How to Shoot Great Portraits with Your Kit Lens

Shooting portraits is always one of the most popular topics discussed on Light Stalking. Everyone wants to get that professional look, but many feel they are hamstrung by their gear. While a cheap lens can be a slightly limiting factor, it should be seen more as a challenge than a game changer because there are many techniques the photographer can use to get a cheaper lens to produce great portraits. Let’s take a look at a few.

In very general terms, with portraiture you’re going to be shooting with the intent of getting the focal point on the person’s face and more specifically the eyes. Other popular techniques in shooting portraits include limiting the depth of field in order to get that focus on the face at the same time as creating a nice (but not distracting) bokeh effect for the background. That’s by no means a suggestion for what you should do (shoot however you like), but simply an observation of the predominant way that photographers like to shoot portraits. For the purposes of this limited guide, we’ll assume you’d like to follow these general tactics with your own portraits.

Note: Sometimes, such as in travel portraits, you will want the background (or at least some of the surroundings) to be in focus so you can tell where you are. This guide does not cover a scenario like this and is aimed at people who want the main center of interest to be the person in the portrait and not the place.

Focus on Eyes (Nearest Eye if Necessary) – In portrait photography, conventional wisdom always says to place sharp focus on the eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul and all that! That means getting them in sharp focus. Now, if your subject is at an angle and you are shooting with a wide open aperture, then you may only be able to get one of the eyes in focus, so make that’s the nearest one to the camera. However, as you’re shooting with a kit lens and the aperture is probably not too wide, then this probably won’t be a problem (both eyes will probably be in focus at f/3.5 or f/5.6 depending on the circumstances).

Let’s Talk About Bokeh

The remainder of this article will focus on how to achieve the most pleasing bokeh effect with a kit lens for your portraits. This requires a combination of techniques as kit lenses are generally not as suitable as more expensive prime lenses or tele lenses at achieving this pleasing effect.

Open the Aperture – Kit lenses usually have a limited aperture range meaning you cannot open them up as much as more expensive lenses. You are going to want to use the widest aperture you can set your kit lens to (usually in the range of f/3.5 to f/5.6). This will help you achieve the bokeh effect with your background and keep the center of focus firmly on your subject.

Extend Kit Lens to Longest Tele – Most popular kit lenses are somewhere in the 18mm to 70mm range (Nikon’s 18-70mm or Canon’s 18-55mm for example) and you’re usually going to want to extend it out as far as it goes. This will eliminate the distortion you sometimes get shooting portraits at a wide angle as well as help you get that bokeh effect in your background (in combination with the other tactics listed here).

Get Close – Tightly cropped is usually how you will want to shoot your portraits so get as close as you can with your extended lens if that’s the effect that you want. Getting close to your subject while your lens is extended and the aperture is wide open will also help with the bokeh effect for the background.

drag by mangpages, on Flickr

Keep Background Far Away – If possible, try to make sure the background to your subject is at a reasonably far distance. This will allow your kit lens to really give you a good bokeh effect for your background and keep the center of interest on your subject’s face. It will also help eliminate distracting elements of the background.

Keep Background Plain – Again, if you want the main subject of your portrait photograph to be the person in it, then you are going to want to keep the background as plain as possible. While it’s not always possible, if you can remove those distracting elements, then you can keep the focus squarely on the person in your portrait.

In general, these techniques will help you render a reasonable portrait with a kit lens. Even with their limitations, they are perfectly capable of giving good results for portraits if you simply follow a few basic principles.

21 thoughts on “How to Shoot Great Portraits with Your Kit Lens

  1. Zeetz Jones

    My kit lens (18-105mm) for the Nikon D90 has given me tremendous looking photos. Here’s one I took lately:

    [img]http://www.flickr.com/photos/zeetzjones/6277377770/in/photostream[/img]

  2. Gina

    This article is great. I am looking to get the most out of my kit lenses before investing in more gear. I want to get better portraits of my kid and this helped tremendously. Thank you

  3. shanna

    Thank you so much for this article! I have been wanting to invest in a better lens, but right now it just isn’t an option. So I have been using my kit…it is nice to have some tips on how to get good quality portraits out of it!

