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. July 21, 2010 at 9:12 am — Reply

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

  2. July 21, 2010 at 9:20 am — Reply

    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.

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  4. July 21, 2010 at 9:34 am — Reply

    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!

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

    thanks for the very helpful post!

  6. July 21, 2010 at 9:54 am — Reply

    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!

  7. July 21, 2010 at 11:06 am — Reply

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

  8. July 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm — Reply

    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

  9. July 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm — Reply

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

  10. July 21, 2010 at 2:25 pm — Reply

    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 🙂

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

    Great article! Thanks for the examples.

  12. July 21, 2010 at 8:59 pm — Reply

    Thank you so much for this article!

  13. July 21, 2010 at 9:51 pm — Reply

    GREAT article.

  14. July 22, 2010 at 11:06 am — Reply

    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?

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

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

  16. July 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm — Reply

    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 🙂

  17. July 23, 2010 at 10:12 am — Reply

    great article – the examples were super helpful!

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

    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.

  19. […] love this gal’s style, so when I had a photo shoot to do for an article that I wrote for MCPActions, a popular photography blog. I knew that she wouldn’t disappoint. I wish that I were as bold […]

  20. August 5, 2010 at 10:33 am — Reply

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

  21. January 18, 2011 at 2:26 am — Reply

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  22. 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.

  23. Paul Abrahams
    November 9, 2011 at 7:55 am — Reply

    100mm looks about perfect for the half torso head shot. Nice bokeh too. I just ordered a canon 85m for a 1.6 crop for shooting portraits, can’t wait to get it! You know its taken me days of research to learn about this and your article explains it so simply and spot on.

  24. November 9, 2011 at 9:26 am — Reply

    I have never really thought about this aspect before and how it would change the appearance of the photo like that. Thank you so much for bringing this to light and educating us!!

  25. November 9, 2011 at 9:26 am — Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. Great info!

  26. November 9, 2011 at 9:40 am — Reply

    Thank you for sharing this! I currently shoot with just a prime lens, which I love, but it’s nice to see the different looks I could get with a zoom lens.

  27. Bob
    November 9, 2011 at 10:18 am — Reply

    Were the photographs corrected in any way for the lens distortion effect, say, in Photoshop?

    Great article!

  28. November 9, 2011 at 10:31 am — Reply

    Excellent article – thank you! A picture is worth a thousand words, indeed!

  29. JimmyB
    November 9, 2011 at 10:38 am — Reply

    “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.”

    Tread lightly here. Just to clarify, going from APS-C to full frame (or vice versa) won’t change the perspective, only the field of view. The comparison in the article is about perspective. 50mm is 50mm – it doesn’t matter how large of a sensor is at the focal plane.

    Great article and thanks for showing examples.

  30. November 9, 2011 at 10:38 am — Reply

    Wow!! Great article! Love the examples!! Thank you!!

  31. Alissa
    November 9, 2011 at 10:44 am — Reply

    Interesting article. Thanks for taking the time to shoot all those focal lengths and writing about them.

  32. November 9, 2011 at 5:30 pm — Reply

    I’ve previously seen a comparison similar to your first. Yours however is more exact (the other had different examples rather than the same model and framing). I LOVE the second comparison. I’ve always wondered how different the compression would look, and this is an amazing example! Thank you so much!

  33. November 12, 2011 at 11:25 am — Reply

    This is a great tutorial! I loved the differences in the first set of photos in the portrait. I guessed that 135mm was the best one, so I was close 🙂 Really glad I discovered this site!

  34. […] to see a cool demonstration of this principle in action? Check out THIS POST. Its […]

  35. January 27, 2012 at 12:47 pm — Reply

    This is a nice example. My one minor complaint is that you don’t show your model’s ears — doing so would have added more to the sense of depth (or lack thereof) of the different focal lengths. Still, good job. I will be bookmarking this page so I can point people to it when they ask questions like, “Can I shoot portraits with an X mm lens?”

    Also, I don’t think you are correct when you say, “This is NOT what she looks like in person.” It would be more precise to say that this is exactly what she looks like IF you put your eyes just a few inches away from her face. The lens isn’t lying, and the difference between a 24mm lens and your eye is just that your eye has a narrower field of clear vision. We normally look at people from several feet feet away, so facial shots look more realistic to us when taken from those distances. This leads to the choice of an 85mm or so lens to get the desired framing for a facial shot. That’s the only reason 85-135mm lenses are considered more suitable for portraits.

  36. March 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm — Reply

    Great post. It also highlights the importance of using the right lens when you do portraiture. The examples are great too.

  37. […] The Ideal Focal Length for Portraiture over at the MCP Blog […]

  38. that guy
    June 21, 2012 at 12:57 pm — Reply

    This was a great explanation of different focal lengths, but I must ask if you moved the model further back in 2nd example? In the 24mm frame there is no wood protruding from the structure and in the 160mm there is wood protruding from the structure.

    • maibritt k
      June 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm — Reply

      the model is in the exact same place. The background seeming further away is due to the distortion of a wide angle lens. and seemin closer is due to the compression of longer focal lengths.

    • Richard
      June 25, 2015 at 12:02 pm — Reply

      I know this is absurdly late, but although the model is in the same place, the original article does state that the working distance between subject and camera was different – the model is in the same spot, but the photographer is further away.

  39. mod
    July 19, 2012 at 7:51 pm — Reply

    On your exampes my vote is for 50mm – for me it is obviously best shot in sens of perspective look.
    70mm still looks good.
    100mm looks too much unrealistic, field of view is too small and background looks washed.
    Even if our eyes see the world in such small depth of field our brains recreate far more DOF so we did not see such washed background as happened on full frame sensor with wide opened aperture. It is popular artistic trick for many years but it is nrealistic anyway.

  40. July 28, 2012 at 8:40 pm — Reply

    Thanks for your comparison, you’ve showed really clearly what happens with different focal lengths!

    I find that my 100mm macro gets the most use. It takes amazing portraits, and has the added bonus of zooming in on tiny details.

  41. July 31, 2012 at 11:23 pm — Reply

    I found this through pintrest and I can’t tell you how absolutely helpful I found the article to be. Just to visualize the differences through the focal lengths. I have a full frame sensor dslr but only have 50mm and and wide angle lens. now I am sure I want to get a 100mm or 105mm lens I see that there is a difference. I also love that you showed the way the background is compressed with the two different focal lengths.

  42. Perry Dalrymple
    August 12, 2012 at 11:20 am — Reply

    This is the best article I’ve found so far that clearly explains and demonstrates the effect of focal length on portraits. The side by side comparison pics really helped the concept click in my mind. Great job!

  43. October 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm — Reply

    […] focal lengths do affect the shape of a person. People tend to look best at longer focal lengths. The Ideal Focal Length for Portraiture: A Photographer's Experiment Reply With Quote     « Previous Thread | Next […]

  44. March 3, 2013 at 11:19 pm — Reply

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

  45. May 18, 2013 at 3:11 am — Reply

    Perfect! I heard about this but never had such a clear example, thank you.

  46. Deea
    June 4, 2013 at 9:36 pm — Reply

    50mm or 85mm cropped sensor…

  47. December 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm — Reply

    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 🙂

  48. March 12, 2015 at 11:08 pm — Reply

    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.

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

    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.

  50. September 20, 2015 at 7:58 pm — Reply

    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! 🙂

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

    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 — Reply

      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