To Shoot or Not to Shoot - 50mm Portraits

To Shoot or Not to Shoot - 50mm Portraits

Help me settle this ongoing argument. In his article, my good friend Neil Van Niekerk tells his readers "Fall out of love with your 50mm lens. Use it when it is appropriate." He goes on to say that the 50mm is not appropriate for tight portraits; even uses my photos to demonstrate his point. I say he's wrong.  

In checking my metadata on just this year's images my lens choices are as follows:

  1. 35mm f/1.4 Sigma Art Series, 234 images
  2. 85mm f/1.4 Sigma EX DG HSM, 1,020 images
  3. 50mm f/1.4 Sigma EX DG HSM, 15,594 images

Obviously, the 50mm f/1.4 by Sigma is my go-to lens. It's the perfect focal length, my feet know exactly where I need to be to take what shot. I like to create a calming environment for my boudoir clients, and with the 50mm length I'm not so far away that I feel the need to shout at them in order to tweak their pose. Nor do I need to walk a mile to adjust my client's hair-beard or pit-gina. The 50mm focal length the perfect length for the boudoir photographer, close enough but not too close.

Neil goes on to say "I think many photographers are even too in love with their 50mm lenses, and use it without thought of how this would distort someone’s face when used too close to their subjects."

Uh huh.


What do you think? 

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He's correct. There is Natural Distance to subject that the eye finds pleasing and provides the correct perspective and that's not just Perspective to Background But also Perspective within the subject: Distance of nose to eyes to ear. When you find that distance You then can maintain that perfect perspective by staying in one place and Changing Lens Focal Length. As this turns out 50mm full length, 70 - 85mm 3/4 shot, 100-135mm head and shoulders and 200 mm for Headshots tight. Now of course this is all subject to Artistic Vision. And he is also right that a 50mm will distort quicker and that is only because distance to subject becomes shorter where a Non-Parallel Plane distortions show up quicker as distance to subject shortens. So yes, he has a very good point. Whether you wish ARTISTICALLY to follow that is up to you

Martin Van Londen's picture

I like using the 50mm. But I also like the 24mm 35mm and 85mm focal lengths. It also looks like the focus is missed on the bottom picture.

Lauchlan Toal's picture

I find the 50mm to be great for portraits, but for headshots I gravitate to the 105mm f2.8. Mostly for background compression though - on a white seamless I use the 50mm almost as much. Depends on the persons facial features as well. Sometimes you want to even the face out a bit with the subtle distortion a wider lens brings, and sometimes you need to bring out a really long lens to do the opposite.

Joshua Davis's picture

how about just....ya know.....use what works for you. crazy idea right?

Lee Lopez's picture

Dude is off his rocker. Sure, is it pretty to shoot longer, but why limit yourself?

nice photograph, but because you used a 50mm her head is distorted and looks bigger than it should be

Eric Mazzone's picture

This might be the photographers style. Like grammar in relation to poetry, rules are made to be broken if the author has a reason they're breaking that rule.

Eric Gould's picture

So that face are no elongated and disproportionate.

He thinks about this too much.

Randy Smith's picture

85mm is the sweet spot.

TImothy Tichy's picture

The third image you posted really makes his case. Her nose is grossly exaggerated in that image. Maybe you've grown accustomed to looking at the distortion, but it's clearly there. For half body portraits I'd say it's ok, but for close up headshots like you've posted in number three the lens really worked against you.

philippe chaunu's picture

I'm assuming we're talking about full frame, does anyone have a problem with a 50 on a crop sensor?

Ryan on a crop you still have the distortion issue, the only thing that is different on crop than full frame is the field of view. The same distortion applies

You might want to rethink that, perspective distortion is only caused by the distance to your subject. So by changing the field of view and thus moving further away from your subject you get less perspective distortion.

actually I believe Oscar is right. You aren't "changing" the field of you. You're simply cropping the same field of view of that lens on a 'crop sensor'. the physics of whatever lens you're using doesn't change, it's still a 50mm whether you're shooting full frame or crop, or any other size of sensor. The light doesn't bend any differently because it's passing through the exact same glass.

