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The Ideal Focal Length for Portraiture: A Photographer’s Experiment

The Ideal Focal Length for Portraiture: A Photographer’s Experiment

The Ideal Focal Length for Portraiture: A Photographer’s Experiment

how shooting at different focal lengths impacts a photo

When framing a photo, have you ever considered the focal length at which you are framing the subject? The examples above represent the same subject, framed in the same manner yet they have strikingly different appearances due to the difference in focal length. Framing a subject inside a shot can be done two separate ways; working distance from the camera to the subject, or the focal length. In this example we start by taking a 24mm shot just inches from the subject’s face, filling the lens with her face and shoulders. Using this shot as a reference,

I took a few steps back, reframed the subject identically sized for the 35mm shot, and continued all of the way up to 165mm. As the series of shots progressed to the 165mm shot, I was 12-14 feet away from the subject. When you look through this series of photos, it is clear that the smaller focal lengths have the effect of distorting the subjects face and in this case brought out her nose prominently. Look at the size of her nose, eyes, and eyebrows. I can assure you that this is NOT what she looks like in person.The shorter focal lengths also appear to give the face a very angular and slim appearance. As you pass the ideal focal length for portraiture and shoot at 135 or 165mm, the girl’s face seems to flatten out and become wider than it is in person.

There are obvious reasons for all focal lengths, and different situations for every lens arrangement. In my experience, when shooting primarily portraiture, the ideal focal length ranges from 70-100mm from your subject utilizing 6-10 feet of working distance between the camera and the subject.

In the next set of photos I have framed the same shot at two extremes of the spectrum, 24mm and 160mm. In this particular photo, the only difference technically in the two shots is the focal length and the working distance between the camera and the subject. As you can see, the girl is approximately the same size and the photo was taken at the same angle. Notice the bush and fallen trees in the background of this photo. Notice the difference in what appears to be the size of the bushes. This is due to the compression that is created by the telephoto lens being shot at 160mm.

One thing to take into account is the format of the camera that you are using. The focal lengths used in this article apply to a full frame and not a camera that has a crop sensor. If you shoot with a camera that has a crop sensor, you need to translate the focal lengths to a focal length that would yield the same field of view as the full frame that was used.

Next time that you are on a shoot, try to shoot the same shot using an array of different focal lengths and determine your personal preferences. Photography is artistry and if you are looking to shoot something that is to ultimately appear less than realistic, and/or you are going for that quirky look and feel to your photos, distortion and different focal lengths is one way to achieve it. So, make sure to keep focal length and working distance in mind next time you go to push that trigger finger and your sure to find a variety of perspectives for each shot!

Haleigh Rohner is a photographer in Arizona, where she was born and raised. She is married, with four children… the youngest of which just turned 1 month old. She specializes in the photography of newborns, children and families. Check out her site to see more of her work.

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54 Comments

  1. December 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm —

    WOW What a great article. I have the same question that Deea has. I have a cropped sensor. The Nikon D5100 thinking of upgrading to the Nikon D7100 soon and wanted to know your thoughts on a lens for doing portraits? The 50mm or the 85mm. 🙂 I currently only own the Tamron 18-270mm lens 🙂

  2. March 12, 2015 at 11:08 pm —

    Thanks for the article. for me the 100mm is the most flattering. I have the Nikkor 105mm F1.8, i should be ok.’

    I am a long time fans of the 135mm FL on a FF camera. Now it’s changes. I’m a 105mm guy now.

    thanks again.

  3. Eashwar
    May 15, 2015 at 3:38 am —

    Great article. It reinforces my notion that folks are increasingly and unnecessarily using wide angle lenses for portrait photography. Image distortion (facial, especially) has become a norm lately. I only wish that folks learn from this article and use the right focal lengths.

  4. September 20, 2015 at 7:58 pm —

    Great comparison. I’ve known for a while that this was the case but it’s great to see the proof side by side. Thanks! 🙂

  5. Thor Erik Skarpen
    January 30, 2017 at 6:37 am —

    Thank you for the comparison. Now here’s some food for thought:

    Did you know that the compression will be the same regardless of lens used – as long as you keep the same distance to the subject?

    Distance to the subject is crucial. If you use a wide angle – you will naturally move closer – and for that reason the face will get distorted. Use a long tele – and you automatically move further back to get the same frame. The face will get compressed because of this.

    Now try this experiment: Keep the same distance, say six feet, using different focal lengths. The face will look the same. The difference of course, will be that you get more of the scene in the shot.

    Crop the photos taken from the same distance and you will see that a 50mm looks the same as an 85mm. Even a 24mm crop will have the proportions look the same.

    So the questions are:
    – What distance to the subject is the sweet spot to make the subject look her best? (6-10 feet, perhaps?)
    – What focal length will give med the framing that I want? Head shot? Possibly 85 – 135mm. Full body? Possibly 50mm. A lot of background? 24-35mm maybe.

    • February 1, 2017 at 4:07 pm —

      Yes, the amount of compression is within a photograph is related to the distance from the subject, but as a practical matter the focal length is important to crop the image and fill the frame with the subject. Cropping a wide angle image taken from about 5’ to achieve a portrait compression would severely diminish the image quality because it would be using such a small part of the total image frame. So what we want to know, as a practical matter, is what distance/focal length combination will give us the compression factor we want.

      Portrait focal lengths are generally defined as being from 85-105mm on a full frame camera. A lens falling in this focal length range will fill the frame with the whole head of a subject from a distance of approximately 3-10’ away and usually deliver a pleasing perspective of the face.

      A lot of this involves personal taste. For a full body shot of a person, we want to also take into consideration how we want to relate the subject to the background. If we want to completely separate the person from a distracting background by throwing the it out of focus, we would want to use a long focal length lens with a shallow depth of field achieved by using an open aperture. If we want to relate the person more to the background, we would step in closer, use a shorter focal length lens, and perhaps a more closed-down aperture. Many of the greatest journalistic photographs, such as Cartier-Bresson, used a 35mm lens for portraits that relate the subject more to the situation.

      Bottom line is that there is no ideal, set combination of distance, focal length, and aperture. A photographer must make these choices based on individual creative needs. This is where the artistic part of photography comes into play.

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The Ideal Focal Length for Portraiture: A Photographer’s Experiment