Q: Best lens for photographing children

When it comes to photographing children (notice how I didn’t say shooting kids!), your best bet is to shoot with a flattering focal length and you can never go wrong with a 50mm prime (fixed focal length) lens. Now, with that being said there is a quite a bit of reasoning that goes into it and I can get all nerdy here and explain intricate details but there’s no need if you’re just looking for a simple answer. The simple answer is that wide angle lenses tend to make people look, well, wider. More specifically it distorts facial features and widens them when you’re shooting up close an personal, and that’s how most people are photographing their children. People might say to you out loud, “Oh, look at little Timmy. How cute”, but inside they are saying, “Man, that kid has a huge honker!”.

If you’re wondering which brand to go with that is one question I cannot truthfully answer as there is no right or wrong. I have shot with the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5D, both are the flagship bodies for each company and I like them each for different reasons but the latter is what I use professionally every day. I had a conversation about this with the renowned photographer and photoshop guy, Scott Kelby, last year. He is a Nikon shooter but he agreed as we discussed the benefits of each brand; it’s a win-win situation. There’s other great reputable brads out there too, such as Olympus, that also make top notch gear. I like the Canon 40D for a mid range body, as well as some of the Rebel series. For Nikon mid range I suggest the D5100.

As for Nikon and Canon, they both make 50mm f1.4 lenses for the digital SLR bodies that are sturdy and fast; they cost around $450 which make them affordable and impressive. When you’re choosing a lens the lower the f-stop, the faster the lens. It easy terms, this means the lens aperture can open up wider allowing more light in. Faster lenses means better efficiency in lower light situations, and not having to rely on your camera’s pop up flash-which is a guaranteed way to make unflattering, less attractive photos. Faster lenses almost always mean a fatter price tag as well. Another affordable option without dropping a grand is the Canon or Nikon 85mm f1.8- this is an excellent portraiture lens, again with a solid construction and crisp image production. I shoot exclusively with Canon L series lenses, but I do keep the 50mm f1.4 in my gear bag for back up shooter or if I’m allowing one of my own children to use learn on my cameras. My most prized portrait lens is my Canon 85mm f.12L…definitely off limits for my ten year old to practice with since it would take 5 years allowance to replace it!

Another plus is most of the consumer line up for Canon and Nikon consists of cropped sensor frame bodies which will mean that whatever lens you choose it will most likely be magnified by x-amount crop factor, depending on your specs. For instance, once you pop that 50mm lens on the body of your choice chances are you may be shooting upwards of the equivalent of a 85mm lens.

Lastly, you make be asking why not a nice zoom lens? Something telephoto that allows me to get up close from a far distance. Well, for me, I find that for someone just looking to take clear and sharp photos of their kids there is no affordable option for a good zoom lens. Why waster your money on something that will produce poor images when you can save up for the real deal? There is a big debate and will always be about the crispness of a prime lens versus that of the telephoto and again it’s one of those things that I can go both ways with. Again, I won’t go geek on you and give you technical useless information but back to simple facts: cheap zoom lenses that come with kit camera (body plus lens) are just that…cheap. The image quality is inferior and they will never compete with their quality counterparts. I use telephotos quite frequently in my work, but they cost nearly as much as my camera body. The average mom or dad looking to take sharp photos of their family does not want to spend that much. In fact the most affordable, quality zoom lens I may recommend is the Canon 17-40 F4.0L. But, even at around $700 it’s not “inexpensive” and it’s definitely not fast. There is only one notable Canon zoom I can think of that is not an L series lens, but unfortunately even that is not compatible with all Canon bodies.

In my humble opinion, invest in one good body and one good prime lens. Shoot in a way that you are moving closer and farther to your subject(s). You can always crop down in an editing software when you want more of the “zoom” effect, especially with the megapixel dimensions of today’s newest digital SLRs. Learn to use your camera in a way that you can control your own creative vision. Once you master that, then start saving up for that expense telephoto lens. Your photos will thank you for it!

