them out when they reach one bar.
It’s easy to get cold while you’re taking Milky Way photos, especially if you’re just standing around next to your tripod in the dead of night.
With no sunlight to keep you warm, even a seemingly reasonable night around 15 Celsius / 60 Fahrenheit can start to feel surprisingly cold. Bring more jackets than you think you’d need, plus handwarmers, a hat, gloves, and so on – even if it seems like overkill. Make things cozier by bringing a camping chair, blanket, and a portable speaker to enjoy the evening as your camera clicks away.
Milky Way Tracking App (3/4)
The Milky Way is generally found to the South, even if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere (though it’s much more overhead to you if that’s the case). It starts the night in the Southeast and moves toward the Southwest.
Still, it changes quite a bit based on the time of year and where you are on the globe. Rather than simply planning to look South, a better idea is to have an app that can track the Milky Way and show you where it’s going to be at any time and date in the future.
There are plenty such apps out there. I have no affiliation with them, but I like one called PhotoPills that has an augmented reality view of the Milky Way superimposed on the landscape in front of you, with whatever time/date you select. I’m sure there are others that do something similar, but either way, I recommend a Milky Way tracking app to make your life a bit easier.
Other Apps (3/4)
There are so many other potentially useful apps for Milky Way photography that it can be hard to keep track. You’ll want a good weather app that shows cloud cover details; I use a free one called Astrospheric. For deep-sky astrophotography, there are plenty of apps which show where to find particular details in the sky. I can’t say I’m very impressed with any of the ones I’ve tried, but I use two called Star Chart and Star Walk 2 that are passably good. And then I’d recommend PhotoPills a second time because of its information about the moon and meteor showers, plus specific features for calculating star trails. It’s a $10 app, though, while the others are free.
Sequator or Starry Landscape Stacker (3/4)
As much as I like using a star tracker to capture maximum image quality at night, there’s a method I like even more – image averaging. With the proper software, you can load multiple photos of the Milky Way to be averaged together, a process which drastically reduces noise and improves image quality.
The two best options are Sequator (Windows) and Starry Landscape Stacker (Mac), which align the stars before averaging your photos. They keep the foreground and all other stationary objects in the photo untouched. It’s similar in image quality to using a star tracker, at least for most uses.
This sort of software is why I’m comfortable using an f/4 lens (the Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4) as my primary Milky Way photography lens these days. It’s also allowed me to get dramatic improvements to my depth of field at night, as you can see in the photo below, where I was able to use f/8 and take 33 photos to average:
A single photo with the same depth of field looks like this, completely unusable:
You can also use image averaging to take telephoto images very easily, either to enlarge the core of the Milky Way or to show off other astronomical phenomena, like the comet Neowise that showed up last year:
For what it’s worth, you can also take image averaged photos of deep-sky objects (or even use a combination of image averaging and a star tracker) to get very high levels of image quality. If you don’t have a foreground in your photo, the best software options are DeepSkyStacker (Windows) and Lynkeos (Mac), both of which are free. Again, I have no affiliation with any of these, and there may be others out there that are similarly good – just sharing what I’ve used.
Topaz Denoise or Similar (3/4)
The last step of Milky Way photography is the post-processing phase. There’s a lot of noise in most Milky Way photos, so a good noise reduction product is very helpful. I generally just use Lightroom’s noise reduction, but not because it’s better than other software out there. It’s not; it’s just convenient. To get top quality, I recommend downloading Topaz Denoise or some similar artificial intelligence noise reduction software.
I hope this article helped you figure out what gear you need for Milky Way photography! If there’s anything I overlooked, let me know in the comments below. This is what I use for my own Milky Way photos, but there are so many advanced directions you can go if you’re interested in this genre – everything up to dedicated telescopes for deep-sky astrophotography, or even specialized cameras for photographing other planets in the Solar System. The sky is, quite literally, the limit.
Whether you’re an up-and-coming or established photographer shooting stills in a studio space, or the celebrated host of a popular YouTube channel (like and subscribe), there’s one thing that your camera of choice requires above all else, and that’s a suitable lighting setup for whatever content you and your lens may be producing.
When it comes to snapping pictures or taking video in a dedicated workspace, there are all kinds of lighting equipment you can get your hands on to properly illuminate your final product, but what about smart lighting? Sure, smart lights are a bit more common for residential applications, but if you’re paying for a web connection for your studio-lair, there’s plenty you can do to enliven your next session.
Using a voice assistant hub device like Alexa, Google Assistant, or HomeKit, along with a host of smart light products, here are a few ways to get the most out of smart lighting the next time you break out your camera.
Ditch traditional switches for smart ones
Let’s say you’re operating out of a traditional photo studio. Better yet, as an aspiring photographer, maybe that’s your dream, but for now, you’re shooting out of your parent’s basement. Don’t worry, you’ll get your own space someday soon.
Regardless of the shooting space, we’re betting that this location has some kind of overhead lighting. Whether you’re dealing with recessed bulbs, fluorescent tubes, or some other kind of traditional ceiling fixtures, there’s probably a master light switch that turns all these fixtures on/off. There may even be a dimmer attached to the circuit.
As a camera operator of any sort, it can be irksome to get all your hardware in place, from cameras to accent lighting (more on that below), snap a few shots, and then realize you want to change something about your setup. That means trekking all the way over the light switch to throw the house lights on to make adjustments. Not with a smart light switch though.
Let’s consider the Lutron Caseta Smart Lighting Dimmer Switch for this scenario. Instead of making multiple trips between shots to kick on the house lights, the Lutron Caseta allows you to simply pop out your smartphone, go into the Caseta app, and throw the lights on remotely. Better yet, if you’re using a voice assistant device in your studio or makeshift space, you can command your Alexa device to turn the lights on for you.
LED light strips for perfect accenting
Maybe you want a little bit of accent lighting for your YouTube reaction videos, but you want to change the hue based on the season or holiday, or just to keep things lively between uploads. Or you could have a small shooting space set up to snap a host of photos for a new product. Whatever your intent is, an easy way to add a bit of flair to any photo or video is with smart LED light strips.
Let’s look at the Sylvania LED Flex Lights. These light strips allow you to choose from up to 16 million color combinations, allowing you to dial into that perfect mood lighting for your Halloween-themed video. Or set them up around the periphery of your softbox for a touch of cool-blue illumination. Smart LED light strips can also be quickly adjusted from a mobile device or voice assistant, so if you need to add a little brightness or a bit more red to your staging, you can do so quickly and easily.
