A Beginner's Guide to How Different Focal Lengths Affect the Look of a Portrait

When you're first starting out shooting portraits, one of the most important decisions you can make is the focal length you shoot at, as it can vastly change the way a subject is rendered. This helpful video will show you how various focal lengths affect the look of a portrait to help you choose which one is most suitable for your work.

Coming to you from Pixel Viilage, this video will show you how a range of focal lengths from 14mm to 200mm affect the rendering of a subject's facial topography in a portrait. As you'll see, wide-angle lenses distort a subject's face in a way that's generally undesirable unless you're going for a specific artistic effect, while higher focal length telephoto lenses typically compress and flatten features to the point that you lose some of the unique topography of a person's face, which is why lenses between 85mm and 135mm are considered the classical portrait lengths for the balance they provide. Of course, that doesn't make them the "correct" focal length, so to speak; that's entirely an artistic decision, which is why it's important to have the ability to visualize how each focal length will render the face. Give the video above a watch to see the full range. 

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12 Comments

Elan Govan's picture

Another video to share with friends who are new to photography, and give them a better understanding.

Thank you

Alex Cooke's picture

No problem! I'm glad I stumbled upon this channel; he's an excellent teacher.

Elan Govan's picture

Thank you, Alex, for this type of easy to understand videos are extremely helping. Visual aids are significantly better at getting the message across

romain VERNEDE's picture

It's not the focal length, it's the distance between subject and camera which changes the "look" (perspective)...

Alex Cooke's picture

Correct, but for all practical purposes (especially in a beginner's guide), it's best to think about it in terms of focal length and identical subject magnifications.

Anonymous's picture

True, but if the goal is, for instance, taking a headshot, people are generally not going to use a 16mm lens from 10 feet away and crop down the resulting image. So for the average person, it's probably enough to just talk about the focal length since the actual framing of the photo is going to generally be determined by the type of photo being taken.

The only potentially annoying part to talking about it in this manner is when it inevitably carries over into equivalency arguments and people don't take that particular fact into account, but those have little to do with actual photography and a lot to do with people on forums trying to prove that they're smarter than everyone else.

romain VERNEDE's picture

Alex, I understand your point, but this statement is still false, one can simplify things to make them easier to understand for beginners, but not teaching untrue facts...

Michael, I don't really undestand your last sentence, it has nothing to do with ego, internet is full of crap, false information...A site like Fstoppers shouldn't spread wrong technical stuffs due to the amount of people learning from it...but that's just my POV.

Anonymous's picture

Well, if you want to start getting technical, we should stop talking about f-stops as part of the exposure triangle as well since it's not actually f-stops, but rather t-stops that have an impact on your exposure. The f-stop is just the physical relationship between the aperture and the focal length while the t-stop is the actual measure of light being transmitted to the sensor. So to talk about f-stops in relation to exposure is also false information since you can technically have a wide open f-stop and no light hitting the sensor if you paint the glass black (just a thought experiment), but we do it all the time in photography anyway because there's little point in complicating things by going into the truth of the matter. This is also no different from people talking about ISO as "adjusting the sensitivity of your sensor", which is not true at all either, but it's close enough to the concept to be useful to beginners for the purpose of going out and shooting.

For the purposes of a beginner's guide, it's generally fine to initially focus on explaining things in a manner that makes it easy to understand and just helps them get out and shoot. If they decide to take it to another level or get technical about the details, there's a world of information out there available to them. When it comes to education in general, however, nobody goes all out into the "full truth" in any entry level course. It would just be a waste of time and an unnecessary barrier to entry. Think to yourself: Yes, you're technically right, but how many practical shooting scenarios can you think of where the difference between the truth and what the video said will matter to a person just getting started in photography?

As far as arguments on the internet, the vast majority of them are about ego. Why does it actually matter to you at all that someone else (that you don't know and will likely never interact with outside of text on a forum) is wrong? Does it affect your photography? Does it affect your ability to go to sleep at night knowing that someone somewhere out in the world is wrong? It's one thing to offer a correction, but it's an entirely different thing to get into a prolonged back and forth about something that is ultimately of no consequence to you, which is what a lot of people tend to do. The reason for my last sentence is that I had just come off seeing some rather intense and angry arguments about equivalency between APS-C, FF, MF, and LF and it just happened to be fresh on my mind.

romain VERNEDE's picture

As a teacher I would not teach scrap to my students, simplifying is ok as long as things are true
As a student I wouldn't want my teacher to teach me false stuffs because it would lower his/her credibility...
Now go for it ;)

Alex Cooke's picture

Personally, I think it's a question of who you're teaching, and by that I mean: are you teaching someone who needs the most practical advice to accomplish a task or are you teaching someone the theory so they can examine it academically? Personally, when I teach math, we often employ heuristic methods simply because 99 percent of students aren't going to become mathematicians. On a similar note, most photographers best think about this in terms of focal length simply because that's how they use their equipment; no one is regularly shooting portraits with a 14mm and cropping way in. I think beginners should be focusing more on things like composition, lighting, posing, etc. than worrying about the physics and geometry of things, but your I see your point, nonetheless; that's just my opinion.

Arun Hegden's picture

Thank you for sharing this. Very nice article. :)