47

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?

33

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.

  • 4
    +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
  • 2
    35mm isn't a very good focal length for portraits, regardless of the crop factor. – Bobby Ketchum Jul 23 '10 at 16:49
  • 1
    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
  • 3
    More important than geometric distortion (which can easily be corrected in post), IMHO, is perspective distortion. – Eruditass Jul 28 '10 at 0:01
21

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.

7

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

6

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.

5

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.

5

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 name 'Platon', who has shot wide-angle portraits of some of the highest-profile individuals in the world.

https://www.google.com/search?q=platon+photographer&tbm=isch

  • Platon takes wonderful portraits. I hadn't heard of him. I appreciate the link. – blackappy Jul 30 '16 at 13:21
  • @Osullic -- You might like wide-angle portraits -- best if you ask the subject how they liked their portrait. – Alan Marcus Oct 28 '16 at 4:03
4

The rule-of-thumb for portraiture is to use a focal length that is approximately 2.5 times the diagonal measure of the camera’s format. As an example, the Fx (full frame) measures 24mm height by 36mm length; the diagonal of this rectangle is 42mm. Thus 42 X 2.5 = 105, therefore the recommended portrait lens for the full frame is about 105mm.

Everything has a why – let’s explore:

A portrait image that displays a “correct” perspective sells best because people have a perceived self-image that is derived from the view seen in their dressing mirror. The portrait photographer needs to know, if this perspective is duplicated, the portrait wins favor.

To duplicate this perspective, the viewer needs to look at the finished image from a distance equal to the focal length multiplied by the magnification applied to make the final displayed image. A portrait image is likely on the mantle or wall viewed from about 1 yard (1 meter). A full frame image enlarged to make an 8x10 image requires 8X enlargement. If a 105mm lens is mounted, the optimal viewing distance to display correct perspective is 105 X 8 = 840mm = 33 inches (0.84 meters). Using the 105mm lens forces the photographer to step back when composing. The result is an image that matches the view seen in the dressing mirror.

If a Dx format camera is used, the crop factor is 1.5 or 1.6. This format is 66% of the size of the Fx. The diagonal measure is 30mm. Using the same rule-of-thumb, the focal length of choice for portraiture is 30 X 2.5 = 75. Using the 2.5x principle, we mount a 75mm lens. The magnification applied to make an 8x10 print is 12X. The optimal viewing distance is 75 X 12 = 900mm about 1 yard (1 meter).

Please note: Most images we take do not require that the perspective be “correct”. Portraiture is an exception, because the difference between individual human face is misrule but very important to the subject of the portrait.

0

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.

0

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.

protected by John Cavan Jul 31 '16 at 1:34

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