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 lookwide. (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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