Mar 05, 2012

The Best and Worst Focal Lengths for Portraits

Today we go over The Best and Worst Focal Lengths for Portraits.

Focal Lengths From 16-200mm

focal lengths phlearn

Why Focal Length is Important

Getting a good portrait is not all about gear, but it is important to know what a Difference using the right focal length can make.

In general here goes: The longer focal length you use, the better a person will look.

This is not an absolute, as few things are in life, but as a Guide it will help.

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM

Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM

Canon 24-105mm f/4.0L IS USM

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

How do you shoot?

Do you have a favorite lens or focal length you shoot at? What have you noticed when shooting someone with a wide Angle vs a telephoto lens?

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  • user image
    Jeremy Cupp

    You multiply it 1.6x on a crop.

    So a 50mm is 80mm.
    85mm is 136mm.

    That is why I’m about to go full frame. I want my 50 to be a 50!

    • user image
      Alain Pilon

      On Canon, the big advantage of the 1.6x crop is to be able to use a 50mm1.2 and turn it into the equivalent of the 85L1.2 which can actually focus at a reasonable speed. 

      • user image

        Not really, the crop factor is really just that: a CROP factor. It doesnt affect the aesthetics of the lens, just the angle of view as oppose to its focal length. A 50mm will just be a cropped 50mm. the look wont change. 

        • user image
          Alain Pilon

          tate: I dont understand what you mean by aesthetic of the lens, but if you are talking about the picture result, you are wrong. All things being equal, shooting on a crop body allows you to get closer to your subject (minimal focus distance is always the same for the lens), which helps to create a smoother bokeh.

          But my point was more about being able to get a wide aperture 85mm which can actually auto focus, something the 85L is unable to do (rent it for a day, you will understand what I mean! This is the best and worst lens ever!). 

          • user image

            Alain, I get your point. What Im trying to say though is that a 50mm lens doesnt get you the compressed portrait flattering look an 85mm lens produces. It doesnt matter that its a cropped sensor, all it does is crop a 50mm to that similar of an 85, the compression wont happen. It will have the same look you would get from a 50mm shot with a full frame that you later croped down to the equivalent 85mm field of view (except you wont loose resolution). They will have the same compression of space, they just wont have the same field of view. The depth of field will change however as you pointed out, you are right about the minimal focus distance allowing you to get closer to your subject. Hope I explained better. 

          • user image
            Shawn Kregan

            I think you meant shooting on a Full Frame body allows you to get closer to the subject not crop.

        • user image

          Exactly. That’s why say, the 70 end of a 24-70 2.8 will still give you more flattering compression on a crop than a cropped 50 and more of a traditional portrait length framing. The 85 is nice on crop too, but too long except for a planned shot outdoors or a really tight head and shoulders… Do you really need more DOF than 2.8 on a portrait? I don’t, unless you want their face out of focus. A 50 1.8 to me is good for shooting very low light street photography or indoors w/o a flash, I’d still stop it down to 2.8/4 for a sharp portrait, and around f8 in a studio with lighting.

  • user image

    very interesting. I didn’t know that with a longer focal length, the person would look better.

  • user image

    On FX body the absolute best portraid lens for Nikon is 85mm F1.4 G
    But I love to use 70-200 for portrait as well.
    105 Macro is good too 🙂 but 85mm 1.4 is the lens you want

  • user image

    Aaron, the distance of subject to camera is what gives you the “compressed” or distorted look. Things closer to the camera will appear bigger than things far away. So if you shoot a headshot with a wide FL, the nose will appear big and ears are small because of their distance relative to the camera. A telephoto lens make you stand far back so everything on the subject’s body is relatively the same distance from the camera and looks more proportional.

    • user image
      Bryan Dockett

      That’s only partially true. Lens compression applies it everything in the frame including the background. So for example if the if background is 30feet away from your subject the compress of that focal length will make it appear flatter and closer to the subject and the same thing happens with say the tip of the nose and the face it appear closer together. Where as a wider angles lens don’t have the same amount of compression so the depth of everything in the frame is more apparent.  but the word distortion can be used in place of compression and it would be the same thing

  • user image

    AARON- can you show lighting setups for all of your stuff/…like maybe just stick a still photo at the end of each segment like the one above??

  • user image
    steve bryson

    It’s nice to see this as guideline than “must never, ever use a 50mm or wider” followed by lots of backtracking – something I’ve seen elsewhere. 🙂 

  • user image

    I like the perspective I get from a 35-50mm lens, it has a very familiar and close look to it, in my opinion it puts the viewer in relationship with the subject.
    A longer FL even if used for close ups feels “far away” and tends to put the model in a “showcase” mood.

  • user image
    Mark O'Grady-Photography

    My personal favourite is my Canon 100mm f2.8L IS (macro) for both headshots to full length.  I just love the sharpness, the bokeh, the colour and contrast that this lens gives. That said occasionally i’ll chuck on my Cosina 19-35mm if I want something a bit more dramatic or quirky.

  • user image

    Shoot I don’t know ’bout all that fancy talkin’ but my 85 1.4 takes real pretty pictures.  🙂

  • user image

    35 1.8 for full and 3/4 shots. Head shots are a no-no though. Pull out my 55-200 for that.

    • user image
      E-Nonymouse A

      Yes its excellent for a lot of stuff but a zoom lense may give you more flexibility in framing your subject.

  • user image
    E-Nonymouse A

    I’m a nikon user. I’ve used 50mm 1.4, 70-200 2.8, and a 24-70 2.8. I find the 24-70 to be the best all around potrait lense, particularly if you work in a limited space like i have been lately. If your not limited by space then a 70-200 does give very good results and you will most likely never have to think about changing lenses during the shoot. Recently during a shoot in a tightly packed studio I was constantly jockeying around to find the right distance and position, all the while trying not to trip over people or equipment.

    I’ll offer a few focal length factoids from my own experiences for reference:

    I noticed after looking at my photos in Adobe Lightroom, using a 24-70, my focal ranges were between 30 and 60mm out of the total range of 24-70.

    While using the 70-200 lense my focal lengths were in the 90-135mm range.

    The last time I had the privilege to use a 24-70, I borrowed it from a friend who is a wedding photog, I talked to him again recently and he is using the 70-200 a lot because of the nice compression it gives his photos, he is not having to worry about tripping over stuff while framing his shots i’d wager.

    I love my glass but my preferred range would usually fit nicely in the 24-120 range (I used to own a F4 lense with that but disliked the slow speeds).

  • user image

    Just switched to Olympus OMD EM-1 and using both 12-40mm pro lens and prime 45mm. With the MFT crop factor of x2 the 45mm is about 90mm and gives great results