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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Previous comments
Petra Herrmann's picture

Yannick, thank you :)

Paulo Macedo's picture

I like my 50mm 1.4, but when it comes to tight portrait i use the EF 135 f/2 lens.

Adam Derham's picture

I personally have no problems with a 50 up close but I always fix the distortion in post. It gives you the nice 50 view angle but with the same kind of results you would get from an 85.

Tilo Gockel's picture

Well, you cannot really fix perspective distortion in post, only lens distortion (like barrel or cushion distortion). I know, that the distortion correction in PS can be used to help that "big nose" effect from the 50 mm lense, but physically speaking this is just a dirty workaround. Also that may make the person look ... a bit strange.

Adam Derham's picture

I have to disagree. Just take a look at this guys work along with many of the Russian photogs on 500px. He shoots with only a 35mm on all portraits and has very little distortion, even on close up work. You can fix it in post just fine.

I guess it also depends on the height differential, I.e tall photographer, short subject. Build of the subjects face, so a round face as opposed to a narrow one. I tend to use my 50mm where working space is in short supply but ideally a longer focal length is better. Even with full length portraits there is a problem at times with the "tilt" along the horizontal at the centre. (Hard to explain)(might be my shooting technique which brings in this perspective).

Oliver Oettli's picture

Is it just me or is this discussion as a whole rather useless? With a 50mm or 35 you get closer to the subject, which may give a certain intimacy to a photo. A 135mm or even 200mm does the opposite. Sometimes a 35mm is the perfect portrait choice. Sometimes its a 200mm.
The need to discuss the "right or wrong" focal length is actually quite ridiculous to me.
Its like seeing all the amateurs fighting about Nikon and Canon since 20 years.

Tilo Gockel's picture

It is about perspective distortion, not about Nikon vs Canon, Apple vs PC, Windows vs Linux etc ...
The 50 mm lens, on a FF body, used for closeup headshots, makes big noses, and there is no way around this. :-)

The last photo is a perfect example. Huge, unflattering nose.... and it isn't a very big nose to begin with. Sure is unflattering. For that tight of a pose, 85mm should be the minimum. I prefer a 55/135 combo. 55mm for full body down to waist shots, everything tighter on the 135. You can get away with a 50mm for closer, but the pose has to be just right.

Tilo Gockel's picture

I think, Neil is right ... at least for my taste, a 50er lens on a full-frame body is not a very good choice für closeup portraits (headshots).
But on a crop body, it works quite nicely. Take let's say a combination of a used Canon Crop camera (rebel ..) and the new 50 mm STM lens. Quite cheap, but good for very nice shots, also headshots!!

Christopher Nolan's picture

I like turtles

ilan freeman's picture

And here I am reading these articles and trying to understand why people are so stuck on gear and lens choices.
People need to be reminded that photography is an art form.
Each and every one of us have different visions and a different creative mindset, For some a 50mm gives the most amazing results for a close up portrait and for others it’s just plain wrong.

Stop getting so hooked up on gear.
What lens you choose to photograph a portrait or anything else for that matter should be a decision you make creatively and not what is right or wrong, What is right or wrong anyways? Is it wrong to use a 24mm to take a portrait? Or a 35mm for a close up face shot? Nothing is wrong, Everything is right.
Use what you like, Pick the lens that will imitate your creative thinking.

Stop thinking technical and start thinking creative.


Tilo Gockel's picture

Elan, this is a nice portrait. But the point is not if photography is an art, but if the 50 mm at fullframe distorts or not. :-) It distorts on short distances, like for headshots. This is a physical phenomenon, you know it in a extreme form from the ultra wideangle lenses.

Btw.: this perspective distortion is only dependant on the viewer's location, not on the focal length. But if you use 50 mm on a FF body for head shots, you have to go really CLOSE and this ... makes big'n ugly noses. :-)

ilan freeman's picture

The 50mm has distortion, but so does the 85 at some angles, It's all about how you use the lens to it's fullest, So what i'm trying to say is that you can take a portrait with a 50mm and it would look great to you and you could also do it with a 24mm.

Not having distortion on 85-135-200 mm lenses does not need to make us stick to them for portraits, Use your creative imagination to use any lens for any occasion.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

I generally agree with Neil's point--UNLESS you're photographing a stereotypical fashion model (I.e. Very skinny), in which case a 50mm can actually create really great shots.

