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The Best Focal Length for Portraits

Matic Broz profile picture By Matic Broz Updated April 4, 2022
Best focal length for portraits featured image

Many photographers misunderstand the concept of focal length for portraits. Contrary to popular belief, the focal length of a lens isn’t practical. It, therefore, has little bearing on the size of the lens. So what’s it exactly? This guide will tell you everything you need to know about focal length and portrait photography.

What’s the best focal length for portraits?

85mm is the best focal length for portraits because it doesn’t distort facial features (sometimes it actually enhances them). With a full-frame camera, this means an 85 mm lens, while with a crop-factor camera, you need a 50 mm lens.

24mm

24 mm lenses aren’t very popular for portraits because you’ve to get quite close to the subject. It also distorts the facial features, resulting in an enormous nose and a small mouth and eyes.

28mm

28mm is generally too wide for portraits, like 24mm. It can be useful on cameras with crop sensors, but full-frame cameras require at least a 35mm lens.

35 mm

A 35mm lens is a good standard lens that can be used in most situations, including portraits. To use the 35mm lens for portraits, you need to get close to your subject. This requires you to get to the model’s height to capture the most flattering angle. If your subject is tall, you can also use the wide-angle lens to make them look slimmer. If your subject is short, you can use a wide-angle lens to make them look more mature.

Environment portrait of an older guy

Why is the 35mm format so popular?

35mm is very popular for portraits because of the versatility it offers. You can take group shots, individual portraits, and environmental portraits. But many professional photographers don’t like it because it distorts facial features.

50mm

A 50 mm lens is best for full-body portraits at waist level, both in the studio and on location. But, if you want to take a head or shoulder portrait, getting too close to your model can cause distortion because the facial features become too small, the face is too thin, and the nose looks bigger than it actually is.

85mm

The 85mm lens is considered the best fixed focal length lens for portraits. The narrow angle of view helps isolate the subject better and allows you to shoot from a comfortable working distance. Portraits taken at 85mm look the most natural because facial features don’t get distorted.

But, its use is limited to single portraits. Unlike a 35mm lens, the 85mm lens isn’t a good general-purpose lens.

Close-up portrait young girl

Is the 85 mm lens good for family portraits and group photos?

The 85mm lens isn’t suitable for family or group photos because you won’t get everyone in the picture because of the narrow field of view. Depending on the size of the group, a 35mm or 50mm lens is more suitable.

Is the 85mm lens good for full body portraits?

85 mm is too narrow for full-body portraits. Consider using a 24 or 35mm lens so that you get the whole person in the picture without standing too far away.

135mm

If you want to take more detailed pictures of your subject, get a 135mm lens. Because this lens is longer than the 85mm lens, it compresses your subject even more than your current lens. Yet, it’s got a smaller field of view than the 85mm lens, so you may have to get closer to your subject and move around more to get the shot you want.

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Which lens is best for portraits (prime or zoom)?

A zoom lens has the advantage that you can change the focal length without changing lenses. However, prime lenses are usually better for portraits. A fixed focal length lens with a large aperture produces much sharper images with fewer aberrations (e.g. purple colour fringing) than its zoom counterparts. In addition, fixed focal lengths with a large aperture are usually much cheaper than their zoom counterparts.

FAQ

Is 50mm or 85mm better for portraits?

An 85mm lens offers a wider telephoto range. Some photographers choose 50mm when shooting portraits up close, while others prefer to shoot subjects from a distance at 85mm.

Which focal length is most flattering?

The most flattering focal length for portraits is 85mm on a full-frame camera (50mm on an APS-C camera). 85mm is the best focal length for showing facial features without distortion.

What’s the best focal length for family portraits?

For family portraits, I recommend a 35mm lens (on a full-frame camera), which allows you to frame more people. For an even larger group, you may need to go further with a 24mm lens, or you can take a few steps back with a 35mm lens.

What’s the best focal length for portraits with the iPhone?

You don’t need to worry about the best focal lengths for the iPhone. First, mobile phones are already optimised to take perfect portraits. Second, you can’t change the lens on your iPhone, so there’s nothing you can do.

What’s the best focal length for portraits with APS-C cameras?

The same principles apply to APS-C cameras as to full-frame cameras. You’ve to take care of the focal length conversion. To get the focal length you want, you need to divide it by your camera’s crop factor (usually 1.6x) to know which lens to use. For example, to get an 85mm focal length on an APS-C camera with a 1.6x crop factor, 85mm/1.6 = 53mm. Thus, for portraits on an APS-C camera, use a 50mm or 55mm lens.

What’s the best aperture and focal length for portraits?

The focal length of 85 mm is best for portraits and goes well with large apertures such as f/1.8, f/1.4 or even f/1.2. A wide open aperture blurs the background and creates a beautiful bokeh that’s very desirable for portraits.

Which lens is best for portraits and for the zoom 55 250mm or 50mm?

If you need a zoom lens for portraits, choose the 18–135mm or the 55–250mm. Zoom portrait lenses are better suited to beginners who want to experiment. Professional portrait photographers choose fixed focal lengths because they guarantee the best image quality.

What f stop should I use for family portraits and group photos?

Group portrait of teenagers

Family portraits or group photos require a smaller aperture, starting at f/5.6. Some professional photographers use the smallest aperture of f/22 to maximise depth of field. This keeps everyone in focus, which is the primary goal of a group shot. An aperture of f/1.4 would give too shallow a depth of field.

What kind of lens do professional portrait photographers use?

Most professional portrait photographers swear by an 85mm f/1.4 or 85mm f/1.2 lens. It’s the best combination of focal length and wide aperture, producing beautiful bokeh. The f/1.2 option is much more expensive than the f/1.4 option.

Is 150 mm good for portraits?

150 mm is too narrow for portraits because you’ve to go very far to get the whole person in the picture. So, 150 mm is best for extreme close-ups that focus on details and for head shots.

Is 55 mm better than 50 mm?

There’s only a minimal difference between 55 mm and 50 mm, so both options are fine.

Is a 24-70 lens good for portraits?

A 24-70mm lens is best for landscape and travel photography, but you can also use it for portraits and macro. As a pure portrait lens, an 85mm f/1.4 is better.

Final words

Whether you’re just starting out or want to become a professional photographer, you’ll need a lot of practice and a good dose of creativity. Understanding the effects of focal length on portraits is important for any portrait photographer.

You can take different portrait photos with different lenses. So choose a lens that suits your style of photography and what your client wants to express in the photo. The technical knowledge of focal lengths in portrait photography can make your pictures the best if you understand it.

About your guide

Matic Broz profile image
Matic Broz

Matic Broz is a photographer, graphic designer, and stock photographer. For over ten years he's been helping photographers improve their photos and graphic designers find the best images for their designs. His work has been featured by Lifewire, Skylum, and PetaPixel. In his free time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and petting random dogs. Read more

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