This blog article aims to be a simple guide to portrait photography focal length focusing on the benefits of using telephoto focal range over wide angles.
In this article I aim to answer some common questions about lens choice specifically in portrait photography.
In terms of getting an accurate focal length for a specific type of photography (in our case portrait photography) we need to first know the medium in which we’re photographing as the images obtained at a specific focal length will differ significantly if we use a medium format camera, a full frame digital body (or 35mm film camera) and a crop factor or micro four thirds camera.
For portraits the recommended focal length is between 70mm and 135mm on a 35mm (or full frame) camera, for the popular micro four thirds systems now this would be 35mm to 70mm. This is because the telephoto range compression of the image and thus provides a more flattering rendition of the model in front of you. This is therefore advantage number one of utilizing a telephoto zoom or prime lens over a wide format lens.
Another significant problem that you will encounter when you use a wide angle lens on a portrait is distortion. You see because the angle of view of these lenses is so wide, you need to get very close to your subject in order to fill the frame, this causes distortion on the subject. The camera renders objects in order of relative distance, what is closer to the objective is reproduced larger than what is further away. When the distance to the subject is reduced objects the ratio in distance of the objects that are closer to those that are further away is much more significant then when you’re shooting from a telephoto distance, this for instance causes noses to be significantly enlarged when you use an ultra wide angle lens, for instance given that the distance ratio from the nose to the lens is much shorter than that of the ears for instance, this distorts facial features and widen them, which isn’t the most flattering look.
In terms of angle of view you have still another advantage by using a telephoto lens. The wider lenses given that they have, you guessed it, a wider angle of view, they will render much more of the background often cluttering the image and distracting from the subject, on the other hand given the narrower angle of view and the perspective compression of a longer focal length lens, you’ll find that less area of the background is rendered on your portrait and therefore less potentially distracting elements make it into the frame.
Bokeh from a telephoto lens is also generally better than that of a wide angle lens, it is far easier to throw the background out of focus at 130mm than it is at 50mm despite the very wide appertures of the 50mm lenses.
As we’ve seen before, you’ll have to get really close to your subject if you’re doing a portrait with a wide angle lens and you want to fill the frame, this can be often uncomfortable for both you and the person you’re photographing, even more so if you’re doing a commercial job and don’t know the model.
Let’s see a couple of examples with the lovely Aggy, that submitted herself to the torture of being my guinea pig for this tutorial.
This is not to say that you should never use a wide angle lens for portraits, by the contrary, there are times when this is very appropriate and even the only tool that will render the results you need. Imagine for instance that you’d like to exaggerate a feature of someone or some animal, wide angle portraits of animals are actually incredibly popular at the moment.
There are also very successful portrait photographers that use wide angle lenses for their portraits, they have created a style around it and built upon this style, one of the most well known ones would be Platon.
So now you know why I (and this article reflects solely my personal opinion) don’t think that the so called “nifty fifty” is a portrait lens like most people say, it is still a fantastic lens, don’t get me wrong but unless you’re on a APS-C sized sensor, it is just too wide.