Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots

Started Jun 3, 2017 | Discussions
saaber1 Senior Member • Posts: 2,040
Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
10

I was doing some testing w/ 85 and 135mm lenses and it reminded me of the difference between these two focal length for head and shoulders shots. The difference between 85 and 135 to me is rather subtle but noticeable (the difference between shorter focal lengths and 70mm+ focal lengths is very dramatic of course).

Here are some google search head and shoulders focal length comparisons which show the differences pretty well. This is not news to experienced portrait shooters but might be helpful to the less experienced folks.

These are from a google search. You should be able to find originals (with any discussion if applicable) on google (right click then "search for this image in google" depending on OS).

agrumpyoldsod Contributing Member • Posts: 607
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
2

Nice tests -- the shout out response to this is for my eye images shot 135-200mm are more streamlined and in proportion than the rest. Anything shot less than 70mm seems distorted to me - making the nose very prominent.

As Peter Hurley says the shape of the face dictates what focal length you should use - "what's in your bag" showed he uses - 100mm (macro) (for skinny models and actors) - other reports show he also uses 85mm, 70-200 and 135mm/2 for headshots and a 24-70 for full body portraits.

Longer focal lengths are better for "larger"/rounder faces to slim them down -- so beyond 100mm. Whereas shorter focal lengths (are better for oblong/narrow faces look better less than 85mm.

However, the size of the studio is perhaps the biggest constraint - you simply may not have the space to use longer lengths.

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bflood Senior Member • Posts: 1,950
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
5

There's more to this than just focal length. A good portrait photographer should be looking at how the elevation of the camera relative to the subject's eyes affect the resulting images.

Some faces seems to photograph best when the camera is above eye level, others look best shot from below eye level, and others still look best shot at eye level. Some portrait photographers have such a strong preference for one of these viewing angles that s/he shoots all portraits at that one perspective, regardless of the shape of the subject's face.

When you then introduce variations in focal length to the above/below/at eye level question, the effects of the differing focal lengths will make the effects of focal length changes quite different. This is more important at shorter focal lengths.

I suspect that the general preference for 85-105 mm for portraits has to do with a combination of distance from the subject (subject is more comfortable if the camera isn't right in the face), lower depth of field (to isolate the subject), and minimizing the distortions when going from above to below the subject's eye level.

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Glen78 Senior Member • Posts: 1,411
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
1

agrumpyoldsod wrote:

Nice tests -- the shout out response to this is for my eye images shot 135-200mm are more streamlined and in proportion than the rest. Anything shot less than 70mm seems distorted to me - making the nose very prominent.

As Peter Hurley says the shape of the face dictates what focal length you should use - "what's in your bag" showed he uses - 100mm (macro) (for skinny models and actors) - other reports show he also uses 85mm, 70-200 and 135mm/2 for headshots and a 24-70 for full body portraits.

Longer focal lengths are better for "larger"/rounder faces to slim them down -- so beyond 100mm. Whereas shorter focal lengths (are better for oblong/narrow faces look better less than 85mm.

However, the size of the studio is perhaps the biggest constraint - you simply may not have the space to use longer lengths.

Peter's current main setup is a Canon 5DS R with a 24-105 f/4 set around 92mm. He says he prefers this FL because he feels it places him at the optimal distance in terms of being long enough for a flattering image but still within a comfortable conversational distance with his subject.

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Glen78 Senior Member • Posts: 1,411
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
3

With the right composition any FL can work although below around 85mm full frame you probably don't want to fill the whole frame with your subjects face.

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sfnikon Senior Member • Posts: 2,298
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
1

I've felt for awhile the 200/2 was the most flattering head shot lens and the long FL definitely has a role.   It looks like even the 105 will be slightly distorting (on FX) in a tight head shot and one needs at least 135.   The 85 is fine for half body portraits but I wouldn't use for head shots on FX (but on DX it should be ok).

If you really don't like a person take their head shot with a 24mm!

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OP saaber1 Senior Member • Posts: 2,040
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
...

If you really don't like a person take their head shot with a 24mm!

