What Focal Length Should You Use for Portrait Photography?

In order to create great portraits, you need to have many quality components: lighting, composition, as well as the choice of camera and lens. Deciding which focal length to use for portraiture can be tricky, so in this article, I’ll make some suggestions on which lenses you should use for your next portrait photo shoot.

Before going any further, I must point out that I only own 3 zooms: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II, Canon 24-7mm f/2.8 and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS. These allow me to capture images from 16 to 200mm. Frankly, the lens that lives on my camera is the 24-70, about 90% of my work is done with it. I mostly shoot around 45-55mm. The second most used lens is the 70-200, which is largely a beauty close-up lens when I need a shallow depth of field. Most of my beauty work is also done with the 24-70. The 16-35 is the least used lens, and frankly, it’s more of a BTS lens than anything. Frankly, if I sell off the 16-35 and the 70-200 I won’t lose too much. However, without further ado, let’s see which focal lengths are used for which portraits.

24mm

This is the widest I would go for a portrait in most cases. Of course, there is a place for wider angles, but the set should justify such use. Even then, 24mm is far too wide for a close-up. At this focal length, there’s a lot of distortion, making elements closest to the camera huge, while elements farther away look disproportionately smaller. If you want to capture portraits with this lens, use it for comprehensive, commercial work. Try not to use this lens for close-ups at this time. It can be an interesting choice later on, but the pose and mood of the picture should be appropriate. Depth of field is very large at 24mm, you’ll need an incredibly wide aperture (f/1.4) to get any kind of background blur.

35mm

A classic focal length for full and half body portraits. At this focal length there is less distortion and the depth of field is relatively shallow. You’re unlikely to get anything exciting unless you’re using f/1.4, but there are certainly plenty of ways to use 35mm in portrait photography. For starters, it’s the perfect option to show both the person and their surroundings. As 35mm is considered a relatively wide lens, getting up close and personal may not be a good idea as you will still see distortion.

50mm

The Nifty Fifty: A lens I sold, then bought a 24-70mm and used at 50mm. This might seem like the most boring focal length as it sits right between a wide 35mm and a bokeh king 85mm. Honestly, if you’re just starting out, you’re unlikely to understand the hype around the “nifty fifty”. The reason is simply that for a “boring” focal length like 50mm you need a really interesting subject. The purity with which a 50mm lens captures the scene is both friend and foe. If you are a beginner, stay away from the 50 mm, choose an 85 mm instead.

85mm

The iconic focal length is appreciated and recognized by the shallow depth of field it is capable of producing. It’s that “holy grail” of portrait lenses. You will have no problem getting closer to this goal. The only thing to keep in mind is that the closer you get, the smaller your depth of field becomes, it becomes difficult to keep your eye on the subject in focus. This is why I personally advise against shooting at f/1.2. Just because your lens can do f/1.2 doesn’t mean you have to shoot everything at that aperture. Stop at f/4 or f/8 and capture an image where the subject’s nose, as well as the eyes, are in focus.

If you’re using a DSLR, you may find it more difficult to accurately focus an 85mm lens, as there are no features such as eye and face tracking. If you like the look of f/1.2 on a portrait, you should consider buying a mirrorless camera or learning how to focus your lens precisely. Judging from my experience with Canon lenses, their EF 85mm is sometimes rather slow and inaccurate, while their RF 85mm is incredibly sharp, precise and overall much better than its EF counterpart. That said, I don’t own any of these lenses and personally wouldn’t buy them.

100mm

You might be wondering what a 100mm is doing here? And for good reason, the 100mm is known to the general public as a macro lens. It’s a great macro lens, but also a great portrait lens. Crowning the 100nm as a macro lens is rather unfair, as it automatically suggests it can’t do anything else. So much so that we did an article on it! I suggest you read this article to get a good overview of what it’s really like to use a 100mm macro lens for portraits.

135mm

This is already in the telephoto range. This means that the lens will have a shallow depth of field, which will sometimes make it difficult to focus, but also there will be excellent background blur – bokeh. Depending on the aperture you use, you will get varying degrees of background blur. One thing to watch out for at such focal lengths is indeed the depth of field. The closer you are to the subject, the shallower it is. The more superficial it is, the more difficult it will be to concentrate. However, if you get far enough away from your subject, you can achieve some interesting results by shooting half-length portraits. Just be careful not to lose touch with the subject. I noticed that half and full body shots are best taken at 35, not 135mm. Once I needed to get as much background blur as possible with my kit, so I took a full-body with 200mm at f/2.8. It certainly sounded weird, and my screaming wasn’t helping either.

Final Thoughts

So to answer the question posed in the title, choosing which lens to use for portrait photography really comes down to the look you’re going for. If you want to capture environmental work with less bokeh, you should go for a wider angle. At the same time, if you need more bokeh and a compressed background with less perspective distortion, go for a medium focal length like 50mm. If all you need is ultimate bokeh and background blur, go with an 85mm or 135mm lens. There are several options, whether primes or zooms. In short, if you need a more economical option, choose a zoom. It will however be a sacrifice on the “speed” of the objective. Let us know in the comments if you’d like to see an article discussing bonuses or portrait zooms in more detail!

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