Why Are Wide Angle Lenses Misunderstood and Avoided for Portraits?

Why Are Wide Angle Lenses Misunderstood and Avoided for Portraits?

You've heard that a portrait lens is the one with a focal length of 50mm or above and that wide angle lenses create a distorted image when used for portraits. This article will try to help you understand and overcome that prejudice.

What Is a Portrait?

Portraits of people can be all kinds of images, from the paintings of the masters of old to the masters of photography today. It's an image of a person fit in a frame of a certain geometry. The portrait is not just the head of the person. There's a special term in photography for that: a headshot. A portrait can be a full-body image too.

A senior portrait taken with a wide-angle lens

'Wide Angle Lenses Distort the Face,' They Say

This is where the misconception comes. In theory, a wide angle lens should capture more of the view in front of the camera than a longer lens, which means it will change to a certain extent the viewing perspective from what we see with our own eyes. Objects that are close to each other will look farther apart with a wide angle lens. It will also have different depth-of-field properties per aperture: wide angle lenses have a deeper depth of field than longer focal lengths at the same aperture. For this reason, the blur of the background and the foreground (assuming the subject is in the mid-ground) is more prominent with longer lenses.

"OK, but wide lenses distort the image. This is why they are not liked for portraits; it's not the depth of field or what they see." This is the common complaint.

Alice in wonderland series - the rabbit hole. The image is taken with a wide-angle lens

Why Is There Distortion With Wide Angle Lenses?

If you have shot with a wide angle cinema lens, it will change your mind about what you call "distortion." The optical defect that makes most photographers avoid using wide angle lenses is a radial-looking distortion that is different from the perspective distortion of the lens. The radial distortion is making the image look as if areas closer to the periphery of the lens are bent inwards or outwards.

To illustrate that in a different way, let's suppose we have a wall, which we look at from the side with a 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor (a) and with a wide angle lens on the same sensor. A wide angle lens without radial distortion (b) will change the perspective, as you see in the middle, while a radial distortion defect (c) will bend the lines that are closer to the periphery of the frame, and thus, you will no longer have straight lines in these areas.

Normal view vs. perspective vs. radial distortion

There's a radial distortion with longer lenses too, but few people complain about it. That defect is not supposed to be there. As making a lens without or with a minimal radial distortion is an expensive process, most manufacturers decide to leave it, and today it's used for artistic purposes. If you purchase a quality wide angle cinema lens, the radial distortion there is very small if not almost eliminated. If you take the radial distortion seriously and correct it with any lens, you use your will start loving the different perspective of the wide angle view without the lines bending and will start to incorporate that look more and more in your images.

In the following video, you will find tests with different 14 mm cinema lenses and the radial distortion (called simply "distortion" in the video) will be close to none. You may be surprised how a wide angle view should normally look compared to what most still lenses do today.

How to Deal With Wide Angle Lenses' Radial Distortion?

The obvious remedy is to buy lenses with almost-eliminated radial distortion, but if you can't afford them, learn how much your lens is distorting the image, as it's different from lens to lens. There are two methods, which work best if they are both applied: compose accordingly and fix the rest in post.

Important Things Should Be Away From the Edges

In most cases, wide angle lenses tend to deform the areas close to the borders of the frame. If you have objects there, whether these are human faces, limbs, or rear parts of the body, they will look bigger than normal. To avoid that, keep important objects away from the edges of the frame, also because you may need to crop these areas out in post.

Fix It in Post

You can either crop out the border regions or try to correct some of the distortion to an extent that it's bearable, which will inevitably make you crop some of the pixels out.

Use a Camera With More Resolution

If the image is heavily distorted, you can crop out some of it and leave the normal-looking part without losing much of the resolution that is usually used today.


Avoiding wide angle lenses is avoiding the defects they are built with. Knowing how to use them will help you take advantage of the environment you see with your own eyes. Including more of the environment tells a different story and lets the viewer's eyes wander around, enjoying the details, especially if they are masterfully presented.

