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I want to take pictures of people from 5-20 feet away. I attend lots of group events and am free to walk around and snap photos.

I just purchased a Canon t3i and it comes with a 18-55mm kit lens. The aperture can go down to f/3.5 at the largest. However, I have a friend with a Canon 5D with 50mm f/1.8 lens and I noticed that his photos always come out nice when shooting up close. The background is always blurred.

I find that I get the shallowest depth of field when I zoom in (even if the aperture goes up), which is a problem. I don't want to have to back up from the subject to get a nice photo. If I really try, I can sometimes get the subject with a blurred background if I move in close (3ft) with a f/3.5.

So do I just need to learn how to use this lens, or would a getting a 50mm f/1.8 lens really help with taking pictures of people?

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See also — although the question is vague, there are some good answers. –  mattdm May 4 '11 at 16:45
I think its important here to note that it seems your definition of "better portrait photos" appears to really mean "shallower DoF". LOTS of other things can make portraits good and bad. –  rfusca May 4 '11 at 17:02

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes, a lens with a larger aperture (numerically smaller f/number) will produce a shallower depth-of-field, and a more blurred background. However, there's another factor working in the 5D's favor: It has a "full frame" sensor, the same size as 35mm film, while your camera has a smaller "APS-C" sensor. The larger sensor results in a shallower depth of field, for the same composition and aperture setting. See Matt Grum's comparison in this thread. So the 50/1.8 will be an improvement, but may not reach what you're seeing from your friend's 5D.

Also, you said you don't like zooming in with your 18-55 lens, because you prefer to work closer. Keep in mind that a 50mm lens will be similar to the long end of your zoom, so it may not mesh with your preferences.

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Thanks for the link. However, after reading some of that I'm wondering if something like a +80mm f/1.8 would be better for my needs than a 55mm since I have a smaller sensor. –  Xeoncross May 4 '11 at 16:53
That's a fine portrait lens, but you're going to have to be even further away from your subject, so you'll have to decide if that's a problem for you or not. (BTW, since your friend has the 50/1.8, maybe you can borrow it to try on your camera? You can assess the depth-of-field, the perspective and working distance, etc.) –  coneslayer May 4 '11 at 16:55
doh, the info provided here is great, but I should just go borrow it! –  Xeoncross May 4 '11 at 16:57

Yes if you really want to blur the background get a fast (wide aperture lens). If you don't like having to back up to shoot at 55mm with the kit lens you should probably look at the Sigma 30 f/1.4

Otherwise the Canon 50 f/1.8 is great value.

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Large, wide open aperture (smaller f number) will result in blurred background. You need to focus more carefully on the eyes. But a 50mm in a full-frame camera is pretty short for making head and shoulders portraits. An 85mm or longer would yield an even nicer portrait in your friend's camera because it will allow him to get back a bit. This longer perspective will keep noses from getting large, etc. I think the 55mm end of your zoom is likely to give a nicer portrait perspective in your camera than your friend's 50mm on his larger sensor. But it will not have as shallow a depth-of-field. And his lens on your camera should result in a really nice portrait. (They probably make an adapter which might be a cheap way for you to try before you buy.)

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Without a doubt. You will not even need to try very hard and you will get the results you want. The only thing is that the the bokeh on the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II is a bit noisy (only five non-rounded aperture blades)

There is even a faster (and still reasonably priced) lens available: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

I used both lenses and the f1.8 lens feels really, really cheap. (and you can really tell that a picture was shot with this lens because of the distinctive bokeh) Still a great value. Although I keep dreaming about the L series f1.2 version I did purchase the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens and I am extremely pleased. Some reviews say that it's a bit soft at f1.4 but I did not find it so. The build quality is good (not as good as my old pentax f1.4 50mm which was solid metal) but the focusing ring feels a bit rough. Still, in my opinion, very much worth the investment.

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You can but then you need your group to be close and the background as far as possible (like as shooting in a path between trees)

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Why do you suggest this? –  mattdm Dec 31 '13 at 21:28
While I think you are saying that you could use the existing lens to accomplish the goal by doing what you suggest, however the way your answer is phrased doesn't really make sense to someone who doesn't already know that. The question was asking either "will a lens with low aperture value give better portraits?" or "do I just need to learn how to use the lens?" Without further expanding that it is possible, but harder and that he needs to take a photo like you describe to get a background blur, it isn't very easy to follow. –  AJ Henderson Dec 31 '13 at 23:05

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