30 thoughts on “Q: Best lens for photographing children

  1. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new
    to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

  2. While I agree with you for the most part, I find 35mm to be my favourite. I started out with a 50mm, but it was just a bit too narrow. The other advantage of a 35mm is, as you mentioned, it becomes pretty much a 50mm on a crop body. Nice little article.

  3. Hi there. Thank you for sharing your experience, it is nice of you. My question to you, is I’ve been asked to do a maternity photo shoot outdoor (mom, date and sibbling) in my huge garden and maybe some indoors surrounded by windows (solarium type) so would the 85mm (is that the only number on the lens?) do a great job on my Nikon D5100? It will be on a sunny day, therefore what mode, shutter, aperture and ISO would be best to use? I really want to succeed the photo shoot as I have lots of room for creativity. Usually I photograph indoor houses which is quite different. I would so much appreciate your feedback

    • Hello! Thanks for your interest.
      It’s hard to pinpoint the exact setting you should use for the outdoor settings but I would try to keep the ISO the lowest possible to achieve those tack sharp images. Try shooting at ISO 100 and then work your F-stop and shutter around that. With the 85mm I sometimes shoot wide open to get that nice, creamy bokeh. If you are in full sun or even dappled light you really want to try to move into the shade, or have someone hold up a light diffuser for you. During the post-processing try to adjust your color balance to add yellow so you have that nice warm tone to your photos. It makes a huge difference! Lots of luck to you

  4. By the way, your first photo up is soooo crisp and clean it’s an amazing photo!! Did you do any post processing with this photo.. the eyes, the skin are exceptional. Can you share how you do it?

    • I usually spend about 20 minutes or so post processing my images. Some tips I can give you is spend some time gently, and meticulously using the dodge tool to give life the eyes. Always work on a duplicate layer so that you don’t destruct your image accidentally and you can compare the before and after. Pay special attention to the iris and pupil and imagine how they would appear if the light really was shining directly into them. For skin I do use the Portraiture plug in for smoothing. You only want to use this over the cheeks, forehead, and chin. And I highly recommend not using it on mature males. Men always look better when they have a ‘scruffy’ look. The overall crispness of the photo is achieved by adjusting curves and applying various layer modes and masks.

  5. I appreciate the simple explanations. I’m looking at getting a DSLR – purely as a mom taking pictures of my kids. I’m completely overwhelmed about lenses! It was recommended to me to just get the camera body and skip the kit lens and buy the 50mm. But not being able to zoom makes me nervous! So I turned to google for confirmation and found you :)

    • Hi Kate. Thanks for the inquiry! I would most definitely trash the kit lens that comes with the DSLR bodies. In fact, you’re better off JUST buying the body and adding a lens yourself because you basically spend money on something you don’t really want. As far as choosing a prime (one fixed focal length) or zoom lens, it is a preference. But, I can tell you that more often than not when I am working in the field or even taking pictures of my own children I always go back to my prime (either a 50m or 85mm lens). I find it easier to adjust my space to get in closer to my subject rather than zoom in and out. I also like the flexibility of being able to shoot wide and then crop down. Zoom lenses are great, but for me professionally I feel that it leaves more room for blurry errors if you don’t take your hand off the zoom ring. Unfortunately there are not a whole lot of options for zoom lenses that are affordable either. Most start at around $700. With a prime you can find a relatively inexpensive lens for about $300 with amazing quality. Hope that helps! Feel free to contact me directly via email if you still feel overwhelmed and need tips :)

      • HI, I’m also going to buy a new DSLR for shooting a baby, as my E300 is way too old for that.
        I found Canon T3i/4i and 100D to be very comfortable and user friendly for both me and my wife (100D the most of all three).
        I’m going to get the kit lens as I need it for work (outdoor shots of buidings etc.)
        Please recommend a good prime lens – is the 40mm/2.8 good enough, or it’s too odd as focal length and too slow? My safest bet would be 35/2 but it is too expensive for me now. Maybe the 28/1.4 if I find a good used one and the 50/1.8 ?

