Shooting Portraits with a $12,000 400mm f/2.8 Lens

Ever wonder what it would be like to use a high-end telephoto prime to shoot portraits? Daniel and Rachel of Mango Street have, and so they decided to rent the $12,000 Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM IS lens and take it for a joy ride shooting their particular style of urban portraiture.

There are two main challenges to using a sports/wildlife lens like this for portrait work: weight and distance. The lens weighs 2.8 kg (6.3 lbd), so a monopod mounted to the lens’ tripod collar is a must, and carrying it around to various locations is a drag. And when you’re as far away as you need to be to get some full-body shots, you’ll have to either use walkie talkies or yell your instructions.

What do you get in return? Crazy background compression because of the field of view, for one, and the ability to make the background melt away completely, even at f/2.8. As Rachel points out in the video: even with your subject a full 20 meters (65.5 feet) away, your depth of field is still just 0.42 meters (16.5 inches) when shooting wide-open.

Interestingly, this is not the first or the most extreme experiment of this type that we’ve seen. A few months back, Manny Ortiz teamed up with Irene Rudnyk and Gerald Undone to try and shoot portraits at 900mm using a 600mm lens and a crop-sensor camera. But while that idea was totally unreasonable—an exercise in “wouldn’t this be fun to try?”—using a 400mm f/2.8 lens for portraits is actually somewhat reasonable if you’re looking to capture some unique portraits and you’re ready to deal with the downsides.

Check out the full video up top to see Mango Street struggle with this behemoth of a lens, and see some of the shots they were able to capture. Then head over to their YouTube channel if you want to see more from Daniel and Rachel.