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02-12-2007, 06:52 AM   #1
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Which Focal Length For Portraits...And Why?

Hey everyone! I have a simple question for you - what focal length do you like to use for 'portraits' (interpretation welcome) and why? I'm more interested in the 'why' part of this question, because I've taken portraits at 14mm and at 200mm.

I'm interested in how the focal length of a lens will impact the actual portrait itself. Any insight into a lens that is particularly good (the FA* 85/1.4 springs to mind) or bad is welcome, too.

Below are two portraits of my favorite model.
Taken with the 31mm Limited (yes, he was voluntarily hamming it up):


Taken with the DFA100/2.8 Macro:


Not quite the same view, huh? Let me hear what you like and why!

--Sean

02-12-2007, 07:11 AM   #2
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Any lens that can be mounted on your camera can be used for portraits.

The biggest reason that longer focal lengths tend to be used for portraits is the lack of distortion. At shorter focal lengths/wider angles lens distortion causes perspective to distort which makes facial features look, well ... not their best.

For example, if you take a "head-and-shoulders" portrait with a 100mm lens and a 10mm lens, the portrait taken with the 10mm lens will have the nose look HUGE, the face will look fat and the ears look small (assuming you walked closer to the subject with the 10mm lens in order to frame just the "head and shoulders."

That said, sometimes you may WANT the distortion for a creative effect. For example, a few weeks ago I used a fisheye lens for a group portrait where I wanted the subjects in the front row to stand out and make it look like the subjects in the back row were set apart from the subjects in the front even though they were in a confined space.

Another reason for longer focal lengths, particularly in the studio, is to get distance from your subject. If I was taking a headshot of someone in the studio with a 10mm lens I would practically be standing on top of them ... and I'd probably get in the way of the studio strobes and cast unwanted shadows on my subject.

Some people also argue that it's easier to control DOF with longer lenses, but IMHO the DOF excuse doesn't hold water unless the photographer just has a limited understanding of the way DOF works.
02-12-2007, 07:13 AM   #3
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Strictly head shot or shoulders and head, full on, nothing fancy in terms of crop, angle, etc: about 85mm (35mm) give or take 10mm. It's a perspective thing-implied depth-that 3rd dimension. Shorter FL and the head spreads and flattens, even warps cartoonishly. Longer FL and it shortens or is lost completely to a 2-d representation pasted to the background. There are exceptions, of course--these require a greater operator skill set and practice.

And then it gets really weird: I've got an old manual (SMCp-m)100mm f2.8 that has the right 'look' and that I reach for 85% of the time. Here, for me, it's familiarity and practice--I have no talent.
02-12-2007, 10:04 AM   #4
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I find anything between 50mm and 100mm works well. I'm loving my Tamron 28-75mm, and am now toying with getting one of the 100/105mm f/2.8 macro lenses. I think the 100mm and f/2.8 would be nice in the type of portraits/candids I take, and the macro would be an added bonus. I have a F 100-300mm and a Sigma 70-300mm, but they start out at f/4 (or f/4.5) at there wide ends and don't focus well indoors.

Ideally I want a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8, but availability (of my funds and of the lens) seems to be getting in my way of that purchase :-)

I figured a nice small 100mm prime lens would work nicely...)

02-12-2007, 10:06 AM   #5
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That's what I'm talking about! I think a 100mm prime would be great! Can*n makes an f/2 100mm, which would rock!

I think my next purchase will be the DFA 10mm macro or the Sigma 105mm equivalent.

I also enjoy using my 135mm prime lens (old Sears brand), so I wish Pentax would re-release the FA 135mm.

QuoteOriginally posted by jfdavis58 Quote
I've got an old manual (SMCp-m)100mm f2.8 that has the right 'look' and that I reach for 85% of the time. Here, for me, it's familiarity and practice--I have no talent.
02-12-2007, 10:10 AM   #6
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I like both of your examples, but the one at 100mm is particularly arresting. There's something compelling about the partial face filling the frame. I don't take a lot of portraits (something to do with hating having my own picture taken, I suspect) but my cats end up being frequent subjects. Yours with the 100mm reminded me of this one, posted elsewhere, taken with the Tokina 90mm macro:



If I were to take a portrait of a person, as opposed to a snap during some event (when I'm more likely to have the kit lens or a 28mm on), I'd probably want to use this lens. Of course, that has something to do with how much I love the lens itself, never mind its focal length!

