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What focal length or range of focal lengths are usually used for portraits?

What is used by professionals? Why would one select a certain focal length? What are the advantages and disadvantages of different choices, and are there certain situations where an unusual choice might be better?

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A sibling question to this one: What aperture do you use to photograph people and why? – mattdm Jun 8 '12 at 13:15
Blog article – clabacchio Jun 8 '12 at 14:02

11 Answers 11

up vote 27 down vote accepted

It depends a bit on the kind of portrait you want to take, but there are two key things you want to do regardless:

  1. Not distort your subject. If you're too close to the subject things get warped, so whilst using your wide-angle and getting right up to the nose of your subject may produce an amusing result, it's seldom what you want (but as with all things, it can be great when used sparingly).
  2. Throw the background out of focus, drawing attention to your subject.

Bearing in mind that you want to be stood a reasonable distance from the subject to avoid the first issue, for a head-and-shoulders type shot, you'd normally be looking at something that's the full-frame equivalent of 80-85mm, so about 50mm on an APS-C sensor with a crop-factor of 1.6x (Canon).

For a 3/4s length type shot you'll want to be using a wider lens; something like a 50mm on a full-frame body, so about 35mm on a 1.6x crop sensor. You'll get more depth of field with the shorter lens, so may need to ensure the subject is far enough from the background so you can still throw it out of focus. Needless to say fast primes are the norm for portraiture.

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+1 For most subjects, spot on. But distortions with wide lenses work remarkably well for pet portraits. – Alan Jul 20 '10 at 14:48
I've added some additional text to the first point to acknowledge this (the text in parantheses) – Edd Jul 20 '10 at 15:01
35mm isn't a very good focal length for portraits, regardless of the crop factor. – Bobby Ketchum Jul 23 '10 at 16:49
To expand on Bobby's comment, many 35mm lenses display mild barrel distortion, it's probably better to stick to a 50mm and take a couple of steps back. – ex-ms Jul 26 '10 at 17:18
More important than geometric distortion (which can easily be corrected in post), IMHO, is perspective distortion. – Eruditass Jul 28 '10 at 0:01

A common rule people follow is to keep 10ft to 15ft distance between subject and camera. And then select focal length based on type of portrait they want.

From that distance:

  • 50mm on cropped sensor and 75mm on full frame for full body shot
  • 85mm on cropped sensor and 120mm on full frame for waist up shot
  • 105mm on cropped sensor and 150mm on full frame for classic head and shoulder shot
  • Longer lenses for tight head shots

This is a guideline that i also follow.

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depending on the photographer's choice, it can be 50mm or 80mm.

on my DSLR, I use a 50mm but it behaves like a 80mm because of the 1.6 crop factor

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For classical portrait it's usually something around 80mm, but for environmental portraits (think an old fisherman in his fishing hut with all his fishing equipment and fish tropies around) you'll have the most success with wide-angles around 28mm. Obviously you don't want to deform your fisherman, so for wide-angle shots you'd have to put him somewhere not far from the center.

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Depends on the subject and the goal.

Generally, 70-135 FF equivalents.

Focal length (or to be more correct, distance from subject) will change how large or small different parts of the body and face are relative to each other. Longer focal lengths (and longer working distances) will minimize the differences, while the inverse will comparatively exaggerate them.

Some of the most interesting portraits I have seen are taken with wider than 70mm equivalent focal lengths. Those portraits are done to tell a story about the person and focus on more than the aesthetics of their face and body.

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While I generally agree with the conventional advice here, it's important to also note that there is no rule. There's nothing stopping you from shooting portraits with a wide-angle lens to achieve a result that's a little bit different. Take a look at, for example, the work of the photographer who goes by the nom de guerre 'Platon', who has shot wide-angle portraits of some of the highest profile individuals in the world.

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I read an article when I first started out on Digital Photography School, which said that if you're taking photos of one person, then a 85mm is best, but if it's a group, then 50mm is best.

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As others have stated, 50mm could almost be considered the "standard portrait focal length" for an APS-C size sensor. Personally I often use an 85mm lens (on an Nikon D300, 1.5x crop factor) which I find most excellent for portraits.

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I'll second the 85mm recommendation.

Canon 85mm f/1.2 is the best portrait lens I've ever used. At f/1.2, you can get some great bokeh. (but make sure you nail the focus . . .)

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70-80mm for full frame is a good choice and close to the angle of view used in the old school of portrait photography. Need to avoid distortions of short focal length and flat appearance of long focal length.

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As a few have said it depends on the subject and the environment. When doing protaits in studio or outdoors I use a Canon 50mm f/1.4 with USM. It isn't an 'L' lens but it is very close.

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