Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR lens, F/3, 1.60s, ISO 800.

Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR lens, F/3, 1.60s, ISO 800.

The lens you choose to make a picture strongly affects how the subject will look. When people jokingly ask if you’re using the “skinny lens”, they’re not far from the mark.

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @135mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 800.

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @135mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 800.

If you want to make flattering portrais of people, zoom in. Zoom in to at least 100mm, and then move your feet to position the person in the frame. Many cameras include a lens in the 55-200mm range, but I also think the 70-300mm lenses are terrific, and very affordable. I use a 105mm lens for almost everything I shoot these days. I own a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, and it’s also terrific (but I made just as money using a 70-300mm).

Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR lens, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 400.

Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR lens, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 400.

Don’t believe me? Check out these two pictures my pal, Mandy, made of me this summer. I’m framed the same in both of them (hat to the top and collar at the bottom) and they are uncropped from the camera. The left image was made at 28mm, then she zoomed in to 210mm and backed up to make the righthand image. On the left, my nose appears to be the size of Texas, my ears don’t exist, and my head is nearly as wide as my shoulders. The image on the right, however, looks like me, with normal proportions. Also, look at the background on the right image: it’s got a nice out-of-focus-ness (bokeh), and it’s also a much smaller portion of the building. That means you don’t have to have a huge backdrop that looks good–a single flowery bush can fill the whole frame.

28-300mm lens. The image on the left is shot at 28mm. The one on the right is zoomed in to 300mm, then Mandy stepped back to frame my head the same way.

28-300mm lens. The image on the left is shot at 28mm. The one on the right is zoomed in to 300mm, then Mandy stepped back to frame my head the same way. Photo by Mandy Wilding.

Get it? A long lens is normal and more flattering. A wide lens made things look…wide. (Catch my drift? Don’t photograph the mother of the bride with a wide lens.)

Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR lens, f/3, 1/1600s, ISO 400.

Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR lens, f/3, 1/1600s, ISO 400.

Also, a long lens looks more professional because it’s not common. Everybody has a camera in their phones, and those lenses are usually quite wide–something like 28mm. Using a long lens in your portraiture will set you apart from the commonplace phone pictures and make you portraits more distinctive.

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @100mm, f/5.3, 1/400s, ISO 800.

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @100mm, f/5.3, 1/400s, ISO 800.

Lastly, It doesn’t matter if you’re using a cropped sensor camera or a full frame camera. You may have heard that a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor body is the field of view of a 75mm lens, but it’s still got the physical properties of a 50mm. I’d advise you not to do close-up portraits with a 50mm because it’s just too wide.

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @300mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 800.

Nikon D800, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens @300mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 800.

While there are many ways to use wide lenses to make flattering portraits, the simplest way to make a flattering image is to use a long lens. Zoom in, and frame with your feet.

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Join the conversation! 10 Comments

  1. “You may have heard that a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor body is the field of view of a 75mm lens, but it’s still got the physical properties of a 50mm.”

    What does that mean? It’s the relative position of the shooter and subject that determine perspective. Aside from true distortion (e.g. pincushion) the focal length of the lens doesn’t change the perspective, just the framing / magnification.

    Consider the alternative: that changing lenses while not moving did impact perspective. That would mean that one lens lets you see thing (such as the subject’s ears) that the other can’t.

    Reply
    • I’m right there with you, Tom: the only way to change perspective is by moving the camera. Fortunately, using a longer lens forces a change in perspective because you’ve got to move back to achieve similar framing. Regarding the 50mm, I’ve seen lots of closeup portraits made with a 50mm that exaggerate the forehead and nose, and they would be more flattering with a longer lens. Sometimes folks confuse crop factor with actual focal length, and I believe the portraits would be more flattering on a longer lens, including cropped sensors.

      Clear as mud? ;)

      Reply
  2. Why did you use a wide angle lens (28mm) to make the comparison? Of course the picture will be distorted because it’s a wide angle lens.
    Other than that, I do appreciate the advice on the lens that you do use and utilizing the zoom function & then moving to get the right frame.
    Thx!

    Reply
    • Chuck, I hope this helps you consider your lens choice.

      I used the 28mm lens to really show the difference, and it’s not uncommon for photographers to use a wide lens too close. My first time making bridal portraits has always stayed in my mind. The mother asked that I make a full length portrait to hang in her home next to the older sister’s full length portrait. I moved back, knelt down, zoomed in, and made a good portrait that they really liked. The print size she wanted was not standard so I asked that she bring the framed portrait of the sister to me so that I could make sure to get it correct. When I placed the portrait of the older sister next to the one I made, it was just like the two pictures of my face above. The older sister had been photographed with a 28mm lens from slightly above and just a few feet away, tipped down to include her feet and train. You can imagine how that looked: her head was fully one third of the frame, and her body tapered away to her feet that were tiny little things you could barely see. I feel it was the wrong lens choice because it made the bride’s forehead the default subject because it was so dominant. It was similar to my portrait only in that they both included the bride’s whole body. I don’t mean to be elitist here; it’s just a tip.

      In the end, it’s like my buddy Skip Cohen says, “Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder.”

      If you like it, or if your client likes it, do it. I just hopes this gets you thinking about it.

      Reply
  3. I have just bought a Nikor 105 macro lens (for the purpose of macro) & have just discovered what a fantastic lens it is for portrait.

    Reply
    • It really is, Richard. You’re gonna love it. It excells for macro work, and portraits, and I love it for landscapes, too; if it’s not wide enough, I just shoot a panoramic grid!

      Reply
  4. Yes, excellent use of long lense, and wide aperture, and ofcourse a pretty model.

    Reply
  5. Great advice, I’ll make more use of my 70-300 then! But why do most photographers say that 85mm is the perfect lens for portraits? Also isn’t a crop sensor 1.6X smaller than a full frame camera? So a 50mm on a crop would be a 80mm not 75mm?

    Reply
    • Andy, I do love the 85mm for portraits, too. Zooming to over 100mm is simply an easy tip. I recommend experimenting. I find that I like 85mm and up, but sometimes I need the 300mm end to minimize the background size and bokeh.

      Regarding the sensor, it depends on which camera you’re using–Canon is a 1.5x multiplier, and Nikon is 1.6x. Regardless, it’s still actually a 50mm lens. 85mm on a Hasselblad is fairly wide!

      Reply

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About Levi Sim

Photography is my life, and I'd like my photography to be part of your life, too. Whether I make pictures with you or help you learn to make your vision pop out of the camera, I'm happy to help.

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Gear, Photography, Portrait, Shooting, Technique & Tutorials

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