What's the Right Focal Length for Portraits?

When it comes to portraits, by far one of the most important decisions you will make is the choice of focal length. This fantastic video explores three different focal lengths for portraits, how they render the subject, and the pros and cons of using them. 

Coming to you from Daniel Norton with Adorama TV, this great video tutorial explores three different focal lengths (85mm, 50mm, and 15mm) for portraiture and shows the sort of results you can get from them. If you are newer to portrait work, the reason it is so important to pay attention to focal length is because of the way it renders the geometry of the face. Certainly, all focal lengths can be used for portraits, particularly for creative effect, but there is a reason most photographers end up settling for somewhere around 85mm or so, as it generally represents a good balance between a flattering compression and maintaining enough of a person's unique facial geometry and structure. Still, it is very much a creative choice, and you may find different focal lengths appropriate for different projects or subjects. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Norton. 

If you would like to learn more about portraiture, be sure to check out "Perfecting the Headshot With Peter Hurley!"

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15 Comments

Iain Lea's picture

200mm f2... but only if you and your bank account are fit :-)

Steve Powell's picture

85mm, f1.8

Mike Dochterman's picture

the 85....NEXT!

Myron Edwards's picture

Definitely the 50mm and the 85mm are perfect for portraits

Spy Black's picture

Any lens that doesn't give you barrel distortion and doesn't leave you too far from your subject is a good portrait lens.

ian Maitland's picture

An amazing number of first class portraits have been made using a Rolleiflex and fixed 80 mm lens. (I don't have one!)
Fine photos are made by what is between your ears, not what you hold in your hand.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

So someone did a research on distance from camera to subject. They suggest to stand 1.5 meters away. So maybe 2 meters? And then you can use whatever lens you want. At least that’s my take on it. And also in these days with so much selfies a compressed portrait might look strange.

BTW That lasolite reflector looks good but it does not give a even spread of light. It’s useless and the worst thing ever.

Iain Lea's picture

"And also in these days with so much selfies a compressed portrait might look strange. ..." lol!

Everyone to their own... I guess I will have to try and live with the "strange" effect my 200mm f2 produces.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Looking at your portfolio on Fstoppers, I don’t think anyone cares what lens you use. You could use a GoPro. But I am sure it’s good with extra distance,

Iain Lea's picture

Its Monday so I will ask politely what you mean as your answer can be interpreted both positively or negatively so always best to ask directly?

Iain Lea's picture

So what did you mean with your comment? we're still waiting...

Iain Lea's picture

Alright alright alright... lets go with your comment if it can be called that as a negative comment.

I am always amazed that I get too read such lightweight comments concerning my images and that the person has so little imagination and technical knowhow.

Not a single image i have displayed here was shot with a 200mm f2 and anyone who has used one would know that due to DOF / bokeh and how much landscape is shown in a lot of the images...

Study... then study some more... and then consider whether you can contribute anything useful.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Nothing to study. You commented on my remark referring a 200, I did not. Photo of nude woman in full figure and in environment does not much suffer because of wide lens usage, the way a headshot or portrait do. If it did, nobody would care much, face is not center of focus. So you could use a GoPro and nobody would care much. In this day and age it’s advisable to keep safe distance to model, so a tele lens is a good choice for you, and the model. If you would want to make portraits, as I previously stated, 1.5 - 2 meters distance is a good rule. You might prefer differently, that’s just fine to. Sorry for not replying, I was not logged in,

Iain Lea's picture

Keep pushing your negative agenda against my images if it makes you happy...

Your idiotic GoPro comment is one I will be printing out and hanging on my dumb idiots board ;-)

Ciao

Bjarne Solvik's picture

You are doing good bro, relax. No need for that:)