      • The 50mm f1.8 is a great little lens for the money. I do use one myself. The 28mm can get a funky with a fish eye effect on a full frame censor. It is not as versatile, in my opinion but that is a matter of preference for some people. If you will be using the prime to mainly shoot outdoor, the speed should not be much of an issue. But, if you want more bang for your buck the 50 is the way to go!

    • Thank you so much! I am so busy that I have a hard time keeping my posts up to date. Such a bummer! I will try to get some more helpful tips out there for you. Would love to hear your specific suggestions on where you could use advice. In addition to weddings, of course :o)

  6. Hi, I was wondering what Lens you would recommend as the best for newborn photography on the Nikon D800? also just for children? It would be in a reasonable small studio space…thankyou :)

    • Great question! Both Canon and Nikon users alike can find a mid range 50mm lens that is worth looking in to for portrait work. 85mm focal lengths are also the standar for portraiture work. If your space is small the latter might cause issues if you are using a cropped sensor body. I believe your D800 is an FX format CMOS so you should be good either way. Hope that helps!

  7. Hi there! I am using a Canon EF 50 mm F/1.4 USM on a Canon 70D. When photographing my eight month old, I put the single focus point on her face every time. But in nearly every picture, it seems like her face is always out of focus, but her shirt or the basket (if she’s in one) or her feet (if sitting facing me) is in focus. I’ve done the battery test to see if it’s a focus problem, but it seems to be user error. Any advice on how to avoid this? THANKS!

    • Hi Amy! I always recommend choosing one eye on your subject as your focusing point. Sometimes lenses can be tricky with back focusing too so be sure you’re locked on that eye. I also prefer using automatic focusing over manual. Humans always tend to cause our own errors. And, one last tip is to make sure your eyepiece is in focus. To do this place your lens cap on, depress your shutter halfway and take a look at your light meter reading against that black backdrop. This will give you the most accurate focusing as opposed to adjusting the eye piece on scenery, etc.

    • Your best bet is to give the 50mm a try. Depending on your budget you have options for f1.8 or f1.4; the 1.8 being the less expensive version. It will be a fantastic portrait lens for your cropped sensor body so keep in mind you’re results will be closer to a 85mm focal distance with a nice bokeh from the fast speed of these lenses.

  8. I noticed you wrote this post back in 2012 but google brought me right to your page. :-) I a newish mommy blogger and my only interest is in taking better photos of my kids, both for personal and also for the blog. I have a Canon Rebel right now, but only the standard lens with it. Would you recommend I purchase the 50mm f1.4 for my purposes or the 85mm f1.8? Thank you so much for your great post here!

  9. In LOVE with your site. So so helpful!

    I am trying to decide between a 50 1.4 and a 85 1.8. I am using a D5200 and will mostly take pictures of my son (2 years) who cannot sit still. :-D

    I read so much by now that i am more confused than before. Some say that the 50 1.4 is not worth its money, and to rather get a 1.8 instead, others say that the 1.4 is immensely better than the 1.8.

    I really want a lens with nice bokeh and sharpness, something that will help me keep a toddler in focus even when running. ;-)

    I also don’t want to be too far away when taking his picture. But i read too often that the 85 is probably better for action shots. uhh. i’m sorry .. so much talking. ;-)

    Thank you in advance!!

  10. Hi!
    I just happened on your site and found it so helpful. I own a Canon Rebel T3 and am looking for a new great lens to photograph my two (squirmy) kids. I want something that will leave the background with a really blurred effect (but not 100% washed away). I’m trying to understand the difference between an 85mm F1.4 or a 50mm F1.4 or even F1.2. How far away would I need to be from my kids for each of those lenses? And how else do they differ? Lastly, would you be able to recommend a specific lens for me (I’m looking to stay under $400 if at all possible but am open to options to save up for!). Thank you so much!

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