best focal length for portraits?

Discussion in 'Photography Beginners' Forum' started by greentrav07, Oct 23, 2009.

  1. greentrav07

    greentrav07 TPF Noob!

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    In the The Digital Photography Book, Volume 2, Scott Kelby writes that you should "shoot long for more flattering portraits." He says "you'll see many pro photographers shooting portraits at the far range of their zoom." And, he provides an example of 2 shots, one taken with a 50 mm lens and one with a 70-200 mm, shot at 190mm. The one shot at 50 has visible distortion of facial features, particularly the nose. In The Digital Photography Book, Volume 1, he writes that shooting in the 85-100 mm range is best for portraits because it "eliminates the unflattering facial distorition wide-angle lenses are notorious for, while avoiding the compression long telephoto lenses give." So, to my question: I have a Canon 70-200 mm L IS USM, but it's not a great walkaround lens, particularly inside, because it has a minimum focusing distance of 4 feet. My favorite thing to shoot is people, particularly kids, so I want something that will be good for portraits if I get a new lens. I wrote yesterday in a separate post about equipment in general that I am considering the Canon 24-70, but am worried about distortion, to which I received some replies that 50-55 mm is the best focal length for portraits. Am I missing something? Can somebody help me make sense of the differing opinions? Thanks so much.
     
  2. KmH

    KmH Helping photographers learn to fish Supporting Member

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    168.7 mm is the perfect focal length for portraits.

    Actually, there is no one best. Many portrait photographers have a selection of glass to choose from.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2009
  3. bigtwinky

    bigtwinky No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    Depends on which camera you are shooting with.

    Keep in mind that Canon Rebels and the 30/40/50/7D series are all crop sensor cameras. So when Kelby says shooting with a focal range of 80-100, I am thinking that is a full frame sensor, not a crop sensor. I've heard many times that one of the best portrait lenses (for full frame) is an 85mm prime lens (1.2 or 1.4, dont remember) and how many people shooting with crop cameras get the 50mm 1.8 and then the 1.4.

    85-100mm on a full frame is the same as 50-63mm on a crop sensor.
    So getting the 24-70mm if you are using a crop camera will put you in that nice range for portraits. As would getting a 17-55, where the 50-55 would be the prime. With the 24-70, you simply get longer on one end, while the 17-55 would allow you to get wide in tight spaces and group shots.

    I've seen portraits done with so many different focal lenghts. Sometimes, playing with the distortion can make a regular portrait look amazing. So in reality, get a quality lens that has a wide aperture and enjoy!
     
  4. Dwig

    Dwig TPF Noob!

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    You must keep in mind that it is not the lens focal length that causes this. Its the working distance. In order to get similar framing, he shot the example pictures at different distances and its the differing distances that produces the differing perspective.

    As others have pointed out, you must always take the format of the camera into consideration. Any mention of focal length without information about format is meaningless. If you are reading a book discussing 35mm film usage and you are shooting a different format, such as that of a "crop sensor" DSLR, you need to "translate" the focal lengths to equivalent focal lengths that yield the same field of view on your format that the specified focal lengths did on the author's.

    When it comes to perspective, whether discussing landscape, architectural, or portrait photography, you must keep in mind that its working distances that affect the perspective and not the focal lengths themselves. For portraits, you generally get the best perspective when shooting between 6-10ft (2-3m). The proper focal length is the one that gives you the framing you desire (face only, head & shoulders, 3/4's length, or full length) at some distance in that range. The looser the desired framing the shorter the focal length you want to use. The tighter, the longer.
     
  5. iolair

    iolair No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    Looking at the details of recent portraits - upper body or head and shoulders - I've taken on a zoom, most were with a focal length of between (equivalent to) 75 and 98 mm.

    So, with a crop-sensor camera, a 60mm lens, or good zoom around that length, would be ideal focal length.

    It's also nice to have a relatively big minimum aperture, so you can open it up to throw the background fully out of focus.

    Incidentally, I'm going to get Canon's 50mm 1.4 on a crop frame body for this kind of work. (Canon do have 60mm lenses, but they're specialised macro lenses - I expect they'd be fine for portraits, but not as sharp or as fast as the 50mm non-macro).

    It's true that the closer you get to the subject, the more the body parts closest to you will get distorted - it makes for interesting effects but is rarely very flattering. Shooting with a wide, close-up, from near someone's legs makes them extra tall with a small head - kind of fun, but you wouldn't want to make a habit of it!
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2009
  6. MACollum

    MACollum TPF Noob!

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    I prefer the 50mm for portraits but I've also had success with a 70-300mm, especially for candids.
     
  7. NateWagner

    NateWagner TPF Noob!

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    This depends to me... When I am doing a portrait session my favorite lens is my 70-200. Of course, that's cause I like to back off, and let them become comfortable with me being there. Once they become more comfortable I do often use a wider angle lens in order to get more of the scenery in the image, or to use full body shots, or use negative space. For head shots and head and shoulder shots though I definitely love using the longer 70-200.
     
  8. Christie Photo

    Christie Photo No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    Yup!

    A good starting point is a lens that is twice the normal focal length for your camera format.

    I like fixed focal length lenses as opposed to zooms.

    -Pete
     
  9. c.cloudwalker

    c.cloudwalker TPF Noob!

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    I agree that this is a very good starting point for a standard type portrait. Being right against your subject is uncomfortable for both the subject and the photog. But, tbh, I find it as uncomfortable to be too far away. A portrait is an intimate kind of thing and I would rather not have to raise my voice to cue my subject.

    That said, there are many different kinds of portraits and I've used wide angle lenses for some. Nothing wider than 28mm (for a FF) and you have to not get too close to the subject or get into weird angles that will give you weird distortion.

    So, unfortunately, there is no cookie-cutter answer to your question. :hug::
     
  10. joemc

    joemc TPF Noob!

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    A can not talk from a canon standpoint...but for the Nikon shooters.. I highly recommend the fast 85 1.4 ...it is the cream machine with bokeh.
    Here is just a fun grab shot of a pro-photog friend of mine. Check out the smoke and the Boheh....this was shot at 1.4

    This was shot on a FF camera...the D700

    [​IMG]
     
  11. Felix0890

    Felix0890 TPF Noob!

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    You mean maximum aperture, right?

    I personally prefer longer focal lengths for portraits. I'm having to work with really short lenses and it's so annoying having to get up close and personal for good closeups. I'd say it's more about personal preference. Even the distortion mentioned above is desirable by some photographers who like taking funky closeup pictures. Again, it's all about preference and style.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2009
  12. Derrel

    Derrel Mr. Rain Cloud

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    Dwig's comments in Post #4 pretty well summarize my feelings, and ChristiePhoto's comment in post #8 are also spot-on. There is no one,single "best" focal length but there are some very "bad" focal lengths, like a focal length one-third of the normal for your camera--going very short will exaggerate body parts,and cause extreme foreshortening effects.

    The different formats rally do significantly change the way you can shoot, especially with prime lenses. I have a collection of prime lenses,and I prefer the way they work on FF mainly because I an get the framing I want at the working distances I like with the 85,105,and 135mm lenses,as ell as the 200mm focal length. On 1.5x cameras, ALL of those lenses are too long for me to shoot indoors. My entire indoor shooting area is only 24 feet long,so to me, a FF camera is really helpful.

    Outdoors, a good 70-200mm lens is nice--very versatile, good range, good optics, great for verticals, allows a lot of variations in composition and working distances, with no lens changes.
     

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