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Previous comments

I don't have a lot of time, but here is the first explanation of why we have the circle/cone of confusion. I will not go into the optics/physics in great detail, but when light (waves) pass through an iris, the waves at the circumference get diffracted, and as these waves hit the screen/sensor/retina, they cause diffraction patterns.

This first diagram shows the —very rough, not very accurate— depiction of two diffraction patterns of a point light source, one from a relatively wide iris, one from a relatively moderate iris. (Very interesting things happen as the aperture gets even smaller). As one can see, the smaller the aperture, (up to a degree), the better one can differentiate a large dot from a small dot. Our iris gets bigger in dim light, but smaller in bright light, which is why old, far-sighted, people like me can read better in bright light. We just cannot seem to focus in dim light.

The blue boxes depict the width of the smallest dot we can see. The point light source becomes a disc. Our ability to detect a point is more than simply dependent on our eyes' resolution. We “resolve” better in bright light.

Now take an “adequately illuminated room” and take the “average persons' eyes” at 20/20 vision, and we can calculate what size that dot will be. Better than calculating the size of the dot, (which varies by the eyeball size), we can calculate the arc subtended by the dot, on the average pupil diameter. (This is why optometrists first dilate your eyes, then put you in a dimly lit room, then ask you to read from a projected image of controlled brightness, or a chart with controlled illumination). By using the arc, we do not have to concern ourselves with the size of the eyeball.

That arc happens to be about a 0.027" arc. Once two dots are separated by an arc greater than that, the average person can differentiate them as two dots, (in an adequately lit room). Also note that some people have better than 20/20 vision. (X/Y vision means that one can see at X distance, what the average person can see at Y distance. 40/20 vision —and even better— is possible).

Now, just like optometrists do with their [EM3W] charts, we will do with photography.

If the arc (from our eyes) to two objects are greater than about 0.027", we can see two objects. If the “blur” of an out of focus object subtends an arc of less than 0.027", it still appears sharp. If two photographers look at an image, and one says the eyes are tack sharp, but the other says they are clearly out of focus, then one photographer simply has better vision. We are speaking here of the “average person.”

But to take it out of the box, we also have to deal with enlargement sizes and viewing distance. (Actually, even in the box, we must take this into account, and most DoF calculators do, but don't often tell you what criterion they use.). By using the “perspective correct viewing distance,” —the focal length of the lens, f, multiplied by the enlargement factor, E, Dp = f × E— we account for sensor size, enlargement, and viewing distance.*

So this is where the cone/arc of confusion comes from, which we will use for our out-of-the-box calculations/diagrams, later. I have to go, again, but hopefully, I will finish this tonight. (2018-10-31).

*(I can give diagrams for that, also, if you need that).

Matthias Kirk's picture

I really was hoping to get a reply, Karim. Did I make a mistake, or do you stand corrected?

Alex Cooke's picture

Why is fixing something inherent to most non-stratospherically priced lens designs in post a bad idea? Not everyone has the need or ability to purchase ultra-high-level glass, and if the problem is inherent to the design, and you’ve the requisite sensor resolution to do so without adversely affecting the composition or output resolution, there’s no reason not to. Please show the level of respect the professional you clearly regard yourself as should show; there’s no need to patronize and call people names because their method isn’t what you would do. Constructive discussion is always welcome.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

By the way, the crop sensor "fixes it in camera." by cropping out the most severe part of the radial distortion and leaving you less pixels. The full frame alllows you to use more of the area from the lens but if it has a severely visible radial distortion (e.g. barrel distortion) you need to fix it in post because this is what the lens physically delivers to your sensor and it has no other option, but store that in a raster file. What would you do next with the curved supposed straight lines you have to have? You fix them in post using either a software such as Lightroom, CaptureOne, or another, or use the Lens Correction filter in Photoshop. When you do such corrections it will crop pixels out, because it's a rectangular frame that you're bending pixels in.

