The “Portrait Lens”
Skill Level: Intermediate
I was once in a photo forum in which a person just starting out posed the classic question.
"What is the best lens for doing portraits? Is my $100 50mm f/1.8 okay?"
Two photo nerds responded and quickly took over the forum with a heated argument. One said that 50mm was an unacceptable focal length. That features would be distorted and unflattering. The other posted a portrait they had done at 50mm—professing they used it for portraits all the time. Then the first guy came back and posted one done at 85mm and claimed you could see how much more flattering it was. He told the 50mm guy that he was wrong and that his portrait was horrible and an insult to photography.
Pretty soon the forum was ten pages long and the young newbie who first inquired was no closer to having an answer to their question.
Thankfully, I know the answer to the question and I am going to share it with all of you now.
What is the best portrait lens?
First of all, if all you have is a $100 50mm f/1.8, then that is the best portrait lens because it is your only choice. I have used that lens for portraits and I think it works great.
Second, it should just be assumed that wide angle lenses are out. Anything below 35mm might look a little funny. If you look above, I’m hoping my two examples can display why. When you do a wide angle close up, it exaggerates features. People start to look like aliens.
Third, you should probably have a fast lens for portraiture. It should have a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8. This is important for when you need to blur out the background.
So the crux of this issue comes down to a different question.
What focal length should I use for portraits?
Wide angle lenses exaggerate distance. Big noses will become even bigger. As lenses get longer in focal length, they start to compress facial features. Typically you start to get a more flattering image that doesn’t turn your dad into an alien being.
The human eye has a field of view that is similar to a 40-50mm lens. If you want an authentic image, many consider a 50mm to be the way to go. But when you are looking at a person, you are usually not right up in their face. You don’t view them nose to nose.
So the conclusion you can draw is that maybe 50mm is better for portraits that include more of a person in the image. Their torso and head. Maybe a full body portrait. For very tight headshots, this might not be ideal.
Next we have the 85mm range. If I had to pick one portrait lens, this would probably be the best compromise. It is long enough to compress facial features and give that flattering look, but it is not sooo long that you have to take your pictures from across the street. You can do headshots, head and shoulders, and if you need to, you can do full body too.
100mm and beyond is another popular option. More compression of facial features. Easier to blur out backgrounds. But this is when you have to take your subject into consideration.
Maybe you need a nice rapport with your subject. Being far away with a telephoto lens can get very impersonal. You may have to shout directions. Gesture wildly to get their attention. And if you have limited space behind you, it can be problematic too.
Now you must decide if they really need that telephoto squishing of features. Do they have the kind of face that would benefit from that compression? Would flattening them lose an important aspect of dimensionality? Maybe they don’t have pronounced facial features and compressing them is not necessary. Maybe they are extremely slender and compressing them would exaggerate that. Or maybe they are portly and compressing them would be welcome.
The reason I say “it depends” is because there is not one definitive answer to the question. You have to consider your own personal preferences, style, and all the variables I mentioned above.
Breaking it down…
- 50mm lenses are usually what people start out with because there are great inexpensive options. They are good for candid shots and street photography. Might not be ideal for very tight headshots.
- 85mm is the safest bet. It has enough compression to flatten features for a flattering look, but isn’t so zoomy that you are too far away from your subject.
- 100+mm gives you even more compression and the added bonus of exaggerating blurry backgrounds. Usually best to use outside or in a larger studio.
- A 70-200mm zoom is a very popular choice because it gives you flexibility. Unfortunately, it won’t be as sharp as prime lenses unless you pay through the nose.
Photos by Froggie