As photographers we get very involved in thinking about the maximum aperture of a lens, the make of a lens and creating great background blur. These are all very interesting and relevant if you want certain results, but before you get into thinking about the best lens for portraits, first think about the best focal length for portraits.
Once you know the effect a particular focal length will have and how close or far you need to be from your subject with that portrait focal length, you can start looking at other aspects of portrait lenses. After all, what’s the point of great depth of field if your subject is distorted, because you used an unflattering focal length for portraits?
What type of lens is best for portrait photography?
It’s a good question and there’s a good reason why portrait photographers obsess over focal length. Your choice of focal length for portraits will have a big impact on the image. It affects:
- how much of the background is in frame
- the shape and proportions of your subject’s face
The shorter your choice of portrait focal length (wider field of view), the more the middle of the photo is going to balloon forward. A wide angle will make noses and foreheads grow!
However, whilst a longer portrait focal length (narrower field of view) will flatten the middle of a photo, and therefore make a big nose seem smaller, after a certain point, it will also start to widen a face.
Taken with a full frame camera.
Above from left: 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm. Below from left: 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, 200mm
Portrait focal length exercise
It’s always best to do something for yourself so that you can see the results and know what was involved. All the YouTube videos and blog posts in the world about portrait focal length won’t teach you as much as this five minute exercise…
To recreate your own series of photos like mine above…
- Find a patient friend or family member
- Get them to stand or sit still in one place for the duration of the exercise. This is not a time to start cracking jokes and making it hard for them to cooperate!
- Line them up in your viewfinder for a head and shoulders shot
- Take note of exactly where they are in frame
- Quick tip: using your rule of thirds grid, place the top right intersection of lines on the left eye (the eye that’s camera right). Do this for every shot to make sure their eye is roughly in the same place for each photo. As your focal length changes you’ll need to adapt.
- For each new focal length, starting at 28mm, you’ll have to move further back and realign your subject in the frame as closely as possible to your first photo
- Take note of exactly where your subject is in the frame and keep it as constant as possible. (Yes, I’m stressing this point, because it’s important)
- Take a shot at 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, 200mm
- You’ll need to change lenses, but that’s okay.
- If you don’t have all those focal lengths at your disposal, just do the ones you have. You’ll still see a difference.
- For the most consistent results, don’t change any camera settings – same aperture, shutter speed, ISO and lighting.
Now examine your photos on the computer. I don’t need to say anything more. You’ve just proved to yourself how focal length affects the appearance of people in portraits. Plus, now you know which portrait focal length to use for headshots.
Here are the two extremes of the focal lengths I used in my focal length comparison exercise. On the left I used a 28mm focal length and the image on the right is the last in the series using a 200mm focal length. Placed side by side, you can see how much the shape of her face changes.
Is a 35mm lens good for portraits?
Yes, it is. Use a 35mm for environmental portraits. These will be more full length portrait where the subject is smaller and doesn’t fill the frame. The wider angle means that you’ll capture more of the background, which is very relevant in environmental portraits.
To avoid any distortion of your subject, just make sure that they’re not at the edge of the frame.
Is a 50mm lens good for portraits?
Yes, a 50mm lens is a good portrait lens that are full length or taken from the waist up. If the portrait is any closer, make sure that your subject is towards the middle of the frame with space around them to avoid distortion. It will make faces thinner and noses bigger.
A 50mm lens is a very versatile lens and a favourite of new photographers, because the price point makes it very affordable. It’s also a light lens and doesn’t scream “serious about photography”, so perfect for street photography as it’s less noticeable.
For this portrait I used a focal length of 85mm.
Which is better for portraits 50mm or 85mm?
The short answer, and the easy way out is that an 85mm lens on a full frame camera is considered the ideal focal length for flattering portrait photos. However, the best way to answer this very popular focal length question is with four more questions…
1. How much of your subject is in frame?
- Headshots (85mm)
- Three quarter length (50mm or 85mm)
- Full length (50mm or 85mm)
If all you have is a 50mm lens and you want to photograph headshots, then just shoot with more space around your subject and crop the image in post. It’s not ideal, but it works and you won’t distort your subject. They’ll like you for that.
If your subject is not a photographer they might not notice the distortion as such, but if they look different from how they see themselves in the mirror, the image will feel off and they won’t like it.
2. Are you photographing adults or children?
You might need to be closer to be more connected to your subject. If you want a full length shot and you don’t want to be too far away, go with a 50mm focal length. With an 85mm focal length you’ll have to stand further away.
Further reading: How to choose the best lens for portraits to avoid bad photos
3. How many people are in frame?
The wider the focal length, the more you can fit into the frame, because of the field of view of a wider angle.
Further reading: What is focal length and how to use it in photography
4. Are you using a full frame or crop sensor camera?
This is very relevant! If you use a full frame lens on a crop sensor camera, you need to multiply the focal length by roughly 1.5 to get the true focal length. So, a full frame 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera photographs more like an 85mm focal length. If the math seems out, don’t worry, it’s an approximation.
And just to be clear, a full frame 50mm lens on a full frame camera photographs at 50mm.
Obviously, your choice of camera and lens is going to make a big difference to the effective focal length of the lens!
One last look… On the left, 28mm focal length, middle is 85mm focal length and on the right I used a 200mm focal length. So, you’ve been looking at how her face changes when comparing focal lengths. Did you notice the bricks on the wall behind her? Remember, she didn’t move from that spot for the entire exercise. Crazy huh?
My favourite portrait focal lengths
I shoot with focal lengths mainly between 85mm and 200mm when outdoors. I do a lot of walking back and forth to my subject to communicate between each series of shots, especially when using a focal length of 200mm! When it comes to headshots outdoors, even though I have all the space in the world, the longest focal length I use is 105mm. Beyond that the face will start to become wider.
When I photograph indoors, the space that I’m in will dictate the focal length that I use, as well as what I’m photographing.
As I mainly photograph boudoir indoors, my most popular focal length is 70mm. I just checked by applying a focal length filter to all my boudoir photos in the Library Module of Lightroom (it’s a great database, not just a great photo editing program).
Last word on lenses for portrait photography (well, any photography)
The lens you use is the most important piece of equipment. It doesn’t mean that you have to break the bank, just get the best that you can afford.
If you don’t have an infinite budget for the best of everything, rather spend more on a good lens and less on a camera. You’ll replace your camera a few times while your good quality lens will just keep on going.
It’s not just about wide apertures either. More expensive lenses are built better to last longer, work harder and in tougher conditions. In the end, an expensive lens works out cheaper than a cheap lens.
Further reading: Expensive lens or expensive camera – which is better?
A simple rule of thumb for portrait photography is that, if you’re going to use a short focal length, step back and include more background in the frame to avoid distorting your subject’s features.
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By Jane Allan
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