A simple way of testing this out is to take a shot with a full frame camera, and a crop sensor camera, with the exact same lens of a subject from the same distance. the distance part is important. if you now crop that full frame photo you will get the exact same image as the one that came from the crop sensor camera.

Another way (in my experience with Nikon) to test this is if you have a Full Frame Nikon is to simply select the "dx" crop mode in camera and it will actually draw a little frame inside your viewfinder to show you what a "DX" crop is. The surrounding area will be discarded as you just told your camera not to store that info.

i reread your response and I get what you're saying. if you're filling the frame for a "tight shot" on both a crop sensor and a full frame sensor you're going to be changing the distance between you and the subject to fill the frame --> crop sensor, you're moving farther away in which case you are right about the perspective distortion.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

I've heard this rule over and over again. I have created some really beautiful portraits using a 50mm lens. I wouldn't say it's my go to necessarily, but rules are meant to be broken. That's what art is all about. I personally don't agree with "never shoot portraits with a 50mm." It's almost the same thing as saying you're not a professional if you shoot with cropped sensor camera.

I would say there are no rules in photography but suggestions. An 85mm provides less obvious distortion than a 50mm, but really shoot what you like and what your clients will pay for.

Chris Cheek's picture

50mm for tight shots clearly show distortion. 85mm is a much better choice for a tight shot.

Chris Ingram's picture

Fully agree.

Personally, I shoot 85mm or 70-200 (at the long end), or I shoot 35mm when I want something wide to set the scene or for PJ work. I sold my 50mm many years ago because it just felt like an in-between lens that I never got comfortable with.

Peter House's picture

With portrait type work I generally find myself in the 100-150mm range 95% of the time. Personal preference though.

Michael Higa's picture

I have this lens too, and I love it. Except for when shooting tight head shots. If I back off a bit and crop to a tight head shot, the 50mm works well for me. I don't like the distortion when getting too close with this lens.

I agree with him. A 50mm can created unflattering distortions whether it be to a person's face, leg, or arm, or to other objects, like motorcycles. I too often see photos of bikes, where one of the wheels dwarfs the rest of the image. for artistic approach, you can do as you please, but when you want to flatter a subject and show it in it's truest form, no matter what it is, there's a correct lens for it, depending no distance and the shot one hopes to obtain.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Know your tools and use them to create picture you want.


I love 85mm for portraits, Batis 85mm with A7Rii is a match made in heaven. 135mm on A99 is one of my favorites too. But recently I've rediscovered the joy of using the 50mm, well, 55mm to be exact with the A7Rii. I'm going wider and further away from my subjects and I'm enjoying the heck out of it! I find all the debates about what's "naturally" pleasing to be so inconclusive because it's such a subjective topic. One thing that I often find missing from these conversations is the individual facial characteristics of the subjects... flat profile is not universally pleasing (think wide, flat Asian faces, for instance... 135mm or 200m will flatten already flat features further and won't be always "pleasing" - 85mm or even 50mm, up close, will sometimes help define the otherwise flat features like cheekbones, eyebrows, nose, and lips). Here's a quick snapshot of my better half at an air show last weekend... granted it's not such a tight portrait, but I actually prefer the look of even shoulder to head with her at 55mm and 85mm over 135mm:

Henrik Elsberg's picture

who cares what lens you use. People are so busy arguing over what is considered right or wrong. I say that there are no right or wrong. A good picture is a good picture regardless of what lens you use.

^ Thank you good sir.

Yannick Driever's picture

I always find this funny. People arguing always about which lense to use distortion etc. and than like to discuss all the scientific aspect of it. Of course some lenses are more appropriated for a certain type oh work. But hey ! Use what you like and what fits your style! It's always harder to discuss creativity than rational thing like distortions or focal lenghts ;)
BTW @Petra Herrmann Really love these shots !

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