Photographers love to disparage kit lenses. “Your kit lens is garbage” is a common phrase in photography circles – yet in my view, kit lenses can actually produce great results, especially when it comes to portrait photography. While there are certainly benefits to upgrading glass as your budget allows, there is so much you can do with your kit lens if you know how to use it.
In this article, I share a handful of simple tips to improve your kit lens portrait photography. I explain:
- How you can create a beautiful background blur effect
- How to capture beautiful environmental portraits
- How to use the standard kit lens focal length for great results
- Much more!
So if all you own is a kit lens, or if you simply want to learn how your kit lens can become your best friend, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Ensure plenty of subject-background separation
Portrait photographers love to produce a creamy, blurry background that’ll rid an image of distractions while beautifully complementing the main subject. The easiest way to create such an effect is by dialing in an ultra-wide aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/1.4 – but kit lenses are generally incapable of going past f/3.5 or even f/5.6, which won’t blur the background as much as you might desire.
Fortunately, if you’re using a lens with a narrow maximum aperture, all is not lost! You simply need to understand the way depth of field (i.e., the area of the image that is blurred versus in focus) works, then adjust your shooting approach accordingly.
You see, while the aperture does heavily influence background blur, another way to increase the strength of this bokeh effect is by positioning your main subject far from the background. The more distant the background, the more it’ll blur, and the better your result.
Take a look at this next portrait shot. It was captured at f/4.5, but because my subject was far away from the grass and the fence, the background blur is very nice:
And if I had asked my subject to move even farther away from the background, the effect would’ve been even stronger.
Of course, this approach only works if you have enough room for your subject to move away from the background. Therefore, do your best to avoid shooting kit lens portraits in cramped surroundings.
Pro tip: Make sure you’re on a level with your subject when you press the shutter button. If you shoot from too high, you may end up including nearer background elements such as the grass directly behind the subject, which won’t look especially blurred. (However, it’s important to note that this can also be a strategy for improving the background; see Tip 3.)
2. Zoom your kit lens to its longest focal length
As I discussed in the previous tip, the aperture and the subject-background separation both influence the intensity of the background bokeh. But there’s a third factor that can also make a big difference: focal length.
You see, the longer the focal length, the stronger the compression effect, which is a fancy way to say that the background bokeh will look creamier and more impressive. Therefore, instead of capturing your portraits at 18mm, shoot at 55mm; the effect will be far more pleasing.
A longer focal length has another key benefit: It puts you closer to the subject, which is yet another factor in the intensity of background bokeh. Obviously, not every portrait should be a close-cropped headshot, but this can be a handy way to improve your kit lens shots!
Just remember: If you’re using a kit lens and you want better bokeh, zoom out that lens to its longest focal length. And try to create a tighter composition that keeps the subject large in the frame.
3. Choose a different perspective
If you can’t place your subject far away from the background, or if you’d prefer to avoid incorporating the distant background in your portrait (because it’s very messy and distracting, for instance), you do have another option:
Change your perspective.
By standing up and asking your subject to sit on the ground, or by getting down low so you shoot up into the air, you’ll change the relationship between the background and the subject. Suddenly, instead of photographing a subject against a messy background, you’ll be shooting your subject against beautiful flowers, grass, cement, asphalt, or sand, all of which photograph well from above. Or you’ll be shooting your subject against a lovely blue sky, which certainly looks great from below.
Unfortunately, changing your perspective can cause distortion and can showcase unflattering views. Don’t be afraid to use this trick, but don’t rely on it too much, and always pay attention to the effect created by the high or low angle.
4. Try group portraits
Since your kit lens will force you to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6, your images will feature a deeper depth-of-field effect (where more of the scene is in focus). But don’t see this as a disadvantage; instead, recognize the way your camera will render the scene, and think about how you can use it to your benefit.
For instance, shooting group portraits can be tough at f/1.8. It’s easy to blur one (or both) subjects, and the results are often hit-and-miss. But at f/5.6, it’s far simpler to keep both subjects in focus, even if they’re on the move:
Speaking of movement, a narrower aperture is more forgiving when dealing with subjects that are moving toward or away from you. Therefore, when working with a kit lens, don’t be afraid to photograph kids running toward you, parents playing with their children, or families having fun with their dogs.
The resulting images may be slightly different than the head-and-shoulders shots that the word “portrait” often brings to mind, but they often invoke emotion and movement in a way that is really compelling and valuable.
5. Don’t be afraid to go wide
Throughout this article, I’ve discussed the importance of background bokeh and how you can achieve it with a kit lens – but sometimes it’s better to go in the other direction. Background details can add essential context to your images, so you shouldn’t always feel like a blurry backdrop is an essential part of every portrait.
Fortunately, because kit lenses are designed for maximum convenience, it’s pretty easy to achieve that wide perspective; simply zoom out to 18mm (or as far as the lens will go) until you can capture your subject in their environment:
These environmental-type portraits can even benefit from props, such as flowers, balloons, or even ice cream. Feel free to have fun with it – and while you don’t want to go overboard, a little bit of detail can go a long way.
Before capturing a wider portrait, you’ll want to think carefully about the lens aperture. If you shoot at f/4.5 or f/5.6, you may end up with a slight bokeh effect, which is fine. But if you want to show maximum detail, it can be helpful to stop down your lens to f/8 or so. (A benefit of these narrower apertures is increased sharpness throughout the scene, so if you’re hyper-focused on image quality, this can be ideal!)
Kit lens portrait photography: final words
Well, there you have it: My top five tips for stunning kit lens portraits. Hopefully, you now realize that kit lenses can be highly effect effective – and while they do come with some drawbacks, you can use a few clever techniques to get consistently great results.
Just remember to use a long focal length, ensure plenty of subject-background separation, and get close to your subject. And if you’re not getting the results you’re after, try going wider and capturing some environmental shots instead!
Do you have any tips for kit lens portrait photography? Do you plan to use a kit lens for portraiture? Share your thoughts in the comments below!