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Lens Distortion in Portraits

As a portrait photographer, I love getting a close, tight shot that really captures the personality of my subject. Understanding the limitations and effects your gear has on the final image is vital. Close up portraits are typically shot using a focal length of 85mm or longer, but when starting out, these lenses may not be an option. It is common for photographers to start out using a 50mm lens and grow their arsenal from there.

I love my “Nifty 50.” When shooting in a small space, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G is my go-to lens most of the time. I love how fast the glass is, how crisp my images are, chromatic aberration is minimal, and the color tones are good. However, there is one issue that can cause problems: lens distortion.

Lens distortion happens when using a wide angle lens. The edges tend to appear pinched, the center of the image has a bubble-like look to it, and leading lines are bent. Naturally, whatever is closest to the lens will appear larger. If the subject of the image is a person, this can become a problem.

Depending on the distance between the camera and subject, the distortion can be more or less obvious. In the image below, the subject is five feet away from the camera and the distortion is not noticeable.

LensDistortionAlex-1

After moving the camera one foot closer, you can see in the image below that the distortion is very noticeable. His forehead looks wider, his nose is more pronounced, and his eyes appear further apart. The distortion creates an image that is unappealing and does not look exactly like my subject.

LensDistortionAlex-2
The lens causes his face to be distorted and his nose to appear larger than it is.

The best solution to this problem is to use a lens with a longer focal length. If this is not an option, there is another option. While I’m a supporter of getting it right in camera, sometimes you’ve got to get creative! I like the top image best, but would love if it was framed tighter. Using the crop tool allows me to frame the image the way I want without the distortion.

LensDistortionAlex-3

Knowing the limits of your gear is important, but there’s always a way to work around those limitations.

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