If you ever have to shoot a portrait in a funhouse mirror, the 24mm should cancel it out perfectly!  

Dima Sh Regular Member • Posts: 363
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
4

Thanks for posting. There is the "accepted rule" in the photographic community that portraits cannot be shot with wider angle lenses. This is very misleading at face value because portraits range from head shots to environmental shots. It is the distance from the camera to the subject that plays a critical role in the level of distortion. So as long as one shoots their 35mm lens at the same distance that they would be shooting their 85mm lens, there would not be any problem with distortion. Of course one would get a very different framing but this would still be a portrait. I don't have statistics but suspect also that tight head and shoulder shots like those in the original post are more often used for passports and other documents rather than as artistic photography...

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OP saaber1 Senior Member • Posts: 2,040
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots

...So as long as one shoots their 35mm lens at the same distance that they would be shooting their 85mm lens, there would not be any problem with distortion. Of course one would get a very different framing but this would still be a portrait.

Depends on ur definition of portrait I guess and what u are trying to do. A full body shot at 85mm I may call a portrait. The same shot taken from the same place with 35mm would be a small person in the frame and tons of background. I probably wouldn't even call that an "environmental portrait" much less a portrait, but again it depends on your definition. In real world use most photographers use greater than 70mm for portraits but anybody can do whatever they want.

Dima Sh Regular Member • Posts: 363
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots

saaber1 wrote:

...So as long as one shoots their 35mm lens at the same distance that they would be shooting their 85mm lens, there would not be any problem with distortion. Of course one would get a very different framing but this would still be a portrait.

Depends on ur definition of portrait I guess and what u are trying to do. A full body shot at 85mm I may call a portrait. The same shot taken from the same place with 35mm would be a small person in the frame and tons of background. I probably wouldn't even call that an "environmental portrait" much less a portrait, but again it depends on your definition. In real world use most photographers use greater than 70mm for portraits but anybody can do whatever they want.

I meant the distance for a head and shoulders shot like in your examples, not for a full body shot. This is where distortion is really problematic, and that is why all the examples that you found are tightly framed.

You are right and there is no point in backing up further with a 35mm lens when shooting a full body portrait as long as the full body fits in the frame. There won't be much distortion with such framing. With longer focal lengths it is difficult to shoot environmental portraits for the simple reason that not much of the "environment" is visible with the tunnel vision of the tele lenses. Different tools for different tasks.

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em jo photo Regular Member • Posts: 353
"Wide and Tight" is the on-trend portrait style.
8

saaber1 wrote:

...So as long as one shoots their 35mm lens at the same distance that they would be shooting their 85mm lens, there would not be any problem with distortion. Of course one would get a very different framing but this would still be a portrait.

Depends on ur definition of portrait I guess and what u are trying to do. A full body shot at 85mm I may call a portrait. The same shot taken from the same place with 35mm would be a small person in the frame and tons of background. I probably wouldn't even call that an "environmental portrait" much less a portrait, but again it depends on your definition. In real world use most photographers use greater than 70mm for portraits but anybody can do whatever they want.

Hmm.

What is the "real world" of commercial portrait photography right now? I think it's . . .

  • The commercial fashion-editorial press. Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, W, etc.
  • Fashion- / lifestyle- / brand-sponsored Instagram and other social media content. Young up-and-coming photographers like Andrew Kearns with huge following.

What do we see there?

  • Many wide angle perspectives. 24 - 35mm are very popular fashion / ad / editorial portrait focal lengths right now.
  • Tight, center framing that throws a defocused but readable background behind the subject, or off-center framing with the subject looking / gesturing / moving into the environment. Either way the guiding idea is "wide (angle) and tight (framing on subject)."
  • Narratives. Photographs that tell a story about a person in a specific place at a specific time.

Even old-school traditionalists like Joe McNally are doing it. (Though to be fair, McNally's been doing it for years and years and years.)

While it's true that wide angle perspectives change the way we see faces, it's a dramatic and misleading oversimplification to suggest that those changes are always "distortion" or that they necessarily produce unflattering results.

Composition matters.

