good focal length for 8x10 portraiture : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Who out there shoots portraits with their 8x10? What focal length lens do you regularly use or like to use?

I currently have the option of purchasing a 480mm lens for my 8x10 camera, but am wondering whether the focal length is too long. I would like to use the lens to shoot people half-figure, and have determined that at this size I am about 6 feet from my subject, with a bellows extension of about 25 inches. I have pretty long arms, but with this amount of bellows extended I was barely able to both look through the back of the camera AND adjust the front standard of the camera at the same time, to good effect. The camera's stability, with its front and rear standards extended within 5 inches of their maximum distance, was also somewhat compromised (the camera took about 5 seconds to settle after the dark slide was pulled). To be sure, I WOULD like to get a longer lens for shooting portraits than the standard 305mm I already have, but am wondering whether 480mm is simply TOO long for such purposes. How do 8x10 format portraitists use such long focal lengths--or even longer, for that matter--for shooting portraits comfortably and easily? Maybe they have an assistant, but I don't have a second person to work the front or back of the camera--and, to boot, would like to be able to focus and shoot pretty fast to catch people's expressions. Doubling the standard focal length in a 4x5 format from 150mm to 300mm, and using a 300mm lens to shoot portraits in 4x5 seems relatively easy, but applying the same principle to 8x10 seems alot more daunting if not perilous. Any suggestions? Opt for a shorter long lens or adapt to 480mm?

-- Nick Rowan (, March 08, 2001


Most portraitists use focal lengths of about 150% of "normal." So your 480mm is typical for 8x10, but you don't have to live within in the bounds of someone else' arbitrary rules. Use what you're comfortable with.

-- Chad Jarvis (, March 08, 2001.

480 is a very difficult length for shooting people - d.o.f. is non-existant as well as the problems you mentioned. most people use a 300 or 360 (i use a 300). for half figure i would try the 305 you already have, i don't think you'll find it objectionably distorted.

-- adam friedberg (, March 08, 2001.

Hi Nick, 330mm/13" seemed to work ok for me. I tried 20" but I don't think I gained anything. On 4*5 a 240mm/10" seemed the best lens, but for some reason with the 8*10 it seemed easier to just bring the camera a little closer to the person. I don't know the math involved. Best, David

-- david clark (, March 08, 2001.

I shoot quite a lot of 8 x10 portraits, including many of kids, with lenses 210 to 600. For half-length shots, a 360 certainly works just fine for me and is my lens of choice. I'm sure a 305 will be perfectly fine. Richard Avedon apparently used a 360 for most of his portraits. For a head or head and shoulders shot, I prefer the perspective of a 600, though this is a bit of a pain (extension is close to the 36-40 inch max that my camera can manage). Wth practice and no wind or local vibration, it's certainly quite practical. DOF ain't much, but I focus on the eyes, shoot quick, usually expose 4-6 sheets to be sure of getting what I want. Tricks like getting the subject to sit (very tough to maintain the critical focus on a close shot if they're standing) or hang onto something immobile help with the very real focus problems. Flash in a studio setting helps, but I frequently use available light, and with HP5+ rated at 320-400, I can usually get away with exposures of 1/4 (my max for adults) to 1/8 second (my max for kids)at f22- f32. I've shot much wider open on occasion where the lighting demanded it, and often been vey happy with the results. The challenge is often to get someone holding sufficiently still to get a sharp exposure, but still with an "animated", not mask-like expression. I find making significant eye contact with the subject at the moment of exposure goes a long way towards getting a satisfactory result, and engaging kids in the process of choosing how to pose and present themselves helps with kids. The purely technical challenges are always there with 8 X 10 portraiture, but with practice and reasonable facility with the equipment, you can begin to get artistically satisfactory results pretty quickly. Then you look at what someone like Sally Mann can achieve in "Immediate Family" or Nicholas Nixon in "Family Portraits", any of Avedon's or Jock Sturges' work, and you realize that results beyond what you can imagine getting are possible with true devotion to the craft. I find it one of the most challenging, maddening and satisfying adventure in photography. Pretty tough to beat the feeling on seeing that first 8 X 10 transparency of my month- old daughter asleep in her blanket with a little smile on her face! There's nothing else that will better capture that moment in time as it really looked and felt...

Happy shooting!


-- Nathan Congdon (, March 08, 2001.

Nick, check out the Fuji 300 C. It's very reasonably priced NEW! The 480 is limited with DOF.

-- Dave Anton (, March 08, 2001.

Many decades ago the conventional wisdom on purchasing a lens for portraits was to buy the longest lens (whatever the format) that your bellows and floor space would accomodate. Floor space or working distance is often overlooked.

-- C. W. Dean (, March 09, 2001.

I use a 360 & like it. As you are probably aware, the key is to practice to point where the technical issues become automatic so that you can devote your effort to posing and interacting with your subject.

-- Chris Hawkins (, March 09, 2001.

Thanks to all who replied. Your feedback and suggestions were very helpful.

-- Nick Rowan (, March 11, 2001.

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