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

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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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  1. This is a great post. Something that I’ve never really thought of; I don’t do much portrait work, but next time I get together with friends or models, I’ll definitely shoot with my 50mm and my 105mm to see the differences.

  2. January 18, 2011 at 2:26 am —

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  3. August 5, 2010 at 10:33 am —

    found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  4. Jennifer
    July 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm —

    this was a great article! So interesting and helpful! I only have a couple of those lenses, so it’s really helpful to see what each of them does to an image.

  5. July 23, 2010 at 10:12 am —

    great article – the examples were super helpful!

  6. July 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm —

    Thank you everyone! This was a fun experiment! @Kathy, that’s a great question… I did use a 50mm and 85 mm prime along with my 24-70mm and 70-200mm. I took these photos using the prime and zoom lens. The ones that were posted were using my zoom lens, but those two images looked identical to the prime lens images that I took. I wonder if that might change a bit with a larger prime, such as a 100 or 135mm. I might have another experiment on my hands 🙂

  7. Kathy
    July 22, 2010 at 11:24 am —

    What a great article!!! ALWAYS wondered how similar pictures would look using different lenses and this is the BEST example!

  8. July 22, 2010 at 11:06 am —

    Great article!

    Is there any change to this comparing a prime lens to a zoom lens? For instance, are you going to get the same compression and proportions using an 85mm prime as you would a 70-200 at 85mm?

  9. July 21, 2010 at 9:51 pm —

    GREAT article.

  10. July 21, 2010 at 8:59 pm —

    Thank you so much for this article!

  11. Christy
    July 21, 2010 at 7:23 pm —

    Great article! Thanks for the examples.

  12. July 21, 2010 at 2:25 pm —

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have been considering a new lens (wide angle) and have been scouring the internet looking for such comparisons. This is exactly what I needed 🙂

  13. July 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm —

    Thank you. This is fascinating and the photos really illustrate your points well.

  14. July 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm —

    I would go with the 100mm its my fav lens and allows to capture a little more detail in the background whilst still flattening off the subject. Grant

  15. July 21, 2010 at 11:06 am —

    Wonderful post! Very helpful to see all the various focal lengths!

  16. July 21, 2010 at 9:54 am —

    Really enjoyed this article and the example images. Had never really noticed the compression difference and how it dramatically changes the background of an images as illustrated in the second set of images. Still not sure I fully understand it, but! It’s definitely something I will be watching for in the future. Thanks so much!

  17. Jackie P
    July 21, 2010 at 9:54 am —

    thanks for the very helpful post!

  18. July 21, 2010 at 9:34 am —

    Nice article and comparison. I love the way the longer focal length compresses the image but I like how you’ve pointed out that it also compresses and flattens out the subject. Something to keep in mind for sure especially since the 70-200 is my fav lens for portraits!

  19. July 21, 2010 at 9:20 am —

    This is very good article- thank you!
    I have done my own experiment,similar to this one, but on much smaller scale. And I really compared 3 lenses: 35mm, 50mm and 105mm. I will just add, that I use dSLR with APS-c size sensor, so my 50mm is closer to 75mm on FF.
    And- yes, my 50mm lens gave me the nicest proportions and seems- most true perspective for how my model looked liked.
    And as I would be more willing to go to 105 mm on same shoots, 35mm was definitely to wide for my style of shooting.

  20. July 21, 2010 at 9:12 am —

    I like that you included all the shots at the beginning… illustrates your point so well. Thanks bringing this up, wonderful post.

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