And yes, software engineers in Adobe are making a living providing tools for correcting what manufacturers left so we don't have to pay big money for eliminating that defect. The same for software engineers at Phase One. We, as photographers are making a living by investing in the tools we think are best for your business. If you think it's better for your business to invest in crazy expensive non-radial distorting wide angle lenses, good for you. Others may invest in buying a piece of software and spend the rest of the money on a bigger camera sensor or something else.

Radial distortion is not the only issue at play. Even with a perfectly linear lens, wide angle projections can be visually objectionable. As one example, the linear projection of a sphere at the periphery of a wide angle view is an ellipse, not a perfect circle. While it's mathematically correct (see conic sections if you're a math nerd like me), that's not what our brain expects.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

See my long comment above where it states exactly the same including some calculations. If we ignore the radial distortion we are dealing with optical physics here that depend on the focal length. This is what a real wide angle lens view is about. Most people don't like using wide lenses for portraits because of the radial distortion, not because of the so called perspective distortion (which is not changing the perspective, but distorting the existing perspective). But as the radial distortion is so prominent and dominating people ditch the wide angle lenses altogether. The article talks about (c) the radial distortion problem that turns people away from wide angle lenses most of the time. It's normal to have perspective distortion as shown in (b) in the diagram in the article which is the beauty of those types of lenses.

Giovanni Aprea's picture

I haven't read all the comments, just gave them a quick view and they all sound interesting but I am curious to read what "wide" means, is wide 14mm (on a 35mm sensor), 20mm, 35mm...? Also, what is a portrait? I often read of "85mm for head shots" as well as "50mm for head and shoulders" or "35mm for environmental portrait" and so on, so I understand these are schemes and we don't have to follow them as well as composition restrictions bla bla bla but I while I find this article interesting being an amateur with a twist for portrait I'd like to see real life examples of "wide angle portraits" to try and understand if it could enrich my understanding of the hobby and open new frontiers.

Grazie for another interesting reading

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

A "normal" lens is considered the one that doesn't visually distort what you see with your eyes. A wide lens is the one that "sees more" than the normal lens (by making everything look further away in order to fit more pixels into the frame) and the long lens is the one that sees less than a normal lens and magnifying the portion of the area you want to see more.

All images in the article are shot with a wide-angle lens at the range of 24-35mm which is not super wide, but it's still wide for those who claim "85mm is for headshots."

It's quite interesting to shoot full-length portraits at 200mm and waist-up with a 24 or 35. If you keep the subjects away from the sides of the frame on the wide shots you won't see much of a difference the way how they look, but you will see quite a difference in the way the environment is changed through the optics.

I'm attaching an example where you can see the subject shot with a 25-30mm lens and with a 200mm one. I used the 200mm to make him look like he was jumping higher than he actually did. I just distorted the reality without photoshop because I had to do that "slam dunk" shot and as you see, I used 200mm for a full-length portrait.

The definitions vary, but a good rule of thumb is,

Approx f < W÷2
W÷2 ≤ f < W
W÷√2 ≤ f ≤ 2×W
W×2 < f

W=width of the frame of the film/sensor format,
f=focal length of the lens

The whole idea of, ““normal” lens is considered the one that doesn't visually distort what you see with your eyes,” is non-sense, since, if viewed at the “perspective correct distance,” every print will not visually distort what one sees with their eyes.

‘Perspective correct distance’ is the enlargement factor × the focal length. That is, if the film is 24.5mm across, (APS-C, maybe), and the print is enlarged by a factor of 10, (to 245mm wide, or 10 inches, such as a typical 10×8 print), and the image was taken with a 50mm lens, then the perspective correct viewing distance is
50×10 = 500mm
(or about 20 inches from the face).

With a 200mm lens, the perspective correct distance for this image becomes 2m from the face, (about 6½ feet).

Again, simple geometry.

