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How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion


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Whether you’re a new photographer or someone with a lot of experience, you may have heard about lens distortion.  Have you ever wondered what is the “perfect portrait lens.”  While there isn’t one perfect lens or focal length for portraits, let’s check out how each focal length impacts lens distortion so you can choose the best lens for every situation.

First, what is lens distortion?

Lens distortion is the distortion of the true view of the subject in a photograph.  Generally, lines that are straight in true life become skewed outward in a photograph.  The lens optics cause this — the wider the lens, the greater the distortion.  Have you ever seen a photograph taken with a fisheye lens, which is very wide angle?  These cause major distortion (often used on purpose for creative photos)?  If you have, you noticed that it was extremely distorted.

Oasis-Cruise-2010-127-600x410 How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

This is part of what sets fisheye images apart and makes them unique, but this effect is caused by lens distortion.  One other thing to keep in mind when learning about and understanding lens distortion, especially in relation to portraits, is that the closer you are to a subject, the more pronounced your distortion will be at any focal length.

What does lens distortion look like?

Lens distortion is pretty easy to recognize once you know what it looks like.  Portraits taken with at wide angles will have distorted features.  In addition, if you are including all or even part of a person’s body in a portrait and are using a wide angle, your subject will tend to have a “bobble head” appearance.  This is amplified by the fact that you will need to be close to your subject to take your portrait as compared to the distance you would need to be with a longer lens.  Longer lenses have much less distortion.  First, you do not need to be nearly as close to your subject which lessens the distortion effect. Additionally, longer lenses incorporate “lens compression”.  They flatten features, rather than widen them, which is flattering for most subjects.

Below are example photos demonstrating distortion at different focal lengths.  All photos in this article are SOOC (straight out of the camera).  Immediately below you will see two separate compilations of eight photos.  One set was taken with a full frame camera and the second set with a crop sensor camera.  All photos were taken with the same settings:  f/9, ISO 100, 1/160, and were taken in studio.  I used three lenses.  All shots from 24 through 70 mm were taken using a 24-70 2.8.  The 85mm shots were taken using an 85mm 1.2, and everything from 100mm to 200 was taken using a 70-200 2.8.  I used the 85mm prime because even though that focal length is included in the 70-200 range, that focal length is not marked on the lens barrel and I wanted to be sure I got that length exactly.

My assistant, who is obviously very enthusiastic, did not move between shots as I was very clear that he needed to stay still!  I moved back with each shot and framed them as close to the same as I was able.  The shots at the wide end are darker due to both vignetting from the 24-70 at the wide end and because I was actually standing in front of the light because I had to be so close to my subject.

Full-Frame-distortion How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Crop-sensor-distortion How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

As you can see, the wider the angle of the lens, the more distorted the subject becomes.  At wider angles, his face is narrowed, is nose appears larger and wider, and even the edges of the backdrop are visible because of the wide angle.  At longer focal lengths, the subject’s face starts to widen and look more true to life.

What about the lens correction option in Lightroom or ACR?

Both of these programs have a lens correction option, which does reverse some of the vignetting and distortion caused by wider angle lenses.  But is it enough to still use these lenses as portrait lenses?  I don’t think so.  In the example below, you can see a before and after.  The before is a SOOC shot, taken on a full frame camera at 35mm.  The after is applying lens correction in Lightroom.  The after shot is brighter due to the reduction of the vignetting that occurs at the wider angle, and the shot is also flattened somewhat.  However, this shot after lens correction is still not comparable to a photo taken at a longer focal length.

Lens-correction How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Does this mean I always have to use a long lens when I’m shooting portraits?

The short answer to this is no.  Once you understand the effects of wide angle lenses, you will learn when you shouldn’t use them but also when you can use them.  So why would you want to use a wide angle lens when you shoot portraits, based on the examples above where the subject looks rather unnatural when shot at a wide angle?  There are some photographers who will use wider angles to slim subjects.  In the example below, similar portraits were taken at 24mm and 135mm, using the same settings except for focal length.  Again, these shots are straight out of the camera.  In the first portrait, the subject is more elongated and her face appears more angular, making her appear somewhat slimmer.  However, you can see that her head does appear somewhat large for her body (the “bobble head” effect mentioned earlier) and this is something that takes practice.

slimming-effect How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

The shot below, again straight out of camera, was taken at 37mm using the 24-70 lens.  I was able to be a good enough distance from my subject where the wide angle did not cause as much distortion as it would be if I had been closer.  While it would have been ideal to have been able to be even farther from my subject with a longer lens, I obtained acceptable results with the area and conditions I was working in at the time.

