How Focal Length Affects Portraits

You might already know that an 85mm lens is just about the ideal focal length for shooting portraits—if you’re using a full-frame camera. The 105mm is also a good focal length to shoot portraits with, as is the 135mm. The longer the focal length, the more compressed and therefore realistic your portraits appear to be. On the other hand, the shorter the focal length the more distorted and therefore weirder your portrait images tend to look. Radhakrishanan Chakyat elaborates:

To make the comparison, Radhakrishanan shot all the images in a controlled studio environment. A parabolic softbox fired the required amount of light from camera right. He used a remote trigger to fire the light.

Here are his results:


The effect of focal lengths on your portrait images

As you can see the distortion speaks for itself. This is definitely not a lens any portrait photographer will want to shoot with. At least not standing three feet from a model.


portrait lens choice

With the 18mm lens, things improve a bit. But you still can’t use this lens for portraiture. No way.


using a wide focal length for portraits

With the 20mm again there is a slight improvement in the quality of the image, in terms of suppression of distortion. But the results are still nowhere near the mark. As a portrait photographer, you wouldn’t want to shoot with this lens either.


wide angle lens portrait

This is the 24mm. Still not quiet there.


focal length and effect on portraits

Things are looking a little better now. But still not the best portrait length.


choosing a portrait photography lens

Yes! Finally, with the 50mm prime we start looking at realistic results.


which lens is best for portraits

Anything longer than 50mm makes things look even better. The 85mm, for example, produces pretty flattering results.


105mm lens for portrait photography

Anything above 85mm is considered as a telephoto lens. These lenses essentially compress a subject rather than distort, as wide angle (and ultra-wide angle) lenses tend to do. So, when you move from 85mm to 105mm and beyond, the image gets really compressed.


The effect of focal lengths on your portrait images


200mm portrait

Notice there isn’t much of a difference between the results at 135mm and 200mm.

It is safe to say that anything from 85mm and beyond is a great lens for shooting portraits. What’s your choice?

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One response to “How Focal Length Affects Portraits”

  1. Tom Andrews says:

    Good video explaining what lenses are better for portraits as well as demonstrated what happens when the correct lenses are not used. Thank you for sharing the video.

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