DSLR Photography 101: Choosing a Portrait Lens

Megan O'Neill


Last week, as part of our DSLR Photography 101 series, we took a look at the different types of lenses. Today, we’re focusing on how to select a lens for portrait photography, specifically.

When trying to determine the best lens for portraits, the first thing you’ll need to consider is what type of portrait you’re taking: a full-body portrait, a 3/4 length portrait (mid-thigh and up), a headshot, or an environmental portrait (featuring the subject within a larger environment). Most photographers opt for lenses with the following focal lengths. We’ll illustrate the reasons for these choices below.

  • Full-body portraits: Standard lens, 35-50mm
  • 3/4 portraits: Standard lens, 35-50mm
  • Headshots: Short to medium telephoto lens, 85-135mm
  • Environmental portraits: Standard lens, 35-50mm

Wide focal lengths (20-35mm) are generally considered a poor choice for portraits, as they will distort your subject. Additionally, if you are taking a headshot, shorter lenses will require you to photograph from a very short distance away from your subject to achieve the desired cropping of the head and shoulders, which can also cause distortion. The exceptions to this rule are:

  1. You want your subject to appear distorted for artistic effect.
  2. You are photographing an environmental portrait, maintaining a decent distance from your subject and want to use a wider lens to incorporate more of your subject’s surroundings.

You can see how this distortion looks in the image below. Our Consumer Customer Owner Beth Forester shot the same subject with three different lenses. As you can see, in the image shot with the 24mm lens, the subject’s facial features appear distorted. The same occurs (though less obviously) with the 50mm lens because of close proximity from which Beth took the photo. This is why, for headshots, short to medium telephoto lenses are ideal.

Focal Length Portrait Photography

Longer telephoto lenses can be helpful in blurring the background of your image to make the subject stand out. The blurred quality of out-of-focus areas of a photo is referred to as bokeh. There are two ways to achieve bokeh:

  1. By using wider apertures (see our post on understanding aperture for more)
  2. By using a longer focal length

You can see this in action in the example below. Beth photographed the same subject with both 100mm and 300mm lenses. As you can see, in the image taken with the 300mm lens, the blurring of the background creates separation of the subject from distracting background objects and elements.

Focal Length Portrait

The downside to using a telephoto lens, with a longer focal length, is that you’ll have to be far away from your subject, which may make it harder to direct them. For this reason, when choosing a lens you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons. Is the distance worth it for the bokeh effect? You be the judge.

A quick note about crop sensors: If you’ll recall, in our last post about choosing a lens we discussed how cameras with crop sensors alter the focal length of different lenses. Reread that post for a refresher.

Join us again next week, when we’ll take a look at shot composition, starting with the Rule of Thirds.

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