Multicolored LED bulbs instead of gels
Let’s look at a traditional softbox setup. Commonly, you’ll be using a softbox to diffuse a powerful light source for your photography or video workspace. Many softboxes even have their own dimmers to allow you to adjust your lighting output in a pinch. But what about adding color?
When it comes to studio lighting, you would normally add a gel to your softbox rig to achieve certain hues. While the results are tried and true, adding and removing gels takes time, and if you’re operating on a strict schedule, every last second counts. To help net you those precious extra minutes, consider going with smart LED bulbs for your softboxes instead.
The best news with smart LED bulbs is you can find them from hundreds of manufacturers. While you’ll want to make sure you’re purchasing bulbs that will properly fit your enclosures, smart bulbs from the likes of Philips Hue and TP-Link allow you to choose from a myriad of color and white-lighting options to get the most out of your next shooting session.
Plus, you can adjust brightness and mood settings and even add in timers, all through your smart light app or with your compatible voice assistant. Gone are the days of having to take five to rig up whatever gels are going to set the stage for your next shot.
Routines for your everyday shooting setups
For established photographers, there are likely certain shooting setups you return to again and again. This could be anything from studio headshots to more active lighting rigs for taking pictures of family pets. Whatever the scenario, there’s probably lighting hardware, accessories, and settings that you routinely employ for various applications.
Instead of going through the toil of getting all this gear in place and adjusting until everything is perfect, you could use smart lighting and voice assistants to build go-to lighting routines instead. Let’s look at Amazon Alexa’s Routine ability.
Let’s say you’re hopping into another headshot session. Using an Alexa Routine, you can effectively walk into your studio and say “Alexa, set up headshot.” Instead of having to individually adjust your smart lighting hardware one command (or dial) at a time, the Alexa Routine will initiate several actions with a single spoken phrase.
As you step behind your camera, you can get busy with your lens while Alexa powers your smart lights and automatically sets them to your preferred brightness and color. If this sounds convenient and worthwhile, do make sure you purchase a smart hub (such as an Echo Dot) for your workspace.
Once you get your camera out of its bag it’s easy to keep clicking the shutter button and forget you need to check backgrounds, subject position etc. Always look for shooting locations where the background isn’t full of distracting objects that clutter the scene and where possible, put some distance between your subject and the background. This will not only add depth but it’ll also make it easier to throw the background out of focus. If you’re using a compact this can be done via Portrait mode. For those with more advanced cameras, this means choosing a wider aperture. It’s also important to focus on your subject’s eyes and even if you’re shooting a friend or family member, don’t forget to keep giving direction.
2. Natural Light Is Free
Where possible it’s best to avoid using your camera’s built-in flash for portraits as most of the time, the results won’t be very professional-looking. Instead, make the most of window light which will help you create portraits to be proud of. North facing windows are perfect but you can use any that aren’t in the direct path of the sun. Overcast days are great for this as light is naturally diffused but you can get a similar effect by hanging voile or something similar.
If your house lights are on, switch them off and do clean the window before you begin!
A reflector will come in handy for adding light to the side of your model’s face not next to the window, balancing the exposure in the process. You can buy reflectors but they can just as easily be created from a piece of white card, foil etc.
Try spot metering off your model’s face then have fun experimenting with composition. Tight crops on the face work well but do try using the window to help frame a couple of your shots.
3. Want More Impact?
Full-length portraits work well but for something that has more ‘Pow’ behind it, move in close. If your subject and yourself are comfortable doing so this could mean physically moving closer together or reach for a longer zoom lens if your model feels more comfortable with a wider working distance. Something around the 85-135mm mark is a popular choice for headshots but do be careful with your shutter speeds when using longer lenses if working hand-held.
Photo by Joshua Waller
4. Don’t Want To Give So Much Direction?
The simple answer is to try a candid approach and shoot often so you don’t miss any moments.
Try using a wider lens when working outdoors or at busy events such as a wedding as people won’t think you’re taking their photo if the lens isn’t directly pointed at them so will stay relaxed. Longer lenses will allow you to stay out of sight but still give you the chance to focus on one or two individuals. For compact users, why not switch to P mode so you can focus on getting the shot rather than on what settings you need.
If you’re working with children you could give them a task to do such as build a tower with bricks or kick a ball around outside to give you the opportunity to shoot some fun, in-the-moment photos which they won’t even notice you’re doing as they’ll be too distracted with the task in-hand.
5. Get Creative
Whether it’s adding fun props, creating interesting backgrounds with bokeh or using art filter and frames, there’s plenty of ways to get creative with your portraits. Many cameras feature Art Filters which will give your portraits a twist. This could be adding a vignette, changing the images to black and white or simply adding a sepia tone and grain to give it a vintage feel.
To have fun with bokeh you can head out at night or use some colourful stringed lights (the type you dig out of the loft at Christmas) and drape them over a dark background. You then need to put a few meters between the background and your subject to increase the bokeh effect.
You need to use your lens at its widest aperture and focus on your subject. A small portable light is handy for illuminating the front of your subject but do be careful with the positioning of the light as you don’t want any light to shine on the background. Watch your white balance then experiment with framing to change the pattern created by the lights in the background.
It’s a long held belief that using software to enhance an image is the devil’s own work. I’m not talking about creating misleading, fake or fraudulent imagery but using simple basic adjustments that many images benefit from.
The idea for this blog came from reading a description of post-capture processing on an image uploaded for critique. It’s welcome to see someone detail their processing steps, so that we know what has been done to the image. It must be noted that these were bread and butter adjustments such as contrast, levels, and so on. It’s a pity the original unprocessed image wasn’t included so that a comparison and assessment of the changes could be made. Were the steps taken enough or did they go too far? That’s what’s needed in order to provide the most useful feedback. While different people will have different ideas, further small adjustments did improve matters.
Straight from the camera
That last sentence is the caveat. Ten different photographers will produce ten different results from the same image. I don’t mean because they use different gear (hough that could be the case), but give them a RAW file to work on and the same software to use you won’t get ten identical results. True, some will be quite close to one another, but some won’t. Indeed, a single photographer can easily create several versions all of which they like.