Julie
02-12-2007, 10:44 AM   #7
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Original Poster
Good comments so far!

Does anyone think that a macro lens is 'too sharp' for portraits? (Unblemished 10-year-old skin and cats don't count!)
02-12-2007, 11:06 AM   #8
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I'd love to hear people's experience with this. Like I said, I think a 100mm f/2.8 prime would be great! In Pentax land, that means one of the macro lenses.

Sean - You have the DFA 100mm, right? How is the autofocus on that? Especially in indoor lighting?

QuoteOriginally posted by carpents Quote
Good comments so far!

Does anyone think that a macro lens is 'too sharp' for portraits? (Unblemished 10-year-old skin and cats don't count!)


02-12-2007, 11:10 AM   #9
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This picture was shot at 120mm f/4.5, 1/125s, ISO400, using my "eBay special" Sigma 70-300mm (cost me $25!) and my Sigma EF-500 flash (with the Joe Demb flip-it bounce card)

So a little longer then 100mm, but close enough.

02-12-2007, 11:28 AM   #10
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Absolutely not! For portraits I use a professional retoucher. She screams bloody-murder if the shot isn't razor sharp, every blemish, hair and wrinkle exactly matching the subject. DoF centered on the eyes, nose and chin back to ears realistic and lifelike.

She claims it's easier to remove and retouch; I know it saves wear and tear on my ears! I've seen her give a complete face-lift and take years (decades) off a subject; but only when she had everything to start. Well, she can work with less, but you don't really want to be too near because she grumbles and complains the entire job.

We can blur, tone, mist, fog etc in either darkroom to a customers desires and satisfaction--but only with the best starting material.

I've tried gimmicks like filters and nets and whatever. The only one worth it's price is the old 'soft-focus' lens from film days. Pentax had an excellent version, so did others. But you need to be 'spot on' with the focus or the output was junk.

Good macro lenses are excellent tools for anyones kit. I'd say start in the 70-120mm range and work outward until you fill the bag or run out of money.
02-12-2007, 01:02 PM   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by carpents Quote
Does anyone think that a macro lens is 'too sharp' for portraits? (Unblemished 10-year-old skin and cats don't count!)
Not at all, although I suppose there are plenty of people who would rather not be confronted with the harsh reality of their crow's feet! But some of the most interesting portraits I've seen have been of weathered people, so if the sharpness suits the subject, why not?

Julie
02-12-2007, 01:42 PM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by egordon99 Quote
I'd love to hear people's experience with this. Like I said, I think a 100mm f/2.8 prime would be great! In Pentax land, that means one of the macro lenses.

Sean - You have the DFA 100mm, right? How is the autofocus on that? Especially in indoor lighting?
That lens has autofocus?

Hmmm...let me check...so it does! Who knew?
02-12-2007, 02:49 PM   #13
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It really depends on the intention. Like you, I have taken portraits with anything from wide angle to telephoto. But to narrow down the categories, in general I use normal-wide to normal for environmental portraits (people or groups their environment). For that, with *istDS I use my A 28/2.8 or FA 35/2 AL. For "head and shoulders" type of portraits a short telephoto is ideal: no distortion, pleasing perspective and does not require coming too close to the subject. With *istDS I use 50-100mm most of the time with A 50/1.4, DA 18-55 or DA 50-200 @ 50-100mm). In film days I used K 135/2.5 or M 75-150/4 with ME and MX and K1000 but those are too long for *istDS. Here are two examples with DA 18-55 @ 55mm and A 50/1.4:





-= IVAN =-
02-12-2007, 03:56 PM   #14
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I like to use a FA 50mm 1.4 usually at 4.0 for sharpness and so that DOF is not so paper thin. (pics link to fullsize images)

Shot at f4.0:



Shot at f2.0:


Tony
02-12-2007, 08:30 PM   #15
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10 - 400

Good question. I've done everything from 10 - 400, it all depends where I am and what I'm doing. I probably use the 50mm and the 77mm the most. (and, you'll notice that I also tend to get in close with my portraits - it's good to see that others do too since a friend after looking at my pics was asking why I always "cut off" the top of people's heads)

at 10mm


at 77mm


at 138mm


at 400mm
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