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
Scott Cushman's picture

Like with everything in photography, it depends on a lot of variables. There's nothing wrong with using a 50mm lens for some portraits, particularly when you are shooting wide to get the atmosphere or more of the body in ... or for some reason are shooting without lighting in a low-light setting and absolutely have to have the wide open apertures. But for headshots on a full frame camera, it's not a comfortable distance, nor always flattering distortion.

Almost all of my portraits are taken with a 70-200 f/2.8 lens. That gives me a lot of freedom for different shots without moving and very little distortion. Also, I'm personally not a fan of photos with such shallow depth of field that the eye is in focus but the ears and nose are blurry (or in the case of the bottom photo, the eye is blurry and the nose is focused), so it's not important to me to be able to use f/1.4-f/2.8.

Chris Froelich's picture

As per usual, it depends. I use 50mm for customers with a full figure. I often use my 35mm for really curvy gals as this slims their body and paying clients like that. Really slim or lean ladies can look like lollipops with the wider lens when the lens gets above chest high so you have to be careful, but you can use 50mm just fine. I never use longer than 85mm even for tight shots because my studio is too small. I'd say I use 50mm 50%, 35mm 35% of the time, and 85mm 15% of the time for shooting high end beauty/glamour for real women.

Sean Molin's picture

I think a lot of people forget how remarkably close 50mm is to 35mm. My main 50mm lens is the Nikkor 58mm and I like that much better as a compliment to my 35 and 24.

Matt Rennells's picture

Petra, you're both right!

From all of the photos I've seen of yours (and I've seen a lot, I'm local), you very rarely shoot a traditional waist up or tighter, client vertical, tightly cropped portrait -- which as a boudoir photographer you shouldn't. The 50 works great for that as you mentioned above. Unless you're 10 feet tall or enjoy standing on a ladder, shooting a top down view (as seen in the first two photos above) with something more than a 50 is difficult..

On the other hand, If you're taking a "traditional" waist up or tighter portrait, client sitting or standing, well then Neil is right -- there are several better lenses to use than a 50mm (on full frame). Pretty much anything from 85-200mm works well.

Petra Herrmann's picture

Hey there, local! Nice to 'meetchya' :)

Joshua Boldt's picture

I used to shoot a lot with my 50mm, but after I got an 85mm I haven't gone back much. For me personally, the 85 gives me exactly what I want, and I love its results. If you like the 50 stick with 50. I do see more distortion in my old 50 pictures, but I don't think I would say I it bothered me.

Faces look distorted on those tight portraits.

Clever, write an article about an article about yourself. Free page views for fstoppers, Neil, and your personal page.

Petra Herrmann's picture

Clever of you to have noticed and commented. Thank you.

I shoot portraits all day long with my 50mm, sometimes my 70-200. For what I do I prefer the quick focus of my 50mm prime over the 70-200mm