  4. Debbie

    What’s wrong with kit lenses? My camera came with a Nikon 18-105 and does a great job. A couple days ago it hit the ground hard and the mount bent. A friend said, “well, who cares, it’s just a kit lens!” I looked it up and on it’s own it costs $400. That’s not chump change and comes highly recommended. So, what am I missing that just because it came with the camera it’s considered garbage?

    1. Avatar of LightStalkingLightStalking Post author

      Basically, kit lenses are (generally) slow. They don’t allow a wide aperture (by comparison to their more expensive cousins or to prime lenses). That means they don’t let in as much light and don’t allow you to get good bokeh as easily. There are ways around it like those above, but there’s a reason that a 300mm f2.8 costs thousands of dollars while a 300mm 5.6 can be had for $150.

      1. Avatar of LightStalkingLightStalking Post author

        But don’t take that the wrong way. A skilled photographer can make any piece of equipment sing and get the images they want to get. It’s not about the gear, but sometimes the gear can allow a little more flexibility for a good photographer.

        1. Debbie

          Ah! OK, thanks. Add your explanation to one given to me by a friend. He also said that Canon will throw in one of their cheaper lenses while Nikon will give you a more expensive one.

          I agree though, it’s not the equipment that takes a great image, it’s the photographer!

  5. Stacia

    So glad I stumbled onto this page. What fabulous tips. I’m a newbie in the photography world. I decided I needed to know how to use the equipment that came with the camera (Canon T2i) before I spent a lot of money on lenses. I’ll use these tips to polish my skills so maybe next year for Christmas Santa will see it fit to upgrade my kit lenses.

    1. Rob

      I have the t2i as well, got it like 2 years ago. The 18-55mm lens that came with it works great, great for night photography, long exposure city scape for example, as well as general landscapes. I’m amateur but do get paying clients now and then, i did buy a 50mm 1.8 lens, that’s great for portrait. Also got a 70-300 mm ef lens for $180 at best buy, great for wildlife. The attached image was shot with the kit 18-55 at 18mm focal length at f14 , with a .4 second shutter speed at sunset.

  6. Avatar of jpchipjpchip

    Great information. Don’t give up on kit lenses. Only thing I can say…learn and understand your camera and the lense capabilities. And ‘shoot’, ‘shoot’ and ‘shoot’ some more. Shoot the same item using the same lense but change the settings.

    You’ll like the results.

    Good luck and have fun. Jeff

  7. Pariz

    I am just an enthusiast and as one I am always eager to read to become more concious of these things which we sometimes know but not only as an intuition.
    Thanks for sharing!

  8. paul

    Rob.

    Thanks for all the posts since I started to follow you a year or so now, really helpful, and like the majority of photographers I’ve met over the years very generious with advice and tips and tricks etc., we all had to start at the begining and without people like you we’d be a longer time getting to where we want…

    Cheers Mate

  9. Filmertography

    As mentioned several times people shoot with kit lenses due to limited budgets, and then have limitations with apertures not going below f3.5 – but why not pick up a 50mm f1.8 – both Canon and Nikon produce and sell these for quite low costs (just over $100) – this lens will give you those wonderful short depths of field and some pretty good bokeh – and also a great lens for low light situations. I still keep one in my pack along side my L-series lenses.

  10. Avatar of KaramenKaramen

    Tagging onto the first comment regarding the 60D and 18-135 lens. Should I only zoom out to say 50-70mm so the lens will stay opened a bit more, or do you still recommend full zoom since the difference is only 5.0 vs. 5.6?

    1. Rob

      I would suggest zooming all the way, 5.6 is fine, and move closer to your subject, keep it in MF (manual focus) , keep moving closer until you can’t focus sharply anymore then just move back again ever so slightly. you’ll find that should work well for the effect.

  11. Sue

    I recently tried to get shots of bokeh inside my house using my kit lens. I was amazed how far my subject had to be from the background to create a shallow depth of field to show the bokeh, even at the widest aperture. It’s so much easier with a 50mm f1.8 lens!

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