While it’s hard, if not impossible, to dial out personal choice and style, and I don’t advise anyone to go that route (unless they’re) there are good practices to observe. We all want our images to look as good as we want. It can be that we’re too close to our own work. Coming back a day later and evaluating what’s been done can be helpful. Sometimes a small comment is enough to make us see what needs to be changed. For example, on one of my images, quite a number of years ago now, reference was made to a slight magenta cast. It was there, and using the white balance picker on the white background made the image so much more viewable.
I’m talking about basic adjustments required in order to bring out the best in an image. Good colour, contrast, shadow and highlight detail retrieval, a crop maybe, and so forth. Nothing that creates a fraudulent result (for example removing or adding people from a street scene for political ends or creating artificial looking skin in a portrait, though those types of manipulation have ben done decades before digital appeared).
Straight from the camera
Years ago, photographers would choose a particular film for its characteristics. Velvia to a boost insipid tons in a drab northern European winter landscape, Astia for more natural skin tones. Filters would be used to control colour, polarisers to boost saturation. Not to mention the renditions of different black and white films together with contrast enhancing filters and control over the print using different contrast grades of paper. All of which are choices you have using the basic adjustments of which I described above. You’re just replicating what has always been done, albeit with a greater degree of control.
Levels and Curves adjustments and further Curves adjustment on the sky
The allegation of ‘cheating’ is misplaced and comes from a lack of understanding, mainly from non photographers who don’t understand either analogue or digital methods and would have had negative film processed at a low cost (that must mean good value and thus a good job) minilab and accepting the results as given. Even some dyed in the wool photographers at the start of digital photography regarded the greater control with scepticism, and I think, apart from the fact it was a change, considered it cheating because they didn’t understand computers and software not realising the potential and freedom to actually produce the style of images they always wished for. Yes there would be a steep learning curve, and that doesn’t suit everyone. There is also the fact that so much more responsibility was put on the photographer to come up with the goods. No more blaming it on the local photo processing lab.
There are still purists who don’t like post capture processing, preferring to accept the jpegs straight out of camera (or other device), not necessarily realising that a whole lot of processing has already been done defined by algorithms with no creative appreciation. That’s their choice of course. In the end they’re missing out on getting the best from their efforts.
So, for the rest of us, let’s continue with our adjustments.
Im not sure how many blogs I have written since the start of the pandemic, but I suspect at around 400. And looking for signs that normality might be returning, Im particularly pleased that I shall be writing full-size articles for EPZ again. You can see the first one HERE.
So my output of blogs will be reducing, though as Ive promised a few people, I will be continuing to write them from time to time. As Ive said more or less from the start, I welcome ideas that people would like explored in this format. After my initial run through of the photographic alphabet, its often been a struggle to find something to write about. But a morning walk has often inspired me.
Thats all for today, but there will be more blogs to come!
You can easily fill a backpack (or even the trunk of a car) with a landscape photography kit. Cameras and lenses only scratch the surface – there’s an overwhelming number of other accessories out there. This article breaks down what’s available and explains exactly what a landscape photographer really needs.
This article isn’t meant to be a review of any specific product or company. Instead, it covers all the camera gear and accessories that are commonly used for landscape photography, along with my thoughts on whether or not they’re necessary in the first place.
Here’s how I’ll be ranking the usefulness of each type of gear:
1/4: Rarely worth getting
2/4: Can be useful
3/4: Very useful
4/4: Must buy!
This article only covers “ordinary” landscape photography rather than Milky Way photography, which I will cover in a separate article to be published soon.
A camera is obviously necessary for photographing landscapes, but which one? Unless you’re printing massive images, landscape photography isn’t that demanding of a genre. You can get away with cheaper cameras without anyone noticing, and you can even use image blending techniques like panoramas and averaging to squeeze more image quality out of them. I love 45 megapixel full-frame cameras (or 100 megapixel medium format cameras) as much as anyone, but you can easily take good landscape shots without them.
I recommend at least a micro four-thirds camera sensor with 16 megapixels or more. A 24 megapixel aps-c sensor is an even better target, and a 30+ megapixel full frame camera or larger is the crème de la crème. There are some potentially helpful features found on advanced cameras like sensor shift or focus stacking that can make landscape photography easier, but again, none of them are strictly necessary. If you have a bigger budget, our best landscape photography cameras article may help you decide. But chances are that whatever camera you already have is enough, so long as it has interchangeable lenses.
Second Camera (3/4)
I never leave on a landscape photography trip without a second camera, but I generally make sure it’s a lightweight (even pocketable) camera that is as easy as possible to carry along. Every camera dies eventually, and you don’t want to be empty-handed if yours stops working in the middle of a shoot. Even a phone can suffice as a backup if you’re happy with yours. Otherwise, pack away a small camera with a built-in lens like the Fuji X100V, Ricoh GR III, or Sony RX-100. I use the Nikon Coolpix A for this purpose – a tiny, discontinued DX camera with an 18mm lens (28mm equivalent).
In recent years, I’ve taken some of my favorite photos with my drone, the DJI Mavic Pro 2. A similar but less expensive option is the newer DJI Air 2S, which also has a 1-inch type sensor – what I consider the minimum for high-quality landscape photography. Drones aren’t universally loved, and they’re also prohibited in many of the places where they’d make for great photos, like a lot of National Parks (rightly so in most cases). But there are still plenty of locations where drone photography is legal and unobtrusive, with great scenery that looks amazing from the air. They’re hardly a necessity but can lead to some great shots that can’t be captured any other way.
Wide Angle Lens (3/4)
Wide angle lenses (anything about 24mm and wider) are by far the most popular type of lens for landscape photography. But sometimes photographers are a bit overzealous about them. “Beautiful scene + capture as much as possible in one shot” is not always a recipe for great photos. A wide angle lens is very useful for landscape photography, especially if you want to exaggerate the foreground, but it’s not the only way to get good results.
Normal Lens (3/4)
I’d categorize a “normal lens” as something in the range from about 28mm to 70mm full-frame equivalent. These are a bit more maligned for landscape photography as static or boring focal lengths. And it’s true that they don’t give you the exaggerated foregrounds of a wide-angle nor the subject isolation of a telephoto. But they also feel very natural and unforced. The longer I do landscape photography, the more I gravitate to this range of focal lengths.
