Headshots should be simple, direct, and effective, with a clear view of the subject, but also a simple but professional backdrop. So, which focal length lens should you use, and how does it affect the final image?
I decided to test out a variety of lenses at different focal lengths for headshots, from 24mm right up to a ridiculous 1,200mm, to see how they impacted the shooting experience and the final photo. So, I captured shots of my subject outside and kept the same camera settings throughout, with aperture set to f/4, shutter speed at 1/500 sec, and ISO at 1,600.
There are a couple of cases where I used a teleconverter, which altered the aperture, and I'll signpost those when it comes up. But in an attempt to keep things as consistent as possible, I captured separate shots, trying to fill the same space in my frame of the subject at each focal length, and took shots at 24mm, 50mm, 70mm, 105mm, 200mm, 400mm, 600mm, and 1,200mm. There's a lot I learned doing this process, and hopefully, it'll help you decide on a focal length for your own headshots, too. Be sure to check out some more before/after comparisons at the bottom of the article.
The wider the lens, the greater the depth of field we get in the photographs too, so if subject separation or soft, out-of-focus bokeh is what you want from your background, then you might want to look for a longer lens.
The 85mm prime lens is the quintessential portrait lens for most photographers, and when combined with a wide aperture of f/1.8 or so, can produce incredibly dreamy, out of focus backdrops that look fantastic.
Facial features are noticeably flattened, which can be quite flattering in a portrait. Macro lenses at this focal length (such as the Nikkor 105mm) can be great portrait lenses so long as they focus to infinity.
At this length, image stabilization is required to steady the frame during composition. In low-light conditions, handholding is now turning into a bad idea, unless you boost the ISO to 1,000 or more to keep the exposure balanced or have off-camera flash.
It’s impractical to take portraits at this focal length, but it looks like nothing else. Cinematic, and stylish, taking portraits on a lens this long is both insane and cool in equal measure. This would be great for those not able to position themselves right in front of the subject who instead have to shoot from afar. However, communication is difficult, and I practically had to shout as loud as I could to converse with the subject.
Below are some comparisons between focal lengths, with the wider example always on the left.
24mm Versus 70mm
50mm Versus 105mm
70mm Versus 200mm
400mm Versus 1,200mm
Overall, if I were to pick a focal length to capture headshots outside, it'd be between 200mm and 400mm, because it flattens the facial features, and enhances subject separation from the background. The backdrop is gorgeously out of focus but still contains a little detail to remain interesting. It's also relatively easy to communicate with the subject as you're not too far away, and the settings don't have to become too extreme to maintain a fast enough exposure to keep things sharp, especially if aided by image stabilization. However, if shooting inside with limited space, I'd probably opt for 70mm if shooting on a f/2.8 zoom or 85mm at f/1.8 to maintain that shallow depth of field.