Choosing a Portrait Lens

Choosing a Portrait Lens

Choosing a Portrait Lens

Different focal length lenses allow a photographer to create different compositions and effects. In portrait photography, the key is to balance the focal length of the lens with the distance to the subject.

The general rule of thumb in portrait photography is to be 10-15 feet away from your subject. This rule was established after studies of the way the human eye and brain see people. Without getting into the science, let’s just say that in my experience, this is an excellent general rule. Of course, there are always reasons to break the rule, but when you’re approaching a portrait session for the first time then start here.

Distortion and Portrait Lenses

If you choose to use a wide angle lens, you’ll find that you have to get close to your subject to fill the frame (thus, breaking the portrait rule), causing distortion. It’s a very interesting effect – your foreground will appear larger, while your background will appear smaller. In the portrait photography world, this is referred to as large noses and small ears.

A longer lens, requires more distance between the camera and the subject, falling right in line with the portrait photography rule. The distortion is minimized, and your subject will thank you for not accentuating their nose. Your subject will also thank you for not crowding their personal space. I’ve found that being 12-14 feet away from my subject puts them at ease and keeps them engaged. Being closer, makes them uncomfortable (which definitely comes through in the photographs) and being further away allow your subject to get distracted by all the other elements around them.

Background in Long Lenses v. Short Lenses

A longer lens reduces the background visible in your photograph. This goes a long way towards isolating your subject and reducing distracting elements in a portrait.

Angle of View difference between long and short lenses

 Breaking the Portrait Rule Environmental portraits are a great reason to break the portrait rule and to choose a wide angle lens, instead of a portrait lens. Environment portraits show your subject surrounded by key aspects of their lives. For example, a farmer with his crop or equipment, a body builder in his gym, a National Parks Ranger in nature, etc. In these examples, it is critical to capture the surroundings, making a wide angle lens an invaluable tool.

How Short is Too Short and How Long is Too Long for Portrait Lens?

We discussed that short lenses distort. That distortion starts being noticeable in focal lengths shorter than 70mm. (Meaning, 50mm has more distortion than 70mm, and 16mm has a lot of distortion.)

Choose a lens too long and you have the opposite effect. Lenses longer than 135mm create flat images.

When you’re shopping for a portrait lens, try renting a couple of different lenses to try before you buy.

Bottom Line: Choosing a Portrait Lens

My ideal range for a portrait lens is 80mm – 105mm. Within that range, you have the option of a zoom lens or a prime lens. Here are my top three choices for a portrait lens:

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens

Copyright 2017 Valerie Hayken Up