Shooting Portraits at Different Focal Lengths June 08 2015, 0 Comments

How Wide-Angle, Medium, and Telephoto Lenses Change the Look of Portrait Photographs

If you’re ready to take your portrait work beyond selfie-sticks and duck lips, you’ve come to the right place! Today we’ll explore the differences between each of the three types of lens focal lengths as well as the pros and cons of using them in specific portrait settings.

Telephoto Lenses

A telephoto lens is generally considered to be a focal length of 85mm or higher. Telephoto lenses  are one of the most popular for portraits because they introduce a particular kind of distortion into the image called compression. Compression is the flattening of elements into a visual space so that objects far away from each other appear to be closer together than they really are. This effect is great for portraits because it naturally slims the subject and also separates the subject from the background.

Here’s an example of a headshot taken with the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L II  at 180mm on the cropped sensor Canon 70D.  This puts the field of view just shy of what you would see with a 300mm view on a full-frame camera.

Photo by divzi media

Notice how blurred out the background behind the subject is. With a telephoto lens the background seems relatively flat. That’s possible thanks to the compression of the large expanse behind the subject as well as the large out of focus area (bokeh) produced by the lens.

Pro Tip: As a general rule, the longer the focal length, the easier it is to get more dramatic bokeh. If you want to really isolate your subject from the background, telephoto is the way to go.

Medium Lenses

The next type of lens available for portraits is a medium focal length lens (sometimes called a normal focal length). These range between 36 and 84 mm with the most popular in this range being 50mm on a full frame camera. For years, 50mm has been accepted as the focal length that provides a field of view close to how we humans perceive the world with our vision. This is one of  the main reasons photographers gravitate to 50mm and other medium focal length lenses.

A medium focal length lens can be ideal for including more than just a close up of your subject. Here, a 40mm f/2.8 pancake was used on the Canon 70D to provide a full-frame equivalent field of view close to 65mm. This focal length captured the subject and the environment without any significant distortion in the final shot, allowing the environment to become a part of the story. It’s still possible to isolate your subject with a medium focal length lens, it just needs to be done using a wider aperture since you won’t see the same kind of compression that’s visible with shots taken with a telephoto lens.

Photo by divzi media

Pro Tip: The Canon 50mm f/1.2 L lens would be perfect for just such a task. Just remember, shooting at a very large aperture (smaller f-stop numbers) means that only a small portion of the image is in focus. If you don’t get it exactly right, you’ll be left with a blurry picture.

Wide-Angle Lenses

The least popular, but at times most interesting, focal length for portraits is the wide-angle. On a full-frame camera, this is a lens with a focal length of 35mm or less. Like telephoto lenses, wide angles also introduce distortion into an image. Wide-angle distortion (or extension distortion) causes objects that are close together to appear much further apart (think “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”). This effect is the opposite of the compression discussed above with telephoto lenses.  A wide angle can be a great lens when you want to emphasize more of the environment in a shot or when you’re in very close quarters with your subject(s). Here, the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L II was used at 35mm on a 5D MKIII.

When shooting with a wide-angle lens, it’s very difficult to visually isolate your subject (wide angle lenses do not produce notable bokeh, or background blur). If you’re not planning on highlighting the environment (or if it doesn’t add much to the final shot), a wide-angle may not be best.  On the other hand, if the environment is a big part of the story you’re trying to tell (such as with a portrait of a mechanic in his or her workshop), then wide angle isn’t only preferred,  it’s a must.

Photo by divzi media

Pro Tip: Be careful with wide-angle lenses and distortion - when objects are not in the center of the frame, you’re going to have some stretching that your subject may not find too attractive. This is particularly important when shooting brides at a wedding, for example.

Take a look at this distortion in its most extreme form on the 8-15 f/4L fisheye. While interesting, it’s rare that anyone sets out to intentionally look like that.

Photo by divzi media


Like all things photographic, careful planning is always the best way to approach a shoot. Think about your subject and what your end goal is. What kind of story are you trying to tell? Do you want more or less of the environment in your pictures? Do you want a close up or a full body shot of your subject?

Always be prepared for more than one kind of look if your subject is open to it. Intentional variety is usually a good practice to ensure that, at the end of the shoot, both the photographer and the subject walk away with a diverse set of quality images to show for all their hard work.

We hope this introduction to using different focal lengths to shoot different types of portrait photographs has been helpful.  Now go out and start shooting with the recommended lenses below!

Recommended Lenses for Portraits:

To compress the background and slim your subject, use the 70-200mm f/2.8 (Canon or Nikon).  You can also try the Canon 135mm f/2L or Nikon 105mm f/2.8

For excellent medium lens portraits, use the Canon 85mm f/1.2, Canon 50mm f/1.2L.  Nikon shooters use the 85mm f/1.4 or Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8.

For “environmental portraits”, where you show your subject  in context with their surroundings, try one of the following fixed and zoom wide-angle lenses:


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