Telephoto Lens (3/4)
Everyone knows that telephoto lenses are good for wildlife and sports photography, but it’s also becoming more common to see them used for capturing distant landscapes. It seems like every month I see a new article on popular photography websites about using telephoto lenses for landscape photography. There are a couple such articles on Photography Life, too, here and here. Like wide angles and normal lenses, you don’t need a telephoto to take good landscape photos, but it’s very useful.
I recommend that landscape photographers have a wide, normal, and telephoto lens if possible, but any of the three is sufficient to start. I spent a couple years shooting with nothing but a 105mm prime and still consider those photos to be among my favorite landscape shots.
There are some landscape photographers who say you don’t need a tripod any more. I’d say to ignore them. Sure, high ISO performance is better than it’s ever been, and some specialized post-processing techniques like image averaging can potentially salvage handheld shots even in low light. But tripods do more than just maximize image quality. They also make it easier to use techniques like panoramas and HDR. Any my favorite reason for using them, even in bright daylight, is to make small and careful adjustments to my composition.
Tripods can be heavy and expensive, and some of them aren’t very stable, either. I always like showing this diagram:
But the truth is that tripods are getting better and better these days. You can find some sub-$200 carbon fiber tripods that are fairly stable and well-built. An earlier guide of ours goes into detail on getting a good tripod for landscape photography – but the important thing is to get one in the first place.
Tripod Head (4/4)
I consider a ball head and a geared head to be the two best types for landscape photography. Ball heads are smaller, lighter, and less expensive while being just as stable. Geared heads are nice for making very fine adjustments to your composition and are preferable if weight and cost aren’t major concerns. Regardless of which type you pick, you can’t use a tripod without a head, so find one that works for you.
To attach your camera to a tripod, it’s common to put a small lens plate on the bottom of the camera. However, this can make it awkward to take vertical photos with most tripod heads. The solution is to use an L-bracket instead of a small plate. These brackets hug the camera and allow you to attach it vertically just as easily as horizontally.
Panorama Nodal Slide (2/4)
If you like shooting panoramas, especially with a wide angle lens, an important tripod accessory is a nodal slide. It allows you to slide the camera forward and backward on your tripod head so that the “nodal point” of your camera system is exactly centered over the tripod head. When the nodal point is centered, you won’t get any parallax issues in your panorama (where the relative position of objects in the frame changes as you take each photo in the panorama).
I know that sounds really obscure, but dedicated panorama photographers will find these invaluable. You’ll simply have a much easier time aligning your panoramic photos in post-production if you used a nodal slide to center your camera system ahead of time. But it’s also a bit of a special case that doesn’t apply if you don’t shoot a lot of wide-angle panoramas, so I’m not rating it any higher than “can be useful.”
Spiked/Claw Tripod Feet (2/4)
Another tripod accessory that I don’t consider essential is a replacement for the standard rubber tripod feet. The most common replacement is for spiked feet, which are better at digging into sand and sticking there. Another option is for clawed feet, which are meant to grip well on wet or icy rocks.
I have some spiked tripod feet that I will occasionally bring along if I’m expecting to do a lot of seascape photography from a sandy beach. They’re nice to have but not critical.
I think every landscape photographer needs a polarizing filter. By minimizing most types of reflections, they tend to improve the look of foliage and water substantially. They can also darken and saturate the sky – something that’s often doable in post-processing but still easier in the field.
ND Filter (2/4)
Almost everyone agrees that polarizers are useful for landscape photography and difficult to replicate in post-processing. There’s more division when it comes to other types of filters, particularly neutral-density (ND) filters and graduated ND filters.
ND filters are dark, neutral colored filters that allow you to use longer shutter speeds if desired. They can theoretically be replicated in post-processing by taking multiple photos with shorter exposures and averaging them in software like Photoshop.
I rarely find myself in a situation where either is necessary, to be frank. I’m usually happy with the shutter speeds I can get in-camera and don’t need extra motion blur from a long exposure. I tend to bring an ND filter along anyway but find myself using it a lot less than I’d expect.
Graduated ND Filter (2/4)
A graduated ND filter is simply a filter which is dark on one end and clear on the other, smoothly transitioning from one side to the other in a gradient. The idea is that the graduated filter can be aligned to darken the sky in your photo while leaving the ground untouched (thus helping avoid overexposed highlights in the sky).
It’s possible to simulate graduated NDs in post-processing with HDR or other image blending techniques. But there are still plenty of photographers who would rather get everything right in a single in-camera exposure, or who simply prefer the look of a graduated filter over HDR.
As with regular ND filters, I carry along a graduated filter but rarely use it. Nor do I often use HDR – not because I have anything against it, but just because I don’t end up photographing a lot of landscapes which need more dynamic range than my sensor is capable of with proper exposure. But some landscape photographers may consider these (and regular NDs) to be far more essential. It depends on your needs.
UV Filter (2/4)
I’m not a fan of UV filters (AKA clear filters or protective filters), particularly because of the additional flare that most of them add when the sun is in the frame. However, I still consider them a potentially useful accessory for landscape photography.
In windy and sandy conditions, it’s possible for the front element of your lens to get scratched even if you’re doing everything else right. A UV filter can take that damage instead. Also, many high-end UV filters these days have water-repelling coatings, while a lot of lenses don’t. If you’re planning to do waterfall or oceanside photography, a UV filter can make it easier to keep your photos free from water droplets.
Other Filters (1/4)
There are almost limitless types of other filters that you can use in photography. I don’t consider any of them to be very useful for landscape photography, at least when shooting digital. (Film photographers may wish to look into some color corrective filters.)
One minor exception is if you want to take exposing to the right to the absolute extreme. If you use a cc30m, cc30p, cc40m, or cc40p magenta filter, you’ll tone down the green color channel of your camera sensor, which tends to clip sooner than the red or blue channels. Technically you can get about 1/2 stop better dynamic range when using one of these filters on your camera at base ISO. I don’t do this or recommend it in general, but it’s worth knowing the effect exists.
Lightning Trigger (2/4)
If you want to photograph lightning, it may seem like a good idea to get a specialized lightning trigger from Miops or similar. And these triggers do work well if that’s your plan. But lightning photography is not something I recommend in general, for obvious reasons – and even if you do want to photograph lightning, a dedicated trigger isn’t necessary.