But, yeah, use a 50mm on a "normal" woman (which are usually the people who actually pay you for your work) for portraits and be prepared for the drama that will come when she is reviewing the shots with you :)

Anonymous's picture

Distortion can be a choice. Shooting close up with a 50mm will accentuate perspective distortion and expand the face in a (usually) unflattering way. I can see that particularly in the 3rd example. Will your clients see it and care? I don't know. They may actually find the distortion pleasing or interesting. I'm against a universal edict against 50mm portraits but I think it is something wise to discourage.

Geoffrey Badner's picture

PETRA - It's interesting... all of your reasons for using the lens have nothing to do with the physical properties of the lens. They all are all about the convenience of being physically close to the model. Meanwhile, everyone is arguing about the distortion the lens gives. Seems like people came to your article with their minds already made up after simply reading the headline and didn't absorb what you were trying to get at.

That said... the 50mm would not be my first choice for portraits like this. 85mm is my go to lens, but it's a creative decision and rules are meant to be broken.

Shawn Robertson's picture

I prefer the 58 1.4 for portraits with my style of photographing.

Dean Allman's picture

This reminds me of a question I often get from models: "should I wear these earrings or these earrings?" Inevitably I say let's try both and see what we get. Look in the days of film where you could burn a roll of 36 in a minute and a half getting constrained by rules may have made more sense as you had to conserve film stock. But with digital why worry? Try it. Be aware that a 50mm may cause more distortion based on your distance to the subject, and work with that while you shoot. Deleting stuff that doesn't work comes at no cost. Over time you will find what you like and get comfortable with a style. And when that happens go out and totally change it again. No need to get stale and predictable ;-).

Tom Lim's picture

"... try both and see what we get." Boom! Dean nailed it right there!

David Wilson's picture

I think a lot of it really depends on the face. I use a 55mm a lot for portraits but some faces with larger features are definitely better served with a 85/105/135mm lens.

While I agree with your point that the 50mm is just fine for portraits...
but I feel your post is a bit self-indulgent (using your own work)...and could have made a greater impact and been much more educational had you included some historical reference.

Fact is, if someone wants to limit themselves to only one lens for one type of work, that's their prerogative. I personally use every focal length I own for portrait work (24mm , 35, 50, 85, 100, and 200). My go to is usually my 35mm. Granted I'm not doing corporate head shots or another genre that has a well established "look"... I'm more focused on creating a feel and a story with the image.

I can reference any number of photographers that used different focal lengths for their craft...
Platon for example uses a wide angle.. (usually in the 24-35mm [35mm format equivalent, cuz he usually shoots medium format] range) and he (Platon) is ridiculously successful...
Irving Penn's famous portrait of Truman Capote was created with an 80mm on his Rolleiflex (which is the "normal" focal length for medium format...equivalent to 50mm on a FFslr)

The gist of your article could have been made so much more powerful had you chosen to reference the many legends that break Van Niekerk's argument in half rather than use your own (much lesser known) work. Instead of drawing attention to your own work, drawing attention to the masters of the past, I feel, would have been of greater service to the Fstopper readership.

Petra Herrmann's picture

Who else's images should I use? Ones I don't own the copyright to? Pfft. Silly.

Although the human eye has about 22mm focal length, the projection of the image of an object on the retina has to take into account that the retina is curved and not flat like the sensor of a camera. It seems that the most similar focal length in a full frame sensor is about 50mm, this is, the one that produces the most similar projection, in a very ideal situation of an object in front of the camera and towards the center of the frame. That being said, it's not the same the reality than the perception (or memory) of that reality. Perception considers flatter faces more desirable than the contrary, so, longer focal lengths might be more interesting. In addition, perception is so much more complex and full of nuances that a 2D representation is a poor approximation.
Use any focal length as long as it is according to your artistic intention of the photo.
My 2 bucks.

mitch marmorstein's picture

I love a 80-200 so I can jump from 85 to 135 and everything in between.

You're all over-thinking this.

Tim Foster's picture

I see the distortion, but it's up to you to decide if that's the aesthetic you want.

I think we look at photos today in a way of perfection. My opinion is that every photo should be watched as a painting made 600 years ago, it shouldn't be perfect: it should be something that makes you forget about the non-perfections.

TImothy Tichy's picture

“When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

― Pablo Picasso

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