As for what focal length is “ideal” for portraits, the idea is to not cause obvious distortions in the apparent sizes of the different parts of the face, particularly, the nose relative to the ear. When one removes all outliers and considers the standard deviation of nose sizes to ear sizes, and the average distance from the nose to the ear, (again, removing outliers), then do the maths, one realises that the best minimum distance to stand to ensure that the apparent size difference falls within the standard deviation, becomes approximately 4m (about 13ft). (Beyond that distance, the relative sizes becomes more precise, but once it is within the standard deviation, our brains sees it as normal, or not distorted).

Once one is that distance away, (that is, one has set their perspective), one can then choose ones framing, that is, the focal length to attain the desired FoV. This will vary according to ones format size (and orientation).

That being said, sometimes deliberately exaggerating the apparent size of body parts may make for an appropriate portrait. The hand of a pianist, the nose of a perfumer, the legs of a dancer, etc.

Jay Jay's picture

I wasn't aware there was a misconception about using wide angles for portraiture? Sure, you're not going to use a 24mm for head shots, but i use a 35mm prime all the time for near head shot distances all the time.I'm glad i don't listen to anyone tell me what rules i need to follow for shooting (which would make for a more logical title to this article :)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Rules are a good thing, but there is a distinction between "good practices" and "rules," which is the case with portraits and lenses. A good practice shows long lenses look nice with headshots, but this is not a rule. Rules are a good thing.

Those images are a great use of a WA lens and a style I use frequently.
The REAL issue is the "traditional" head and shoulders portrait that makes the subject look like all nose.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Unless you shoot it more centered... which actually deviates from the "traditional." As I mentioned above, it's a good practice to use normal or long lenses for close-ups, but it's not a rule.

Aaron B.'s picture

I use both prime and wide angle lenses for portraits. Although I am a bokeh fanatic and I lose some of that with a wide angle lens.

This could help someone. Wide/tele lenses just map part of sphere to the flat sensor. With the sphere far away from the sensor, curvature is smaller, so distortion is smaller - and vice versa. Objects on sensor axis are mapped almost directly, while on the edges they have to be transformed more.

Dashed line on the picture shows that telephoto lense is just mapping only "flat" plane.

So if I want prevent distortion - I should place subject as far as possible (with keeping my intent) and to the center as possible. Of course, that I can work with knowledge that our brain is benevolent toward some objects and their deformations (like bush) and more strict to other (like face)

Depends on the projection of the lens. If the lens has a rectilinear projection, then it tends to keep straight lines, straight, (but distorts circles). If it has a stereoscopic projection, then it tends to keep circles round, (but distorts straight lines by curving them). Then their is the curvilinear projection.

….And don't say, “Oh, you mean fish-eye!” No. Fish-eye is any lens which has a 180° AoV, regardless of its projection.

Also, most lens map a flat plane to a flat plane, so those curved lines you have would be somewhat wrong. This is why really good macro lenses are only really good at macro images. This is why older panorama cameras (with swing lenses), had curved film surfaces (as they were not capturing people in a straight line, but in a circle).

A wide angle is not a wide angle, is not a wide angle. All these generalisations of wide angled lenses are painting a false image —no pun intended— about shooting with wides.

Yup you mentioned it "it tends to keep". But with circles closer and angle wider it's so hard that most (if not all) lenses give up...

Just the cheap ones. Most actually do.

Blake Aghili's picture

With Wide Angle you have to actually know what you are doing :D but it is much simpler getting an "instagram mom happy" picture of a highschool senior with a 200 f/2.8 ! There isn't much to mess up ! but with wide angle your camera angle is a lot less forgiving, the environment plays a huge rule and you have to have thought about it before clicking the shutter etc.. I love wide angle, still practicing to get better at it ...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, the environment is very improtant with a wide lens. This is where if you shoot on sets every little detail matters especially if you want the eye to wander around only after being drawn to the main subject, not before that.