I actually have a Miops trigger but usually forget it at home. I took the only good lightning photo in my portfolio using the classic “timelapse method” where I set my camera to take photos on an interval and simply reviewed the pictures for lightning later.
Handheld Meter (1/4)
There are different schools of thought on metering in the digital world. I’m of the opinion that the in-camera meter is the only one you need, especially if you’re supplementing it with the camera’s blinkies or histogram. I’ve never met a scene where I’d have gotten better results with an external meter, at least on a digital camera.
Remote Shutter Release (2/4 or 3/4 depending on camera)
The most basic use for a remote shutter release is to allow you to use exposures longer than the normal 30 second limit on most cameras. Another major reason is to reduce camera shake caused by pressing down the shutter button.
However, many cameras these days allow longer than 30 second exposures (such as any Nikon camera with the “Time” exposure mode). And it’s just as easy to reduce camera shake with a self-timer or exposure delay mode, assuming you don’t mind waiting two seconds for the photo to be taken.
Remote shutter releases can still be useful, but I find myself bringing one along less and less these days – in fact, not at all in the past couple years. I know that a lot of landscape photographers would consider these a critical part of the kit, though. Take that as you will.
(Note that there are also much more advanced remote shutter releases such as intervalometers and even camera controllers that have many more features. I consider these to have a similar rating of 2/4 or 3/4 – not strictly necessary but potentially useful depending on your needs.)
Extra Batteries and Memory Cards (4/4)
I always recommend bringing along at least two extra camera batteries and an extra memory card with more capacity than you think you’d need. Personally, I’ve forgotten my memory card at home enough times that I now keep a spare in my car. You won’t be able to take any pictures without these necessities, and they don’t weigh much, so bring an extra!
Waterproof Memory Card Case (3/4)
Any sort of waterproof memory card case does the trick. The lighter the better if you’re planning to hike with it.
USB Battery Charger & External Battery Pack (3/4)
I’ve found that the best way to keep my camera and phone charged in the backcountry is with a generic battery pack (something with at least 10,000 mAh) plus a USB charger specific to my camera batteries. At the end of the day, I’ll plug the USB charger into the battery pack and recharge any empty batteries. One 10,000 mAh pack is equivalent to about four Nikon EN-EL15c batteries. My preferred battery pack is 20,000 mAh and lasts for ages.
Rain Cover (2/4)
Although I give rain covers a 2/4 rating, it really depends on what environments you shoot in. If you’re constantly photographing waterfalls or taking pictures during monsoons, a rain cover may be essential – whereas other landscape photographers may never need one at all. I personally haven’t bought one, but it would have been useful for me at least once, when I temporarily killed my Nikon D800e in a rainstorm several years ago (it was working fine again an hour later).
The best way to carry a camera for landscape photography – particularly with at tripod – is a backpack. Not just any backpack will do. The vast majority of dedicated camera backpacks are uncomfortable for long hikes and not at all designed to carry weight optimally. Even “hiking” camera bags like those from F-Stop Gear and Shimoda are what I’d consider the bare minimum for long hikes.
A much better alternative is to find a dedicated hiking backpack from a company like Gregory or Osprey and simply use it to carry camera gear. Some photographers complain that these bags make it hard to access camera equipment fast, but that’s just not true of many of them. Go to an outdoors store in person and look through the hiking packs. I’m sure you’ll find at least one that has easy access points. Your back will thank you.
Grab Bag (3/4)
When I’m doing landscape photography out of a car, I find that it helps to have a dedicated grab bag in the trunk for little essentials. For example, I may throw my extra jacket, filter kit, USB charger, and a bag of batteries into the grab bag. These are all things that I want to have accessible during the trip, but not things that I need to carry on my back every time I go on a short hike. It also helps for organization and spreading out while I travel. An ordinary canvas or cloth bag works well here.
Sensor Cleaning Kit (4/4)
I’ve found that my camera sensor gets dirty at the most inopportune times. And now that I’m using a mirrorless camera rather than a DSLR, it seems to happen a bit more often than usual (though it’s also a bit easier to clean).
Usually, a rocket blower is sufficient to clear pesky dust particles from my camera sensor. If not, I’ll either use a sensor gel stick or a wet cleaning option (or both) depending on how bad the dust is. While you can generally remove dust specks in post-processing without too much difficulty, it’s a big annoyance if you have to do so for dozens or hundreds of photos from a trip.
Lens Cloth and Cleaning Kit (4/4)
Lenses get dusty and dirty sooner than cameras, and while it’s not as big of an issue, it can still lead to some unwanted effects. That’s especially true if you’re taking pictures in rainy conditions or near a waterfall, when there’s no avoiding some water droplets on your lens. Bring an absorbent lens cloth (I like to use a microfiber towel) to clear the way.
Solar Charger (1/4)
For charging camera batteries or your phone in the middle of nowhere, a solar charger seems like a great solution. And maybe it is under certain circumstances. But I find that a pre-charged battery pack weighs less, packs smaller, and charges enough to easily last a week without issue. I bought a solar charger years ago and have never needed it. Maybe if I ever go on a month-long outing in the wilderness (which I won’t) I’ll change my mind.
Specialized Apps (3/4)
There are apps available these days for almost anything you can think of in photography. My favorites for landscapes are OptimumCS for hyperfocal distance calculations, Photopills for tracking the sun, and The Photographer’s Ephemeris for planning my shoots. You should also look into various weather apps and, if you’re planning to fly a drone, a map to figure out legal restrictions.
GPS Camera Attachment (2/4)
Some photographers like knowing where they took a particular landscape photo, either for the sake of memory or just to make it easier to return there in the future. I’ve never cared too much about that personally, but if you do, there are GPS attachments available for most cameras that will attach the location to each photo’s metadata.
GPS + Maps for Navigation (4/4)
While a GPS attachment for a camera isn’t something I care much about, a GPS for navigation is essential. You’ve got to know where you’re going! I find that the GPS on my phone or Garmin watch usually does all I need, especially in combination with maps like All Trails, Gaia, or even a downloaded Google Map. This applies both to hiking and driving in the middle of nowhere without cell coverage. Make sure to have a map downloaded or printed ahead of time, and a GPS to navigate it.
