Perspective is a matter of distance and has an effect on facial features and the observed three-dimensional feeling in a two-dimensional photograph. Proper lighting is a big part of this, but that's another question. First I'd choose the distance between camera and subject. I prefer close-up portraits that show only the head and partial shoulder, if even that much. How close to my subject should I go to have natural facial proportions, given that I have a choise with it? Not talking about candid photos taken at opportunity.

My problem is that I don't feel comfortable to be at so short distance to a person I'm photographing. If the situation allows I want to be several meters away from subject, but then with too long distance the result is a "flat" face.

These images were shot from distances between under 1 meter to over 4 meters:
portraits image
You see I'm only a beginner in portraits, trying to learn as I go on.

Quote from cameras.about.com "Perspective in photography refers to the dimension of objects and the spatial relationship between them."

In a portrait photo we use distance between camera and the subject in such way to create a pleasing and hopefully natural looking perspective. I like a pretty tight crop of only face, neck and usually only one shoulder fully inside frame, sometimes not even that much. I believe it is priority to be at the right distance, and secondary to choose the right focal length of lens. I hope I'm clear enough that I am not asking for recommendations for lens focal lengths. This question is about the distance between camera and subject's face.

At what distance do experienced portrait photographers take their head and shoulder shots?

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    I don't understand why there is a difference between the "distance from the subject" to "what lens to use". Assuming you're not gonna shot and crop, once you selected your lens and you want to shot head and shoulder portraits there is only one distance that will give you that and you don't have to know it exactly, just put your lens on and go the the point where only the head and shoulder fit into the frame.
    – Itay Gal
    Nov 23, 2013 at 9:31
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    It is because I want to choose distance first. Lens choice is secondary. Besides, I have no prime lens yet, so I'll be using a zoom lens and after a while I'll take a look at the focal lengths I've used most, and with that I'll go to buy a prime. Nov 23, 2013 at 11:15
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    In his answer to another question, @StanRogers said "The zoom is for getting the correct framing when shooting from the right distance." (bolding by me) Nov 23, 2013 at 12:04
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    According to Ken Rockwell, the ideal minimum distance for any type of portrait shot is fifteen feet.
    – Bobulous
    Jun 28, 2014 at 18:26
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    Also, see this comparison of the same portrait framed from different distances. I have to agree that the shot taken from 18 feet away looks the most correct. The shot taken at 2.5 feet makes the facial proportions look unnatural in comparison.
    – Bobulous
    Jun 28, 2014 at 18:36

5 Answers 5


This is a good question but many of the existing answers seem really convoluted and off the point.

All that matters is distance to the subject, as this is what defines the distortions of facial features.

Focal length is a secondary issue. If you use a wide angle lens, and you are at an optimal distance for a good portrait, you get a lot of the background included in the image. You can crop this image to get the similar field of view as with a zoom lens. You choose a longer focal length to increase bokeh and sharpness that would be lost by cropping the image in post processing.

The optimal length depends on the facial features as some faces seem more pleasing if they are more flat and others seem better if a bit nearer. My experience is that the distance providing most natural photos is between 1.5 meters (5 feet) and 4 meters (13 feet). The flattening above 4 meters can provide an artistic view, but going below 1.5 meters will give you distortions that won't seem natural.

Case in point, I added a quick set of images of my face that seems to look really flat and unatural already starting at 4m due to my facial features. Photos are taken with a canon L zoom lens with a set focal length and aperture (ie. photos are cropped).

Face structure vs distance

  • I apologise for the changes in lighting as I was moving, not the camera. It is meant to be only a quick demonstration of what I've noticed when taking portrait pictures, ie. some faces will appear flat at 4 meters and beyond (including mine).
    – Wibin
    Jul 31, 2016 at 16:01

It really depends on the kind of shot and what conditions allow. That's why I answered in terms of focal lengths.) Shooting around the 65-85mm effective range is generally considered the most natural and most common, but if you want to flatten the image more, you can push it out to the 105-155 range. There are also some shots that work well in the 24-50 range, particularly when people aren't directly facing the camera or when you really want them to pop out from the scene and have maximum background blur with a short distance to the background.

