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Honored Contributor
Posts: 5,552
Registered: ‎06-25-2014

Focal length of a portrait lens

From time to time (including recently), someone questions why the best portrait lenses tend to be a bit on the long side of normal. The short answer is that if you get close enough for the subject's head to fill the frame, a shorter (normal or WA) lens will exaggerate the length of the subject's nose. Now if you watch TV, you can see an almost comical example of that effect. Many of the people being interviewed on TV are working from home, and the images you see of them come from the (usually wide) lenses attached to their computer monitors. If you look closely, you'll notice that they often resemble a large face glued onto an undersized head. It's particularly noticeable, compared to the images of the interviewers, who are usually in a studio, or at least have a professional videographer on scene. The professionals, of course, are able (and knowledgeable enough) to match their lenses' focal lengths to the requirements of the situation.

Bob
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA
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Respected Contributor
Posts: 1,077
Registered: ‎01-25-2018

Re: Focal length of a portrait lens

Bob,

 

That is a very concise and simple explanation of this type of "distortion" that you provided.  It is the type of information that appeared in so many classic photography books.  Now so many of the "intro" books jump into the manipulations that you can do with the digital medium and give short shrift to the basics of good photography.

 

I really like my EF 135 and 200 f2 glass on a full lens camera for this work BUT when using studio strobes rarely does the lens need to be wide open and in most cases you don't want the shallow DoF that aperture produces anyway so for an aspiring portrait photographer who is making do with a 50mm or similar because of the expense of "good" long glass may well find that the results are excellent from lower tier glass stepped down several stops from wide open.

 

Rodger

EOS 1DX M3, 1DX M2, 1DX, 5DS R, 1D M2, EOS 650 (film), many lenses, XF400 video
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VIP
Posts: 13,025
Registered: ‎12-07-2012

Re: Focal length of a portrait lens

In the past ten, fifteen years or so most of my friends that are still in the business have switched to the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens or equivalent as the goto for portrait work. In fact in my last ten years or so (after retirement) I no longer  carry a "portrait" lens. Even though I shot/shoot lots of Senior photos. I simply carry the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens and  EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens.

 

When I did do in studio work I found that 85mm was about as long as practical. I do own the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM Lens but find it too long much preferring the 85mil. In studio work still requires the model and the photographer room to move around so the longer FL makes this more difficult.

EOS 1DX and 1D Mk IV and several lenses!
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VIP
Posts: 13,025
Registered: ‎12-07-2012

Re: Focal length of a portrait lens

"...a shorter (normal or WA) lens will exaggerate the length of the subject's nose."

 

The word you are looking for is compression.

 

 However, the main advantage is, with a 85mm/135mm (or portrait lens) lens you don't have to stand 'two feet' from the model. Other words, right in their face! That tends to make people apprehensive and nervous. You want to be right there but you don't want them to feel you are right there. The best photographers are sorta like doctors. You want the 'patient' or client to feel at ease or comfortable with what is going on. That's how you get the best shot!

EOS 1DX and 1D Mk IV and several lenses!
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