Wide-angle-example How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Lens compression was mentioned earlier.  What does this mean?

Longer lenses, due to their optics, have the effect of both flattening the features of your subjects and bringing backgrounds in closer.  In a studio setting while using a solid color backdrop, the background element may  not be as apparent.  I wanted to show an example of this in a setting where it could be clearly visualized.  Compression is not distortion, but it is related and as it has been mentioned several times in the article it’s important to show an example.  In the two photos below, the same settings were utilized in both photos:  f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/500 shutter speed, and the same white balance settings.  The left photo was taken using a 50mm lens and the right photo, a 135mm lens.  My enthusiastic subject was in the same position for both photos but the background appears larger and closer in the second photo.  His features also appear somewhat flatter.  This is due to the lens compression of longer lenses.

Lens-compression How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

So what is your perfect portrait lens?  There is no one correct answer to that question.  That depends on several factors, including if you shoot with a crop sensor or a full frame; your usual shooting location; and even your style.  For me, an 85mm indoors and a 135 outdoors are my favorites, but yours may be different.  The most important thing is to understand how different lenses will impact your photos and make your choices from there.

Amy Short is the owner of Amy Kristin Photography, a portrait, maternity, and fine art photography business in Rhode Island.  She can be found at Facebook and Google+.  







No Comments

  1. Pam Kimberly on September 8, 2008 at 11:58 am

    What fun! I love these. You have a great family and you’ve captured the mood and moment wonderfully. And thanks for pointing out that it’s okay, pros can take snapshots, too.

  2. Kara May on September 8, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Oh I love these! So fun!!

  3. ~Jen~ on September 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Funny!Love the layout so I have to ask: Is that a Blog-it Board from the second set? Hope so! I’m loving the Blog-it Boards and can’t wait for more!

  4. admin on September 10, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Jen – aren’t you smart 🙂 You guessed it. Coming soon – but not too soon – so keep your eye out…

  5. Cindy on May 19, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Great article !!!!

  6. Glenn on May 20, 2014 at 10:53 am

    What you keep calling “bobble head” has to do with your angle and not the lens.

    • Amy on May 21, 2014 at 10:26 am

      Glenn, I would have to disagree with that. The level/height of the camera and my lense’s angle to the subject did not change as the camera was on a tripod for the example photos. It has to do with my proximity to the subject in conjunction with the lens used but the angle does not come into play in creating the distortion with the wide angle shots because the angle and camera height was constant.

    • Your name on May 29, 2014 at 1:21 pm

      The “bobble head” is more pronounced at higher angles, but still visible in photos at the same angle like Amy mentioned. Here’s a photo (just a snapshot) that I took with a 35mm lens on full-frame. It definitely has major distortion but I liked it for the artistic feel.

  7. Kim Hamm on May 22, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Please tell your “enthusiastic”model we appreciate his sacrifice so the rest of us could benefit. 🙂

  8. Erica Courtine on May 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I like this article a lot because I never really understood compression. I understand the distortion from shorter focal lengths, but not the effect of longer focal lengths. Seeing the photos side by side, it’s amazing to see how big the background looks with a 200mm lens, but I don’t really see the compression of his face that you are talking about. Maybe it’s hard to tell because the second picture is a little brighter (it looks like the sun popped out), but they both look good to me. He doesn’t look fatter in the 2nd one. I want to buy a new lens for portraits. I’m aiming for the 135mm but I see photographers who use the 200mm and the pictures are amazing.

    • Amy on May 24, 2014 at 8:46 am

      Hi Erica! I love my 135mm lens…it’s actually what I used in the second photo in the last two-photo set, to display the lens compression. You can see the distortion/compression effects more clearly in the top two photos with all the focal lengths displayed; you can see how his face goes from looking narrow (and distorted) with his nose very prominent to more flat (though not necessarily fat) as the focal length gets longer. I actually think, since I know him, that his face looks TOO flat in the 200mm photos in the initial comparisons. In the last set of photos of him, the point was to actually demonstrate the lens compression effect that makes the background look much larger at longer focal lengths, but you can still see a small amount of distortion from the 50mm (the photo on the top). In the bottom photo (which is definitely brighter…you’re right, the sun did pop out!) his head is slightly less narrow, nose slightly less prominent, and his head is more in proportion to his shoulders whereas with the top photo with the 50mm, his head appears slightly too large for his body. The 50mm doesn’t have as much distortion as the 24 or 35mm focal lengths so it’s not as in your face.

  9. Eashwar on May 5, 2015 at 6:02 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.

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