I wouldn't describe the look up close as caricature or funny, but it is certainly a different look. It also generally seems to help if there is just a bit of barrel distortion to give it that slight fisheye look that makes the facial features appear to stand out less. Some of my favorite photos I've taken of my wife are actually shot in this range, but they are more face and neck focused, but it gives them a very intimate feel like you are right there with the person (that is if you can pull the shot off without facial features being a distraction.)

I also find I tend to like being fairly close for at least a couple of head and shoulder kiss or pre-kiss shots at weddings. This is again because it benefits from the intimacy that the close angle gives and since they are facing each other, noses stand out less. Again however, exactly how you compose and angle the shot is key to making it work when working in that close and it certainly isn't for every (or even most) shots.

As far as physical distance goes, I'd estimate I'm often within the 3 feet to 6 feet range though depending on the type of shot I'm getting though. 10 feet or 12 feet for more body or full body.

  • Good points. I agree that "standard" wideangle isn't so wide as to really exaggerate facial features - I was thinking more about the case of ultrawide where it's obvious that the distortion is a deliberate artistic decision.
    – JohannesD
    Nov 22, 2013 at 15:40
  • @JohannesD - ok, that makes sense. I've heard others make the argument that even a wide angle with minimal barrel distortion makes faces look like a funhouse mirror due to the slight stretching and curved feel they create. I'd certainly agree that it's a highly specialized shot if you are using a fisheye.
    – AJ Henderson
    Nov 22, 2013 at 16:00
  • Not necessarily a fisheye - just a rectilinear ultrawide like Canon's 10-24 EF-S. I'm talking about effects like these - clearly rectilinear, not fisheye.
    – JohannesD
    Nov 22, 2013 at 17:07
  • Ok, in that case those are what I was thinking of. There are some samples of what I'm talking about in the gallery from my sister's wedding. It's probably not quite as strong as the sample you posted, but some of those shots are certainly using that effect.
    – AJ Henderson
    Nov 22, 2013 at 17:13

The primary reason you don't want to use wideangle lenses for portraiture is perspective distortion. You have to get close to the subject, and that perspective greatly emphasizes some facial features such as the size and shape of the nose in a very unflattering manner. On the other hand, if you're purposely going for a "funny" or "caricature" look (and know your subject has no problem with it) a (ultra)wideangle lens might be just what you want. The close perspective often works nicely when photographing toddlers or pets. I also agree with AJ Henderson's point that it can be a useful tool for giving a photo an intimate feel.

85-135mm lenses (or 50-85 on APS-C) are long enough to give a flattering perspective but not so long that you need to back off so far that things get completely impractical. They're also long enough that the background will be magnified and blurred so as to not be distracting.

  • I edited the question to better express what the question is. Nov 22, 2013 at 17:14
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    @EsaPaulasto: ~50mm on APS-C is fine for head+shoulder portraits, perspective-wise, but if you wish to keep a bit distance, 85mm is probably better for you. Or then just try to get comfortable getting close to people you photograph :)
    – JohannesD
    Nov 22, 2013 at 18:38

I would say the focal length (or you might say the distance to the subject) doesn't really matter. You should use a lens/focal length with a minimal distortion and probably you'll want a nice bokeh too.

Usually, lenses with minimal distortion and nice bokeh have short focal length (50mm-105mm) and also bigger aperture. Big aperture (F/1.4-F/2.8) will reduce the DOF, thus, creating a better out of focus background (bokeh).

According to this, theoretically, you can take a good portrait shot with a 500mm lens, the problem is that you'll have to stand far a way from your subject, you'll have to be very steady to avoid loss of sharpness and you probably won't have a 500mm lens with a 1.8 aperture.

Regardless the lens you choose I would recommend using a big aperture and placing your subject as far as you can from the background. This will improve the bokeh and will emphasize your subject.