Why is "wide-and-tight" so on-trend? If composed skillfully (see the McNally or Kearns examples, above), wide angle perspectives introduce a dynamism and immediacy to portraits. They put the photograph's audience in the photographer's shoes, in an intimate, close, and relatable perspective with the subject.

Portrait photography is the art of creating a relationship between a photograph's viewer and the subject. When you choose a focal length, your goal is to control the relationship.

  • Telephoto perspectives create abstract relationships. Human beings don't see with a 300mm perspective or defocus. When we look at a telephoto portrait, the flattened visual cues and defocused, magnified background tell us that we're looking at something idealized, something not footed in a specific time-place. We can't really tell exactly where the photographer is (and therefore, where we are) in relationship to the portrait subject, except that he/she is somewhere far away.
  • Wide angles create intimate relationships. Wide angles emphasize the photographer's height, distance, and relationship to the subject. When we look at a wide-angle portrait, the visual cues and exaggerated foreground-background perspectives tell us exactly where the photographer was, relative to the subject, within a broad environment. And the photograph puts us there. It's the opposite of out-of-time or out-of-reality: it's in a specific time, a specific place.

Of course a "passport portrait" should probably be abstract, right? It's designed to last for 10 years, designed to read neutrally. Not "this is what this person looks like in this specific passport office on this date if you stand five feet away from him / her," but rather, "this is generally what this person looks like anywhere, anytime, in your memory."

But there are plenty of reasons you might want to create an intimate and specific impression of someone as well, right? And that's where the "wide-and-tight" portrait approach we see in commercial photography everywhere comes into play.

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lanefAU
lanefAU Veteran Member • Posts: 6,348
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
2

Dima Sh wrote:

Thanks for posting. There is the "accepted rule" in the photographic community that portraits cannot be shot with wider angle lenses. This is very misleading at face value because portraits range from head shots to environmental shots.

I agree, if you are after a formal head and shoulder portrait, then a short to medium telephoto is preferable, but if you are after environmental portraiture, then a wide angle with good composition to make the background say something about the subject is the way to go.

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L Copps Senior Member • Posts: 1,608
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
2

Remember the effects of focal lengths on objects along the z axis: Shorter focal lengths will elongate or even exaggerate features spherically along the z axis. Longer focal lengths will compress objects and features into more of a flatter 2D look along the z axis.

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Matsu Senior Member • Posts: 2,330
Proximity not focal lengths
5

em jo photo wrote:

saaber1 wrote:

...So as long as one shoots their 35mm lens at the same distance that they would be shooting their 85mm lens, there would not be any problem with distortion. Of course one would get a very different framing but this would still be a portrait.

Depends on ur definition of portrait I guess and what u are trying to do. A full body shot at 85mm I may call a portrait. The same shot taken from the same place with 35mm would be a small person in the frame and tons of background. I probably wouldn't even call that an "environmental portrait" much less a portrait, but again it depends on your definition. In real world use most photographers use greater than 70mm for portraits but anybody can do whatever they want.

Hmm.

What is the "real world" of commercial portrait photography right now? I think it's . . .

  • The commercial fashion-editorial press. Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, W, etc.
  • Fashion- / lifestyle- / brand-sponsored Instagram and other social media content. Young up-and-coming photographers like Andrew Kearns with huge following.

What do we see there?

  • Many wide angle perspectives. 24 - 35mm are very popular fashion / ad / editorial portrait focal lengths right now.
  • Tight, center framing that throws a defocused but readable background behind the subject, or off-center framing with the subject looking / gesturing / moving into the environment. Either way the guiding idea is "wide (angle) and tight (framing on subject)."
  • Narratives. Photographs that tell a story about a person in a specific place at a specific time.

Even old-school traditionalists like Joe McNally are doing it. (Though to be fair, McNally's been doing it for years and years and years.)

While it's true that wide angle perspectives change the way we see faces, it's a dramatic and misleading oversimplification to suggest that those changes are always "distortion" or that they necessarily produce unflattering results.

Composition matters.

Why is "wide-and-tight" so on-trend? If composed skillfully (see the McNally or Kearns examples, above), wide angle perspectives introduce a dynamism and immediacy to portraits. They put the photograph's audience in the photographer's shoes, in an intimate, close, and relatable perspective with the subject.