Other Camping/Hiking Equipment (4/4)
This isn’t an article about hiking gear (I’ll work on one of those at some point) but suffice to say that it’s just as important as all the camera equipment above, if not more so. You need proper clothing, food, and shelter for where you’re going, plus first-aid and safety equipment. Even if you’re only going out on a short hike, don’t skimp. My rule (learned after some scarily close calls) is to consider what would happen if you broke a leg in the middle of the hike; make sure you have enough gear or are in a popular enough area that you would be safe even in such a situation.
Lightroom, Capture One, or Similar (4/4)
As much as I love the field side of landscape photography, the post-processing side is also of utmost importance. Naturally, some photographers prefer to spend as little time editing or organizing their photos as possible – but even then, some sort of software like Lightroom, Capture One, DxO Photo Lab, ON1, etc., is necessary. The built-in software on most computers is fine when you’re starting out, but it’s not geared toward advanced photo editing or organization.
Milky Way Photography Equipment
This article is getting long enough already, but I will soon be publishing a continuation that goes into my recommended equipment for Milky Way photography! There are enough differences compared to “regular” landscape photography that it merits a full article of its own.
I hope you found this guide to be useful, and if there’s anything I missed, let me know in the comments below. Personally, I bring along the equipment I rate as 4/4 on every landscape trip I take, plus most (or all) of the 3/4 equipment and often some 2/4 gear as well. But every landscape photography outing is different, and so is every photographer, so feel free to modify this list as needed for your own work.
Andy Westlake shows how to choose the right portrait lens for creating extraordinary photographs of people
In principle, you can take perfectly acceptable pictures of people with any lens. But if you want to make your portraits stand out from the plethora of everyday smartphone snaps, then picking a lens capable of rendering a very different look will pay off.
Conventionally, this often means choosing a short telephoto with a focal length in the 85mm to 135mm equivalent range and a large maximum aperture. Indeed the term ‘portrait lens’ is often used to describe such optics, which deliver head-and-shoulders shots with both a flattering perspective and a nicely blurred background.
However, there’s more to photographing people than this. With couples, for example, the wider view of a 50mm prime may be a better option, while for environmental portraits that show people in the context of their surroundings, a 35mm lens is often preferred. Going wider still with a 24mm can deliver striking results for full-body shots. It’s all about understanding how to use the properties of different optics to achieve your desired result.
Wideangle lenses are great for adding context to your portraits. Sony Alpha 7R III, 24mm f/1.4, 1/2000sec at f/1.4, ISO 100
Depth of field and bokeh
For portrait lenses, wide-open sharpness isn’t essential; indeed a little softness will often be flattering. But one genuinely desirable characteristic is the ability to concentrate attention on your subject by throwing the background out of focus. As most readers will know, this is done most easily using a long focal length and a large aperture, which generally means using a prime rather than zoom.
But the flip-side is decreased depth of field, and shooting portraits with just one eye in focus isn’t always a desirable look. So it’s worth understanding that by separating your subject from the background and using a longer lens, you can use a relatively small aperture to increase depth of field while maintaining a high level of out-of-focus blur.
It’s not just the degree of background blur that counts though, but also how it looks. This is where the concept of ‘bokeh’ comes in. This much-abused word originates in Japanese and is used to describe how the aesthetic quality of the blur differs between lenses, even if they have the same physical specification. Some may deliver smoother blur, while others might do a better job of keeping objects in the background recognisable.
Using out-of-focus foreground elements can add interest to an image. Sony Alpha 7R III, 135mm f/1.8, 1/400 sec at f/1.8, ISO100
Vintage lenses are often more characterful, earning descriptions such as ‘swirly’ or ‘soap-bubble’ bokeh, and some photographers enjoy experimenting with them to exploit such effects. Certain companies such as Lomography and Lensbaby recreate this kind of effect in updated designs.
For many photographers, the first step towards better portraits is likely to be an inexpensive 50mm f/1.8. Once your ambitions and budget expand further, though, there’s a whole host of lenses to try. In this article you’ll find our recommended fast primes for shooting portraits, covering a range of types and price points.
Micro Four Thirds users interested in shooting wideangle portraits with shallow depth of field should consider this compact, lightweight optic. It provides the angle of view and depth of field control equivalent to a full-frame 24mm f/2.8, so won’t deliver especially blurred backgrounds, but as we’d expect from a Leica-badged lens, there’s very little to complain about in terms of image quality.
The weather-sealed barrel also includes an aperture ring, but this only works on Panasonic cameras, and not Olympus. If the price is too steep, Olympus makes the lovely little M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm F2 that costs around £579. 4.5 out of 5 stars
Fujifilm offers the most complete lens range of any APS-C sensor system, and this weather-sealed large-aperture prime is a case in point. It provides an angle of view equivalent to 24mm on full frame, while delivering a similar degree of out-of-focus blur to an f/2 optic.
Users needn’t worry about shooting it wide open, thanks to its excellent sharpness at large apertures, which is complemented by smooth and attractive bokeh. It boasts weather-resistant construction for outdoor use and employs an aperture ring that clicks at one-third stop intervals. The only slight drawback is that autofocus isn’t the quickest. 5 out of 5 stars
For full-frame DSLR users, this stunning optic in Sigma’s Art lineup provides a vastly more affordable alternative to Canon and Nikon’s own large-aperture 24mm lenses. Yet it does so while giving up very little in terms of optical quality, with the main penalty being that it isn’t weather-sealed.
Its desirable features include an ultrasonic-type motor for fast, silent autofocus and a nine-bladed aperture for attractive bokeh. It’s not just the sharpness that’s impressive, but the overall look of the images, including the smooth, attractive rendition of out-of-focus regions. Quite simply, it produces lovely pictures with the minimum of fuss. 5 out of 5 stars
The advent of full-frame mirrorless systems has allowed camera manufacturers to re-evaluate their lens lineups, and Nikon has unusually created a set of f/1.8 primes that provide the premium image quality more usually associated with f/1.4 optics. The Nikkor Z 24mm f/1.8 S is an exemplar of this approach.
While it’s surprisingly large for a f/1.8 lens – Sony’s 24mm f/1.4 is smaller and lighter – it still delivers superb images, while being notably more affordable than larger-aperture designs. It provides smooth, silent autofocus and its large manual focus ring can be customised via the camera menu to adjust aperture, exposure compensation or sensitivity. 5 out of 5 stars
Sony has been making full-frame mirrorless cameras for longer than anybody else, and this means that it can offer a significantly more extensive lens lineup, including a strong selection of premium fast primes. While some of its early designs were disproportionately large for its small Alpha 7 bodies, its recent G Master optics provide a wonderfully balanced package of impressive sharpness and lovely bokeh in a compact design.