I use my Canon 50mm F/1.8 and sigma 105 F/2.8 for portraits, both give nice results, both are prime lenses. I'm stating that because prime lenses quality (in terms of sharpness and distortion) is usually better then zoom lenses and this also affects the result. I find it hard to believe someone will throw thousands of dollars to buy a 600mm prime lens to take some portrait shots while he can enjoy the good quality of a cheap 50mm lens.


When taking the perspective in account, you'll probably get a classic perspective for portraits in with 50mm-100mm lenses. Having said that, portraits can vary.

You might go for the clasic portrait which be something like that:


Or you might prefer a portrait that tells more about the person, his life, the atmosphere etc.. and here you can go "crazy" with the angle and the focal length, like this one:

enter image description here


You said you want to choose the distance first and then the lens. In my opinion it's not the best thing to do. I prefer selecting the best lens for the photo and then the rest.

In a prime lens there is no question (as I stated in the comment to your question). With a zoom lens I would say that it depends on your lens.

  1. I would avoid very wide angle - it creates unnatural perspective and most of the time not a flattering distortion.

  2. I would check in what focal length my lens does not distort the image.

  3. I would try to get the focal length with the widest aperture (In case it changes and not fixed)

Again, I don't think that you'll get a correct absolute answer that will say "3 meters". I've never seen a photographer with a meter. As far as I know, you should choose your best lens first and then set the focal length + aperture that will give the best result. The distance is only the outcome after optimizing the other parameters.

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    When you are talking about perspective, the ONLY thing that matters is subject distance. The perspective of a subject at 20 feet is identical whether the focal length is 17mm or 170mm. In fact, if you crop the 17mm photo to the same FoV as the 170mm photo, you have the exact same photo other than the differences in resolution caused by cropping most of the photo taken with the 17mm lens. The reason the 50mm f/1.8 works well for 3/4 or full body portraits, especially with an APS-C body, is that it allows you to fill the frame with the subject from a distance that provides pleasing perspective.
    – Michael C
    Nov 22, 2013 at 11:41
  • The same is true of the 105mm lens: It allows you to shoot at about the same distance that provides flattering perspective (as you would for a 3/4 body shot with a 50mm lens) when you only want head shots.
    – Michael C
    Nov 22, 2013 at 11:43
  • @MichaelClark I wasn't talking about perspective. Perspective should not matter in portrait (assuming you're not going to shoot a portrait with an 11mm lens) at least if you want to focus only on the person and not the background. Google "protrait" and see in the Images section that all the photos only focus on the person and the background is so blur that you can't guess the focal length or see any effect of the perspective.
    – Itay Gal
    Nov 22, 2013 at 13:39
  • @EsaPaulasto, I don't measure the distance, I put on my prime lens and move to the spot I think it's best for the photo I wanna take.
    – Itay Gal
    Nov 22, 2013 at 13:40
  • Nice sample photos, I like them. But this answer is not saying what I want to hear. However, I want you to know the downvote is not from me. Nov 24, 2013 at 10:10

You THINK you don't notice the increase in the size of the nose and other perspective effects until you eliminate them with a shot taken from a distance. If you decide you want no exagrration of any features and a "flat" perspective you pick a long distance to stand from your subject. That distance essentially determine the lens' focal length. You pick a lens that will allow the subject to fill as much of the frame as you desire then you take your photo after adjusting aperature, shutter, etc. to taste.

It doesn't take an 11mm to create a lot of distortion. IMO you need to go over 40mm to eliminate most of the perspective and get an image where the closest parts of the face like the tip of the nose don't change in focus from the back of the ears. IMHO one needs to be a minimum of 6 feet away to take an undistorted portrait, with distortion decreasing with increasing distance although if the distance gets too far the subject will get too small and need to be cropped. If I look at two side by side photos of myself with one taken at 3 feet and one at 6 feet there is a HUGE difference. TRY IT! Crop the edges off the one taken at 6 feet and make them the same size. You'll see what I mean about your nose looking bigger due to the distance of the camera to the subject.

  • So, your short answer to the question is six feet distance, i.e. two meters. Okay. Sep 24, 2015 at 7:35

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