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Focal lengths in portraits

Duncan Evans goes on a whirlwind tour of focal lengths when shooting portraits and explains what not to shoot.

| Portraits and People
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Portraits are easy aren't they. Once you've got the pose sorted out, and the lighting, you just line the shot up and press the fire button, right? Of course not, the choice of focal length of the lens and how far away you are stood will make a big difference to how the subject appears in the shot. You can also use focal length distortion for creative effect to deliberately enhance parts of the body.

Here we've shot the same picture using increasing focal lengths to show what happens and how to avoid the problems. One thing to note when shooting digitally, is that the effective focal length of the lens is extended because the middle part of the lens image (unless using a specific digital lens) is captured, and that is effectively further away in the scene being captured. Thus the standard 50mm portrait lens, on a digital camera, gives a field of view and reach of a 75mm lens.

Shooting at 25mm
The prime reason for using a wide angle lens is when there isn't much room so you need the wide angle lens to get the subject into the shot. The problem then is one of massive distortion of the image. This shot was taken at 25mm and results in the head bulging and becoming larger, while foreshortening the rest of the image. It is highly unflattering - look at the horizontal stripes on the top.

The solution is to move back and use a longer lens, but if that really isn't possible, then there is a partial solution. Instead of standing at normal height and shooting at the head, bend down and focus on the midriff. This will elongate the head, but at least it won't bulge and the picture will appear more natural. It isn't great, but it's better than shooting it from head height.

 25mm distortion
The 25mm view with massive distortion.

 change the view
Change the viewpoint to minimise the effects.

Shoot at 50mm
The human eye is reckoned to have a roughly equivalent field of view as a 50mm lens, hence its use as a portrait lens. This will hugely reduce the amount of distortion in the picture, but if you are quite close to the subject, or part of their body is in front of the torso, then you will still get distortion. It's a big improvement on the last shot mind but the lines on the top still curve, it's still a little top heavy.

Shoot at 75mm
Of course, if you put a 50mm portrait lens on a digital camera then you get a 75mm effective focal length which is the case here. Now the body isn't distorted and looks far more natural. The lines on the top are much straighter. Again though, if close to the subject, or an arm is extended, then that will distort. If the subject is relatively flat to the camera, then this is fine.

 52mm view
Change to a 50mm focal length and the distortion is reduced.

 75mm view
At 75mm there is no distortion evident for a natural look.

Shoot at 150mm
If you want the subject to move around, have parts of the body nearer the camera, then you need to go for a longer lens. It's no co-incidence that a lot of top portrait pros swear by using a longer lens, up to 200mm. The other result of using a fairly long lens is that the field of view narrows right down, so it will exclude more of the background. It also results in a shallower depth-of-field at the same aperture, which is very much worth having if shooting on location. Certainly at this focal length, there won't be any distortion, but you will need twice the amount of room.

Shoot at 300mm
The primary reason for going longer is to get a close up shot of the head and shoulders, without any distortion. It will also ensure that the background, even with an aperture of f/9 which was used here, immediately goes out of focus even if its only a meter behind the subject.

 150mm view
At around 150mm you can have the subject move body parts closer to the camera if required with no fear of distortion.

 300mm view
At 300mm you can get close up shots where, even at f/9, the background immediately goes out of focus.

Now, once you understand what a wide angle lens, that short focal length, is going to do to your pictures, you can begin to exploit it for creative effect. The first trick is to deliberately move part of the subject close to the lens, which will cause it to appear massively larger. That's what we've done in the first shot, getting the subject to raise a hand in a stop sign. The hand now appears larger than her head! The classic use for the wide angle lens is to stand on a chair and get above the subject. Now the distortion makes them look like they are a rocket zooming up. Anything at the top of the image will be huge, leading down to a pair of tiny feet.

 big hand time
The big hand effect from using wide angle lenses with protuding body parts.

 the girl takes off
Shoot from above to give the effect of zooming upwards, with a larger head and tiny feet.

More flattering uses of the wide angle effect include elongating the legs. Get the subject to sit down, and point the legs diagonally towards the camera. They will now appear much longer, though remember to try to point the toes or you'll get a big shot of dirty soles. Equally, if you adopt a low position, get the subject to place one leg in front of the other and shoot upwards, the legs will appear longer in comparison to the torso and head. The only disadvantage of this is that some subjects don't look good if you are shooting from beneath chin level.

 long legs
Make the legs look longer by having them point towards the camera, diagonally across the screen.

 shoot from below
Same kind of effect, but standing up. Get the subject to put one foot ahead of the other.

Here are three shots showing the principles in action, starting with using a 50mm lens, giving an effective 75mm focal length, at close quarters.

 close up 75mm
This is a 75mm shot from close range, so the model's arm was kept on the same plane as the head to avoid distortion.

 75mm from distance
Same 75mm focal length, but from a distance, which frames the subject and avoids distortion.

 125mm lens
In this studio shot there was plenty of room to use, so a focal length of 125mm was used to shoot this three quarter length shot, negating any distortion and giving the subject freedom to move around in subsequent shots.



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aviaandy 15 41 4
Excellent article for those like me converting to digital from film.
very good article.yr examples of different focal length are very much important to understand portrait photography. but seriously if wish to hand over the best portrait to the client or for competitions purpose, the focal length of 75mm to 135mm is the only solution since in portrait photography the problem comes of distortion and sharp background in conjunction with the face of the model/sitter. experimentation comes next to satisfy our general outlook. lighting is a different subject here-one light, two lights, hair lighting, b'ground lighting, butterfly lighting, theatre lighting or short face broad face, round face, oval shaped face - so in my opinion portrait is one of the most difficult subject, include also expression, props, from child to an old man - no limit. portraitthanks.
Keep up the good work
very interesting article.....I am busy now with food shootings which is hard to do as well
great information, learnt alot from that, thanks

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