This lens is arguably the finest 24mm prime you can buy, with superb image quality combined with excellent usability, including an aperture ring that’s switchable between clicked and clickless operation and extensive weather-sealing. 5 out of 5 stars
While Micro Four Thirds isn’t the most logical choice of system for shooting with shallow depth of field, this weather-sealed large-aperture prime is the best option for users looking for a 50mm equivalent lens that can isolate subjects from their backgrounds. Like Olympus’s 17mm and 45mm f/1.2 Pro-series optics, it’s designed to deliver ‘feathered’ bokeh by slight under-correction of spherical aberration.
In practice it produces lovely-looking images, with backgrounds dissolving away into a beautiful blur. MFT shooters looking for a smaller, more affordable, option should consider the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 24mm F1.4 ASPH (£449) or its weather-sealed Mark II version (£569). 5 out of 5 stars
This is a rare example of an optic that has all the hallmarks of a classic portrait lens, including a flattering softness wide open and gorgeous bokeh, but with a wider-than-usual focal length. This design approach makes it something of a niche lens, but so does the price. If you understand exactly what it’s for, though, this lens will reward you with really stunning images.
It’s well-suited to shooting couples, or portraits that include more of the subject’s surroundings. Naturally Nikon also offers more mainstream alternatives: for more conventional head-and-shoulders shots, we like the £449 AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.
Samyang was the first third-party maker to produce lenses for Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras, with this being one of its earliest efforts. As a result, it’s not the most refined when it comes to autofocus, especially if you like to use continuous AF.
However there’s plenty to like about the images it produces. Shoot wide open and you’ll get a little flattering softness combined with attractive background blur; stop down and it’ll deliver biting sharpness across the frame for environmental portraits. As a result, it’s an interesting option for Alpha 7 users who are working with a limited budget. 4.5 out of 5 stars
If any lens counts as a modern classic, this is it. Building on the foundations laid by the earlier 35mm f/1.4, it cemented Sigma’s status as a top-tier lens maker and established its Art lineup as a true premium brand.
Compared to traditional DSLR 50mm f/1.4 designs it’s large, heavy and expensive, but this allowed the firm to use a more complex optical design that does a far better job of suppressing spherical and chromatic aberrations. Indeed its ability to produce sharp, clean images at large apertures won it our product of the year award in 2015. 5 out of 5 stars
One of the great advantages of mirrorless cameras is the way they make ultra-large-aperture lenses entirely practical to use. The increased freedom in optical design allows much sharper lenses to be constructed, while on-sensor phase detection delivers vastly more reliable autofocus.
Canon, Nikon and Sony have all recently produced 50mm f/1.2 optics, but Sony’s manages to be the smallest, lightest and least expensive. It delivers a giddying combination of impressive sharpness and lovely bokeh, backed up by rapid, reliable, and silent autofocus. It’s a pleasure to shoot with too, thanks to its comprehensive control set. 5 out of 5 stars
In this guide, naturally we’ve concentrated on conventional autofocus lenses. But some photographers like to experiment with alternatives that eschew the usual approach of minimising optical aberrations in favour of delivering a more characterful result. Two names in particular stand out here: both Lensbaby and Lomography make delightfully quirky manual-focus designs that you’ll either love or hate.
This portrait lens for APS-C cameras offers an aperture of f/1.6 for shallow depth of field and defocused backgrounds. It employs a 4-element, 3-group optical formula which the firm says delivers ‘tack-sharp detail layered underneath edge-to-edge velvety glow’ (technically a textbook description of under-corrected spherical aberration).
A minimum focus distance of just 12cm allows it to do double-duty for close-ups, with half life-size magnification. The lens is available in all DSLR and mirrorless mounts, and there’s an 85mm f/1.8 version for full-frame cameras, too.
Taking its inspiration from a 19th-century optical design, this short telephoto portrait lens is defined by its relatively small region of central sharpness and characteristic ‘swirly bokeh’. The original version employed a rack-and-pinion focusing system and drop-in aperture stops, but this MkII design boasts a conventional focusing helicoid and aperture diaphragm, making it much more practical to use.
It’s available in either a black paint finish or seriously retro satin brass, and Canon EF or Nikon F mount. For another £100, you can buy a version with a 7-level ‘bokeh control’ ring.
A small selection of specialist lenses use a principle known as apodisation to deliver particularly smooth background blur. Essentially, this places a radially graduated neutral density filter within the lens to smooth away the edges of out-of-focus blur circles. While often fairly subtle, it’s an effect that some portrait photographers prize greatly. The catch is that such specialised lenses tend to be pricey.
Sony’s specialist portrait lens is the spiritual successor to the legendary Minolta-designed, Alpha-mount 135mm f/2.8 STF. The initials STF stand for Smooth Trans Focus, and unusually, there’s no conventional version of this lens. Sony has implemented a uniquely strong apodisation effect which delivers lovely bokeh at large apertures, but this comes at the cost of light transmission, which is just T5.6 at f/2.8.
A switch around the barrel engages a close-up mode which offers one-quarter life-size magnification, and optical stabilisation is built in. As usual for a G Master lens, high-end features include a de-clickable aperture ring and weather-sealed construction.
Even the conventional version of Canon’s super-fast RF-mount 85mm is an expensive, statement optic that will set you back £2,800. But the DS option, for Defocus Smoothing, goes a step further. It employs the same 13-element, 9-group design and 9-bladed circular aperture, but employs a special coating on two internal elements to fade the edges of blur circles.
The result is an outstanding portrait lens that delivers beautifully smooth bokeh. While many readers will find the price to be prohibitive, it’s possible to hire one for a special occasion at a reasonable cost.
Fujifilm’s XF 56mm F1.2 R is much-loved by X-system owners, with this £849 lens providing the same angle of view and ability to blur backgrounds as an 85mm f/1.8 on full frame. As its name suggests, the APD version adds an apodisation filter within the optics to smooth the bokeh when shooting at large apertures.
As this inevitably reduces the light transmission, the aperture ring has both f-stop and t-stop markings, with the difference between the two indicating the effect of the filter at each setting. This varies from a stop wide open to half a stop at f/2, and no effect at f/5.6.
