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I typically recommend choosing a longer lens for people photographs (like an 85mm, 100mm or something even longer) not only because a long lens will simplify the background by compressing the scene and producing a shallower depth of field, but because you won't get any of the subtle wide angle distortion that happens with shorter lenses. This distortion, even at its most subtle, can be very unattractive in people photos. Interestingly, though, I have some friends who like to take advantage of this distortion of shorter focal lengths to make portraits with 35mm and even 28mm lenses. I've tried it myself, and while it requires you to ensure your background is even more distraction-free than usual, it does a great job of showing context in an environmental portrait. When working with a 35mm lens, for instance, a high angle of view aimed down at a subject can actually create pleasing distortion that adds a hint of whimsy to a scene
The lens that is most often overlooked for portraits is the normal lens—a 50mm on the 35mm film format. In most cases photographers choose shorter or longer lenses for the deliberate purposes I've outlined above, and the bland old 50 just stays in the bag. But I've found that it's the perfect lens for shooting portraits of kids. Because you have to get a little bit closer to fill the frame, the 50 actually enhances the innocent, large-eyed look of those little kids' faces. It's not much distortion at all, but it's just right to give a hint of innocence to a child's portrait. In general, though, I want to be notably wider or notably longer. With a wide angle up close I'll achieve more expansion and distortion. There's a reason, after all, that medium telephotos are often called portrait lenses; they look great by minimizing distortion and compressing the scene.