Portrait photography is the art of creating a relationship between a photograph's viewer and the subject. When you choose a focal length, your goal is to control the relationship.

  • Telephoto perspectives create abstract relationships. Human beings don't see with a 300mm perspective or defocus. When we look at a telephoto portrait, the flattened visual cues and defocused, magnified background tell us that we're looking at something idealized, something not footed in a specific time-place. We can't really tell exactly where the photographer is (and therefore, where we are) in relationship to the portrait subject, except that he/she is somewhere far away.
  • Wide angles create intimate relationships. Wide angles emphasize the photographer's height, distance, and relationship to the subject. When we look at a wide-angle portrait, the visual cues and exaggerated foreground-background perspectives tell us exactly where the photographer was, relative to the subject, within a broad environment. And the photograph puts us there. It's the opposite of out-of-time or out-of-reality: it's in a specific time, a specific place.

Of course a "passport portrait" should probably be abstract, right? It's designed to last for 10 years, designed to read neutrally. Not "this is what this person looks like in this specific passport office on this date if you stand five feet away from him / her," but rather, "this is generally what this person looks like anywhere, anytime, in your memory."

But there are plenty of reasons you might want to create an intimate and specific impression of someone as well, right? And that's where the "wide-and-tight" portrait approach we see in commercial photography everywhere comes into play.

Excellent post.

I always remind people that proximity, not focal length, creates distortion. Stand in the same spot with a bag full of lenses and don't move your subject. Every single shot will have the same distortion (or lack thereof) and the only difference will be the extent to which the subject fills the frame. Though lots of people already know this, it's easy to take it for granted.

The intimacy of the cited work comes from managing the relationship of camera to subject and scene, the proximities, in such a way to either exploit or minimize the characteristics of the lens.

A lie of rudimentary contemporary teaching is the strong emphasis that the "normal" focal length mimics the human eye's vision. This is only partially true insofar as the relative volumes of different objects in the scene tend to appear superficially natural. But your eye is really part of a computational vision system that sees a much wider field of view and constructs visual awareness with varying and relative emphases depending on both the stimuli and your personal experience with them.

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DanielGerald Junior Member • Posts: 28
Re: "Wide and Tight" is the on-trend portrait style.

Well said !

seanbradyusa New Member • Posts: 1
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots
1

Thanks for this post, with the many examples, you would not believe how many studios, and photographers. Use the standard 18-55 or on full frame 28 - 65 , or  the new iPhone I believe it is about 14 - 28 . For weddings and such, then waste time correcting this warping or fish eye effect.

JohnnyLuddite Contributing Member • Posts: 745
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots

The other factor with eye-line being the influence of the horizon of course.

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JohnnyLuddite Contributing Member • Posts: 745
Re: "Wide and Tight" is the on-trend portrait style.

The other huge factor in the acceptability of wide-and-tight is obviously the selfie/smartphone portrait, which has made the big-nose idiom more acceptable.

I haven't (yet) heard of in-phone perspective correction - which could relatively easily be added to the fake-bokeh images; after all, the phone knows what all the distances are so could correct appropriately.

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JohnnyLuddite Contributing Member • Posts: 745
Re: Facial distortion of various focal lengths for headshots

Thanks very much, a useful illustration.

There's another important factor which relates to the longer focal lengths, even beyond 135mm, which is that you can get really nice isolation with a realistic depth of field of say 10cm+. It's much more workable, I find, and even when doing semi-formal shots I don't find the distance too bad for communication, it's not like you're using a megaphone. Also, it's more conducive to natural unobserved head-shots because you're not in someone's space at all.

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PHXAZCRAIG
PHXAZCRAIG Forum Pro • Posts: 15,998
Re: "Wide and Tight" is the on-trend portrait style.
2

JohnnyLuddite wrote:

The other huge factor in the acceptability of wide-and-tight is obviously the selfie/smartphone portrait, which has made the big-nose idiom more acceptable.

10.5mm fisheye, wide and tight...

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