Telephotos let you isolate your subject against a blurred background. Sony Alpha 7 III, 135mm f/1.8, 1/160sec at f/1.8, ISO160
Canon users who want the very best need look no further, because this image-stabilised fast prime is an absolute masterpiece. Indeed we think it’s one of the finest EF-mount primes the firm has ever made, with its accurate autofocus, great handling and built-in optical image stabilisation counting as compelling reasons to choose it ahead of the pricier EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.
Meanwhile its gorgeous rendition of blurred backgrounds and very low levels of chromatic aberration mark it out from cheaper options. For DSLR users on a tighter budget, the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is still a worthy alternative at £380. 5 out of 5 stars
Users of APS-C mirrorless models could be forgiven for feeling ignored by third-party makers, who are falling over themselves to make full-frame lenses instead. But at least Sigma has been paying attention, with a trio of affordable f/1.4 primes that are available in Canon EF-M, Micro Four Thirds, Sony E and L mounts.
While the 16mm and 30mm certainly have their uses for people pictures, it’s the 56mm F1.4 DC DN that we like the most. Offering an 85mm equivalent view on APS-C cameras, and 112mm on MFT, it’s a nicely compact optic that focuses rapidly and delivers excellent images. 4.5 out of 5 stars
Sigma has built up a strong reputation for the excellence of its Art line of lenses, with perhaps the biggest criticism that could be levelled against its DSLR designs being that they became excessively large and heavy. But the firm appears to have re-aligned its priorities with its burgeoning DG DN line for E and L-mount full-frame mirrorless, producing equally superb optics while drastically reducing the size and weight.
This fabulous lens is a case in point, with a combination of remarkable optical performance even at f/1.4 and excellent usability. Highlights include quick autofocus, weather-sealed construction and an aperture ring that can be de-clicked for video. 5 out of 5 stars
Fujifilm is arguably the only company that’s treated the APS-C format as being entirely worthwhile in its own right, rather than just a stepping-stone to full frame. It’s made several fine portrait lenses for its X system, including the budget XF 50mm F2 R WR (£409) and the fine XF 56mm F1.2R (£849).
However the one that really blew us away was the XF 90mm F2 R LM WR, which does the job of a 135mm lens on full frame. Photographers will love its ability to create distinct separation between subjects and background, while the rendition of out-of-focus areas is delightful for portraits. 5 out of 5 stars
While many photographers immediately think in terms of using 85mm lenses for portraits, it’s important not to overlook the charms of longer focal lengths. Switch to 135mm and you can shoot from slightly further back for an even more flattering perspective, which can be particularly useful when working outdoors.
Sigma’s 135mm f/1.8 was originally made for Canon, Nikon and Sigma DSLRs, but is also available for the mirrorless L and Sony E mounts. This monster of a lens offers outrageous sharpness coupled with dreamy bokeh, and is almost immune to chromatic aberration. It’s a fabulous optic that provides a look few other lenses can match. 5 out of 5 stars
Like most of Nikon’s other S-series primes for its full-frame mirrorless cameras, this 85mm short telephoto employs an f/1.8 aperture to make it lighter and more affordable than an f/1.4 lens of the same focal length could be. But this doesn’t mean it compromises on the build quality or optics.
Detail rendition is impressive, even on the demanding high-resolution Z 7 and Z 7II, and the bokeh is very pleasing on the eye. Focusing is brisk and particularly effective for portraiture when used with Eye Detection AF. The lens is also fully sealed against dust and moisture ingress, making it a great all-round package. 4.5 out of 5 stars
Sony users have a lot of choice when it comes to portrait lenses, ranging from the £299 Samyang AF 75mm F1.8 FE through to the practically flawless, but pricey FE 135mm F1.8 GM. But one of our favourites lies towards the affordable end of the scale.
The firm’s FE 85mm F1.8 is a relatively compact lens that’s arguably a much better match to Sony’s small Alpha 7 series cameras than its FE 85mm F1.4 ZA stablemate, being less than half the weight. Crucially, it also delivers extremely pleasing images. It’s a great choice for both full-frame and APS-C users. 4 out of 5 stars
A standout gem of the Micro Four Thirds system, this is one of the fastest lenses to feature optical image stabilisation. With such a large aperture this may sound redundant, but it helps with getting sharp images in low light and is great for video shooting, too.
Image quality is everything we’d expect given the Leica badge, with superb sharpness across the frame even at f/1.2, and minimal chromatic aberration. If this optic is too pricey, the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8 (£249) is a lovely little lens that provides a great combination of sharpness and background blur. 5 out of 5 stars
Over the past decade Sony has revolutionised the camera market, jumping from a bit-part player to one of the leading high-end brands in the process. But if anything, its progress as a lens maker over this time has been even more striking, with its premium G Master lenses being at least a match for the finest produced by any of its rivals.
Indeed if you’re after a short-telephoto prime, they simply don’t come much better this one. With its combination of reliable autofocus, supreme sharpness and gorgeous bokeh, it’s likely to appeal strongly to portrait and wedding photographers. 5 out of 5 stars
While neither Canon nor Nikon have ever shown much enthusiasm for making APS-C-specific primes, there’s a decent range available for Pentax users. This one is designed to be used as a portrait lens on APS-C DSLRs, offering a classic 85mm equivalent view. Its large aperture, weather-sealed construction and silent focusing go some way to explaining its relatively high price.
Optically it’s well-suited to its job, with a flattering slight softness wide open and gorgeous bokeh. Full-frame Pentax users, meanwhile, have the unique smc FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited to play with. At £949 it’s pricey, but beautifully-built, including an old-fashioned mechanical aperture ring. 4 out of 5 stars
At first sight, this lens may look perplexing, given that it only offers an f/2.8 aperture for almost the same price as Sony’s superb FE 135mm F1.8 GM. But typically for Zeiss, it’s the sheer optical quality that stands out, with sensational sharpness and no hint of colour fringing thanks to its apochromatic design. Out-of-focus backgrounds are blurred-away beautifully, too.
In terms of specification it ticks all the boxes, with weather-sealed construction and optical image stabilisation, while photographers who like to pack light will appreciate its relatively low weight. Overall I can’t imagine anybody being disappointed by this lens: it’s absolutely sublime. 5 out of 5 stars
How portrait photography can help your mental health
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.