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09-08-2010, 09:15 PM   #1
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Focal length effects on portraits?

Hi,

I hope this is the right place to post this question. Do longer focal length lenses distort facial features? What I mean is, I notice a lot of photogs using 70-200 f2.8 or similar lenses for portraits. I understand that a longer lens will compress the DOF, but what will it do to someone's face at say 200mm?

I see people taking portraits with pretty much every length lens there is & was wondering if there is a difference between shooting a portrait with say a DA 55-300 & a 50mm and then cropping the image. If you fill the frame with both lenses, what differences would I expect to see?

I hope I made sense!

Thanks,

George

09-08-2010, 10:07 PM   #2
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Distort facial features? You mean like the exaggerated nose you might get with a wide angle portrait? Well, that is not distortion. It is the result of perspective. Happily, by moving the camera further away from the subject, you can get a more "normal" presentation. Move even further away and the spatial relationship between elements of the subject will "flatten" even more.

The main advantage of using a longer lens is that it allows for greater distance while still filling the frame. You can do the same thing by cropping, but there is a loss of quality. So the short answer is that you can do a portrait with just about any lens you want, depending on what you want it to look like.


Steve
09-09-2010, 12:15 AM   #3
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My recollection, from the days of film, was that there was a preferred range of focal lengths for portraits, in order to avoid either exaggerated features (FL too short) or features too flattened (FL too long).

Usually, the lenses commonly used for portraits were in the range 75mm-100mm, if I remember correctly. Of course, these were for a 135 film camera, so for a modern-day APS-C DSLR, we'd be talking about 50mm-67mm (of course, I don't think there are actually too many 67mm lenses out there!).

From what I read, there seems nowadays to be a trend towards longer FLs, but this may be a mistake.
09-09-2010, 09:08 AM - 1 Like   #4
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Focal length itself has no effect whatsoever on perspective or distortion of features. What *does* affect this is distance to subject. With a shorter focal length lens, you shoot portraits from a shorter distance than with a longer focal length lens - assuming your goal is to render the face the same size. And it's the change in your distance to subject that affects perspective and distortion.

There is a sort of general consensus about what the most flattering distances is for different kinds of portrait photography, so people generally choose a focal length that gives them the framing they want at the distance they want. For your basic head-and-shoulder portrait, most find something in the 55-90mm range to be ideal on APS-C (85-135 on FF).

The people using a 70-200 for portraits are probably doing so on FF, and probably aren't using it all the way at the 200 end very often. It's not really that appropriate on APS-C, as most of the length is wasted, and you're missing out on some usefulfocal lengths below 70. Luckily, on Pentax we have the 50-135, which is the equivalent of 70-200 on FF.

09-09-2010, 10:33 AM   #5
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Perspective

QuoteOriginally posted by Marc Sabatella:
Focal length itself has no effect whatsoever on perspective or distortion of features.
Yeah, but this is from a guy that can "pencil-whip" either one at will on canvas!


But here's an illustration that may be useful.

Another thing to note is the SPAN of the background behind the subject. A broad sweeping background may introduce a very busy backdrop with unwanted colors or shapes whereas a narrower view may simplify the scene and make for nicer bokeh. On the other hand, a portrait that conveys the environmental setting may benefit from the inclusion of more background scenery and greater DOF.

Move the POV (point of view) of each lenses back "one step" to better understand the relative effect on included background.

Most books and web articles on close-up photography offer clear examples of the effect of FL vs. perspective vs. DOF.

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Last edited by pacerr; 09-09-2010 at 10:49 AM.
09-09-2010, 11:50 AM   #6
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Back when photography was my job (long long ago) I shot official and unofficial portraits on film. I variously used 135/HF (nearly same size frame as APS-C), 135/FF, and 6x6/MF. 80mm was my preferred focal length for all formats, and I often shot those formats from the same distance. In that application, 50-55mm often meant working too close, and features might be more rounded than desired; and 135mm was too long, and it flattens features a bit much. Around 80mm is just about right. Shooting from the same position meant that I was essentially cropping in-camera, as well as cropping when making the print.

As mentioned above, it's lens-to-subject distance that establishes perspective and perceived distortion. Get too close, and stuff that sticks out (like noses, lips, ears, hair, etc) becomes exaggerated. Get too far back, and dimensionality diminishes. Either effect can be exploited and balanced. The exaggerated feature can be a caricature. The flattened feature can be posterized. Or move back with a wide-angle to shrink the subject and their surroundings / context; move in with a tele to pick out specific features. Look at those eyes! Those lips! Those ears! Those scars!

