Home How-To Tip Of The Week How Focal Length Impacts Portraits
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Monday, December 10, 2012

How Focal Length Impacts Portraits

Choose the right lens for the ideal portrait perspective

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
I'm fascinated by lens choice. It's something we learn early on and usually think, really, how difficult is it? You wanna show a lot, choose a wide lens. You wanna focus in on a little, use a long lens. But I'm still learning, after more than a decade as a professional photographer, that sometimes things that seem easy can actually be a bit more complicated. It's not just about a subject into a frame, you've got to make deliberate choices. For instance, if I'm making your portrait in the park, I can make your face occupy the same amount of real estate with a 50mm lens or a 100mm lens, because I can stand closer to you with the 50 and farther with the 100. Either way, in the end you're the same size on the sensor. I call this zooming with my feet, and it's something easy to avoid if you're working with a zoom lens. But zooming with your feet is part of the focal length equation, because the way telephoto focal lengths compress scenes and wide angles expand them, the results are going to look dramatically different even if the subject is the same relative size.

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

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
What you want to avoid, though, is to get that wide-angle lens way up close to the face of your subject. The wider the lens, the more you'll distort the scene and make the subject's nose appear huge and bizarrely distorted. The exception to this rule, of course, is if you'd like to make your subject look ridiculous—in which case a wide-angle lens up close and personal will surely do the job.

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.

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