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105 Macro for Portraits?

412 Burgh

No longer a newbie, moving up!
Mar 18, 2011
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Okay, so for this summer I have been doing a lot of videography for a studio where my college is. I have been enjoying it and watching the Photographers when I had the chance to try to pick up on stuff. However, I love doing the video I am limited by the cameras the studio gives me and crappy tripod etc. But While doing my last wedding I saw our photographer using his 105mm Macro on his Canon Mark DIII (sorry if I typed this wrong, I'm a Nikon guy) So when he showed me the picture, the sharpness, blur, and bokeh from the light shining in was amazing. I have heard of this lens used for portraits before but I feel as this lens is almost perfect because his shot was absolutely spectacular.

So does anyone else find their selves using ANY macro lens for portrait work often?
No. Macro lenses, most of them, have hair-trigger focusing that makes them a dicey proposition for portraiture. I own a selection of macro lenses, and NONE of them are superior portrait tools.NONE of them. The focusing is just far too critical at portrait distances. Here's just one example. One of my favorite ways to photograph a couple is to have them move away from me to about 100 feet or so, and then walk towards me, slowly, as they interact with one another. Think "romantic stroll along the sea shore". I use a 70-200/2.8 for this. Or, if I have just the 70-300 VR, I will use that. This is easy for people to do, and it frees them to interact with their normal partner, not me, and not with a camera-eye. With the zoom, you can shoot tele, and as they approach, grab a few half-body shots, then zoom back to 100mm and shoot full-length, and so on. And--this is key: a field telephoto, or a tele-zoom will NAIL the focus, frame after frame after frame. A macro lens will NOT be able to focus with anywhere near the same speed, or certainty.

At distances of 20 feet or so, a macro tele, like my 90 Tamron or Canon 100 will easily MISS focus if the AF bracket is slightly off. Focus might be off by only a foot or so at 20 feet, but that's enough to show that the focus was MISSED, and not nailed. AF systems work on a "good enough" principle, and the proof of a macro lens's inferiority can often be found when you bring the files into Lightroom and look at the full-size files. Hit percentage over time and multiple sessions with a macro is well below that of a good "field telephoto", or tele-zoom. Plus, the rendering style of many macros is ultra-sharp, biting, sterile rendering. Not really "pretty" imagers,most macros.

The issues are slow focus.Hair-trigger focusing and hunting back-and-forth,back-and-forth,back-and-forth to get a precise lock-on. Almost impossible to use manual focusing. And too many focus "misses" at portrait distances. These issues limit macros to basically, dead-still, posed work, and even then, the focus ring on a macro moves soooo fast that, well, it's just the wrong tool for the job compared to a "field telephoto" or a tele-zoom.

AF macro lenses are optimized for focusing at macro ranges! Try one on something like action sports and the results can be disastrous.
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Great point Derrel! I definitely overlooked the sharpness and the ability to focus on something as it's moving. I do love my 80-200 for portraits! (I'll add the 70-200; once I'm not a poor college students, roughly 10 years, haha) I have been trying to use my 24-70 a lot to see it's ability and so far I love it! Thank you for such an informative and insightful post on this lens for portraits!
For sports, you would probably miss a lot of shots due to the slower autofocus. For portraits, absolutely you can use a 100 macro lens. I have one an do so frequently. The resulting images can be stunning, as you have seen for yourself. If you are concerned about the autofocus missing, then simply switch to manual focus, which is something any photographer should be able to do (through practice) with any lens, especially for portraits. I trust myself more than I trust any autofocus to nail focus on the eyes. Remember, there was a time when autofocus didn't exist, photographers still took great portaits.
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As Derrel mentions manual focusing a macro lens at past close focusing distances is tricky; tiny shifts in the focusing wheel result in a big shift in the position of the point of focus. Couple that with modern digital camera viewfinders which are built with AF in mind not manual focusing (ergo lacking manual focusing aids and often smaller than in past 35mm film cameras) and its a tricky setup.

Yes you CAN manually focus a macro lens and you can do it at any range, but its harder than with a regular lens which will typically have a smoother and less rapid shift in its focusing position.
Maybe I'll have to get my
Hands on one for a week or
So and test my luck. Ill have to look into a lens rental!
Here is another point to consider. The 50 1.2, 85 1.2 and 1.4s are primarily portrait lenses, and the autofocus is abysmal.
I won't speak to Nikons 105 since I no longer shoot Nikon and have never used it. I will however speak to Canon's 100mm f2.8. I have used it for years as a portrait lens and found it to be an excellent lens for portraiture. The only drawback is that it is a bit of a slow on focus, but faster than my 85mm f1.2L. Neither of which would I choose for quickly moving subjects.

There can actually be one other drawback for some people. That lens is razor sharp.

As for hair trigger focusing, that is not the case with the Canon lens. DOF and the focusing that goes with it is a product of physics. Your 105 at f2.8 shooting an object 10 inches away will have a DOF of 2/10ths of an inch. Little on the narrow side. At 10 feet with the same settings your DOF is 4 and at 30 feet you have a DOF of 2.65 feet. If you shoot the same macro shot at f8 you still only have 4/10ths of an inch DOF.

With 2/10ths of an inch DOF when using it to shoot macro, breathing on the focus ring can cause you to be out of focus. As I said, I won't speak to the Nikon since I don't own it and have never used it. I will however say that if you have the chance to try the 105 for portraiture do so and see what you think.

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