Best Portrait Combo?

Started Aug 7, 2014 | Discussions thread
Jim Salvas
Jim Salvas Veteran Member • Posts: 5,549
What kind of portrait?

Perspective is important in portrait photography and that is dependent on where you stand, not on the focal length. Choosing a different focal length allows you to take your shot with the proper framing and without cropping. It also matters a lot if by "portrait" you mean a tight headshot, a head and shoulders shot (probably what most people mean), a waist-length shot, full length or even group photos.

Take perspective and distance first. For me, most people look best in the camera's 2D representation from about 10-12 feet away. You can move in to about 8 feet without undue distortion of long noses and sharp chins,  but standing back is better. Anyway, let's say you're standing between 8 and 12 feet from your subject.

For that head and shoulders shot, you want vertical coverage of a little less than 3 feet. With the camera in portrait orientation, this will give you some breathing room at the top of the frame.

At 8 feet, an 85mm lens will give a little more than 3 feet of coverage, which means you might want to crop a bit or be tempted to move in closer. Most people do the latter, which is why I'm not too fond of 85mm lenses for portraits. At 12 feet, to me an ideal distance for this shot, the 85mm covers 5 feet, well more than enough for a waist-length shot, but definitely overkill for a head and shoulders.

It never ceases to amaze me that 85 is considered a great portrait length on a full frame body. Yes, it's not bad on APS-C, but on full frame, it's just a "long normal" to me.

In comparison, a 135mm lens would be great for a head and shoulders at 12 feet, covering just over 3 feet.  Moving in, that lens gives you a tighter head shot at 8 feet.

For what it's worth, I'm currently using a 75mm lens on a 2x crop body (150mm equivalent) for portraits. I would prefer a fast and sharp zoom lens covering the entire "portrait" range, from 80mm to about 300mm equivalent. Olympus is due to release one of these soon for my camera and I'm psyched to get it.

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Jim Salvas
"You miss 100% of the shots you never take." - Wayne Gretzky

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