Close up portrait tips – lens focal length

by Enche Tjin on January 20, 2009

Choosing the best focal length for portrait is always a debate, is the wide angle is better or telephoto is the best? Is prime or zoom is better?

It is all depend on your taste and your clients. But we especially need to be careful with focal length. Wide angle lens will give some distortion, standard focal length (40mm-60mm) will give you close representation of the model, and telephoto lens will compress the model and also the background.

Most photographer especially glamor and fashion photographers will like telephoto lens instead of wide angle because the compressed look usually make the model look more flattery. Telephoto lens combined with big aperture also will make compressed and produce a nice blur in the background separating background with the model.

Even though telephoto lens is more desirable for portraits, but there is limitation of telephoto lens. One of the limitation is space, you need more space to work around with telephoto lens. If you are working indoor in small studio/room, you can’t use telephoto lens effectively.

You will also have problem in incorporating background into your picture because of its narrow view and compressed background.

Prime or Zoom?
Before, prime is desirable lens because of its sharpness. but now many lenses can produce tack sharp image as well. So you can use prime or zoom lens for portraitures. Zoom lens will provide you with more flexibility especially in tight space, while prime lens will give you benefit of portability. Related Post: Prime vs Zoom lenses

Alright, I will show you some differences in picture taken with wide, standard and telephoto lens.


This is the sample of a head shot using Canon EF 135mm f/2 L prime lens in Canon 40D. The focal length is equivalent to (135*1.6) = 216mm


This is the sample of a head shot using Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM at 35mm in Canon 40D. The focal length is equivalent to (35*1.6) = 56mm

This is a close representation of what our eyes normally see.

This is the sample of a head shot using Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM at 17mm in Canon 40D. The focal length is equivalent to (17*1.6) = 27 mm

at 27mm (wide angle), we can see the model face is distorted from the original look (Above image).

So which close up portrait that you like most? I personally prefer the top one, It looks more flattery, but the top one is not actual representation of the model. The closest to the real life is the second one. The wide angle lens produce distorted look on the model face. It is rarely use except if you want to create funny or weird looking faces.

So what focal length you want to use is basically depend on what kind of portrait that you want to achieve.

Other popular focal length for portraiture : 85mm and 100mm

Related portrait posts:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc January 14, 2010 at 6:01 pm

I think you’re talking about the bokeh (blur) this is most often achieved having a narrow depth of focus. It is best achieved by having the model a reasonable distance from the background or have your lens wide open. For example the Canon 85mm 1.2L has a very narrow depth of field so you can get a fantastic bokeh effect.

Kid Panda January 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Forgive my noobness … but wouldn’t you be able to produce telephoto perspective/framing with a wide-angle lens by standing closer to the subject?

Enche Tjin January 24, 2010 at 6:28 pm

No, you can’t.

tony granger February 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Have you tried shooting her nude? That might help your bokeh and give you some woody effects as well.

Enche Tjin February 24, 2010 at 12:04 am

No, and I don’t think she is interested to do that either.

stanley June 19, 2010 at 10:34 pm

the crop factor doesn’t affect the compression. the 1.6 you mentioned only crop the image.

Ken May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Really felt the nude comment was out of line.
Thanks for the info. I have a portrait assignment for class and this helped a lot.

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