So you’re ready to begin shooting portraits or headshots. Now, the question is: what is the best focal length lens to shoot with?
This is a question that has multiple answers depending on several factors.
First and MOST important – what is your style of photography and what kind of portrait does your subject want? Are you shooting an environmental portrait that includes the setting or a traditional head and shoulders shot?
Second – is your camera a full frame sensor or an APS-C crop sensor? Remember that an APS-C sensor multiplies the effective focal length of a lens by 1.5.
Third – what gear do you already own? I won’t assume that you can just go out and buy a new lens – so let’s try to work with what you have.
Remember – the task of creating a great portrait or headshot is actually a problem-solving task. You have a subject who may or may not be attractive who wants you to photograph them and make them look absolutely amazing. You have a camera and maybe some lights. In other words, they have asked you to solve that problem.
So let’s begin with style. For the sake of this video, I am going to ignore environmental portraits and deal with more of a traditional head-and-shoulder type shot.
In this case the general rule of thumb is to use a short to medium length telephoto lens. On a full frame camera, 70mm is the shortest focal length and anything up to 200mm is going to give you some visual compression, which is generally more flattering to a face. On the other hand, a wide angle lens which will distort and bloat a face when you get close to the subject in order to fill your frame.
For those of you with APS-C cameras, keep in mind that means anything from a 50mm lens up to approximately 135mm lens would be ideal.
So let’s take a look at a few examples of a portrait shot with different focal length lenses.
In this series I started with a 24mm wide angle lens and I am shooting close enough to fill the frame. You can see the lens creates a lot of distortion in my subject and also includes way too much background area.
Next a 35mm lens – With this lens I was able to back up a little bit, but there is still a lot of distortion in my subject’s face and I can still see way too much background. That is a 9’ wide seamless paper roll that is just 5 feet behind my subject.
Next up is the 50mm lens. While this is much better than the two wide-angle lenses and it does cover the background, there is still some distortion in the face.
If we move into the short telephoto range with the 85mm, we now have enough visual compression that the face doesn’t show any distortion.
Hopefully you see the difference. I assure you — your subject will.
Next up is a 100mm.
And then a 180mm lens. You can see that once we reached the 85mm lens, the images appear virtually the same.
Now I am sure that some of you are wondering, what about zoom lenses? If that’s what you have – that’s fine – the focal length and the amount of distortion still applies. I personally shoot with all prime lenses. For those of you that don’t know what a prime lens is… A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens. In other words, it doesn’t zoom.
I have owned zoom lenses, and believe me, they are great. I just made a personal decision about a year ago to switch over to all primes. I’ll talk more about that in another video.
One warning about zoom lenses: If your favorite zoom is 24-70mm, be VERY careful if you are going to use that for portraits. Make sure you have it maxed out at 70mm pretty much all of the time. I can’t tell you how often I see photographers at workshops and meetups using their 24-70mm lenses and when I start peeking over their shoulders to see what’s on their LCDs, I point out to them that they are shooting with their lens at 40 or 50mm and, indeed, they have distortion in the subject’s face. It’s an easy mistake to make when you are in the middle of doing a shot – so be forewarned.
I often hear the question, what about longer lenses? Meaning, of course, lenses more than 200mm. For full frame or crop sensor, you can certainly use longer lenses, but then you are presented with two additional obstacles.
Number 1 – you will have to shoot from a considerable distance which makes it very hard to communicate with your subject. It also makes it much harder to connect with your subject on a personal level, which is something that is very important. Only by putting your subject at ease and making them comfortable will you ensure that your portrait has relaxed body language and facial expressions.
Number 2- with a much longer lens, you really should use a monopod or better yet a tripod to eliminate the potential of camera motion and soft or blurry images.
Limited Depth of Field
Btw… another bonus with telephoto lenses is that they make it easier for you to limit the depth of field so that you can create shots that separate your subject from the background and eliminate distractions. This is especially helpful if you are shooting your portraits outdoors in natural settings.
When I shoot a portrait in the studio, I generally try to set my aperture at f/8 so that I have a little extra depth of field, as I want to be sure that both eyes will be in focus if I turn my subject’s head. If I am shooting outdoors in a natural setting, I still try to shoot at f/5.6 and I’ll limit the depth of field by working with a longer lens like a 180mm or 200mm.
I know that a lot of you are all about the bokeh and want to shoot at f/1.8 so that you have really shallow depth of field and interesting highlights in the background. Let me just remind to you that if you are shooting a close-up at f1.8, if your subject’s head is slightly turned, you will have a very difficult time getting both eyes in focus. Not to mention that if you are worried about how cool the background looks, then you really need to adjust your priorities if you want to be a portrait or headshot photographer.
In the teaser for this video, I mentioned my favorite lens for portraits and headshots. For many years it was my Nikon 85mm f 1.8 prime lens or my Nikkor 70 – 200mm f/2.8 zoom which I usually set anywhere between 100mm and 150mm.
About 4 months ago, I stumbled on two different reviews of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Pro D Macro Lens. This lens sells for about $378.00 and the reviews on it were incredible. I was actually looking for a longer focal length macro lens for a creative project I was doing and didn’t want to spend the bucks for a Nikon. So based on the reviews I purchased the Tokina, not really expecting to be impressed. Not only was it excellent for the macro work that I did, but it has become my go-to lens for portraits and headshots. This lens is tack sharp and has excellent contrast to it. You can check out the Nikon mount here or Cannon mount here.
So there you have it – short to medium length telephoto lenses for portraits and headshots. And remember– it’s not the equipment that will make your shot a success. It’s how you use it, and more importantly how you interact with your subject, that will give your shot that extra special something to make it stand out in a crowd.
So remember, your best shot is your next shot, and keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!