Run tests. Shoot a mannikin (or a very patient model) with an 18-250 at all possible distances and focal lengths. Use controlled lighting to emphasize or reduce dimensionality. See what happens.
09-09-2010, 09:14 PM   #7
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Ok I think I get what you all are saying. So basically the focal length will determine the working distance from camera to subject, & the resulting distance will determine the perspective (w/ associated distortions if any) of the subject? I guess I was coming at this originally trying to determine what lens to use to make a flattering portrait of my wife. So I should really start by experimenting w/ the distance which will give me different perspectives. She has a very thin face so maybe getting a little closer than farther to her may help round her out a little?

I really love my DA 55-300 and other than it not being very fast I am hoping I can use this lens for portraits. I guess the trick will be to get people far enough away from the BG to get some nice bokeh at f4 or 5.6.

Thanks for all the replies, I think I have my mind wrapped around everything better now!

George
09-09-2010, 09:52 PM   #8
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George,
Like Rico said, it has more to do with distance than focal length. About 8-15 feet is the perspective that let's us see a person as we remember them. If features are different and you want to change things, chagne the angle.Up, down or to the side


Last edited by troglodyte; 09-09-2010 at 09:57 PM.
09-09-2010, 09:54 PM   #9
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slightly. Experiment with those three with both moving the camera and/or having the model change angles.
09-09-2010, 10:50 PM   #10
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Although perspective is a function of camera/subject distance, in application we use the "focal lengths" as determining factor in choosing a lens and not really the camera/subject distance.

Here is a useful link on focal lengths and faces

Stephen Eastwood|Beauty and Fashion Photographer | Tutorials
09-10-2010, 07:49 AM   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by gsrokmix Quote
Ok I think I get what you all are saying. So basically the focal length will determine the working distance from camera to subject, & the resulting distance will determine the perspective (w/ associated distortions if any) of the subject? I guess I was coming at this originally trying to determine what lens to use to make a flattering portrait of my wife. So I should really start by experimenting w/ the distance which will give me different perspectives. She has a very thin face so maybe getting a little closer than farther to her may help round her out a little?

I really love my DA 55-300 and other than it not being very fast I am hoping I can use this lens for portraits. I guess the trick will be to get people far enough away from the BG to get some nice bokeh at f4 or 5.6.

Thanks for all the replies, I think I have my mind wrapped around everything better now!

George

Why not go outside on a nice overcast day and try shooting portaits at 55mm and 300mm. Seems like that would be the easiest way to get a feel for this stuff.

If you're doing a headshot at 300mm, you WILL get a nicely blurred background at f/5.6.
09-10-2010, 08:27 AM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by gsrokmix Quote
Ok I think I get what you all are saying. So basically the focal length will determine the working distance from camera to subject, & the resulting distance will determine the perspective (w/ associated distortions if any) of the subject?
Exactly.

QuoteQuote:
She has a very thin face so maybe getting a little closer than farther to her may help round her out a little?
I think you'll find it's the other way around. When shooting from close, the back of her head will be proportionally farther from you than the front. As an extremely example, shooting from only an inch away, the front of the head is obviously an inch away, but the back is like six times farther (or however deep the head is). In a photograph, this makes the face look almost grotesquely thin - with cheeks that just go on forever straight back finally ending with pair of tiny ears in the far distance.

If you wish to make a face look broader, you shoot from a long ways away. Again taking the extreme example, from a mile away, the ears are basically the same away as the nose and there appear in the picture to be in the same plane - her features appear "flattened".

QuoteQuote:
I really love my DA 55-300 and other than it not being very fast I am hoping I can use this lens for portraits. I guess the trick will be to get people far enough away from the BG to get some nice bokeh at f4 or 5.6.
Here you can use the fact that you do in fact want to be shooting from a distance to your advantage. While the DOF itself doesn't necessarily get thinner as you shoot from farther away with longer focal length (it doesn't because the maximum aperture also changes), the out of focus areas do get blurrier. If you go out to a field somewhere and shoot a fair distance at, say, 150-200mm, you'll get a noticeably broadened face, and the background will hopefully be far enough behind to be blurred into nothingness even at f/4.5 or f/5.6.
09-10-2010, 10:02 AM   #13
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Ramair, thanks for the link. It was helpful to see how the perspective changed. I didn't notice a huge difference with anything over 100mm.

Marc, thanks for clearing that up for me.

George
09-10-2010, 12:46 PM   #14
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QuoteOriginally posted by gsrokmix Quote
Ramair, thanks for the link. It was helpful to see how the perspective changed. I didn't notice a huge difference with anything over 100mm.

Marc, thanks for clearing that up for me.

George
To me the face seems wider and wider... look at how far the ears stick out from the side of the face... (I know you cannot see the ears... but the checkbones/ears become much more pointy...)
09-10-2010, 02:42 PM   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by icywarm Quote
To me the face seems wider and wider... look at how far the ears stick out from the side of the face... (I know you cannot see the ears... but the checkbones/ears become much more pointy...)
Yep!!!
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