Focal Length for Portrait Photography
With so much lens choice available, which is the right focal length for portrait photography? This is something I often get asked by students at workshops and by those looking to upgrade their kit. There are certain focal lengths that are more widely used for particular types of photography. They can give you quite predictable, reliable results. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use other lenses. You can use any focal length that you like provided that you are aware of what results it will produce. Sometimes you may want the exaggerated perspective created by a wideangle. The important thing is that you have creative control and know which tool to use for which job. As a general rule, for headshots a wideangle lens is not a great idea – see below.
As you can see, an ultrawide lens distorts the facial features, especially making the nose look bigger. This was taken using a focal length of 15mm on a full-frame camera. The equivalent for crop sensor would be about 10mm. This is not the kind of lens to use if you want a flattering portrait. There are other applications for wideangles that do work. So don’t assume that you can’t ever use one for portrait photography. Just don’t go too close unless you are after a very odd effect. It might be ok for Halloween portraits perhaps!
This next image was taken at 24mm (again full-frame – crop equivalent about 35mm):
Here is a version at 30mm full-frame (approx. 50mm crop sensor):
The face is starting to look more normal as we increase the focal length. The distortion disappears and we see our model roughly as we would with our own eyes. The aperture remains constant through all the images (f/2.8). So, you can also see the effect that the focal length has on blurring the background (bokeh). Each length has a different field of view – the longer the lens, the narrower the field of view. As we choose a longer lens, watch how the background changes and less of the environment is included.
This is 45mm:
This is 70mm:
The longer focal lengths flatten the facial features a bit more. They produce an effect that is quite flattering and good for beauty photography. It is slightly different to how we perceive people with our own eyes. The effect tends to be a positive one. You begin to lose the background so it is less of an environmental portrait. I had to move backwards as I used higher focal lengths in order to keep our model about the same size in the frame. There are also a few slight differences in the crop as she and I moved slightly. Hopefully you can still get the idea.
Here is one taken at 135mm:
Finally, this was taken at 200mm:
Our final image is very different from our starting one! If you want to achieve maximum separation of your subject from the background then a long lens helps as well as a wide aperture. Different focal lengths produce images with different character. Sometimes all you want to get from the background is a bit of colour and a soft texture. If so, use a long focal length (70-200mm). If you wish to get more of a feel of the surroundings then try using a mid-range to wider focal length. None of them is really more “correct” than the others. It all depends on what you are trying to create. Learn how focal length affects your images and then you can have even more creative control for your portrait photography. These principles apply to other types of photography too. For example, have you ever tried taking nature or garden images using a wideangle lens?!
© Joe Lenton, August 2016