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How to choose the right lens for portrait photography.

How to choose the right lens for portrait photography.

As a portrait photographer, changing from an 85mm focal length to a 35mm focal length, it completely change the way you see the world and the subject of your photograph trough the viewfinder. We can say that lenses are really your eyes in photography, for example switching from a 35mm focal length to an 85mm focal length you have the opportunity to change the way you see the world and the reality.

Looking from the perspective of storytelling you have the opportunity to completely transform the way your camera perceive the reality. In this way you can give to your photograph completely different mood trough the choice of a lens instead than another.

Is the 85mm the perfect lens for portrait photography?

Most of the photographers think that the 85mm focal length is the best lens to make portraiture. And it really is a good choice. The 85mm lens is incredible to get really flattering headshots and closeup images. The 85mm lens is a prime lens. It means that the 85mm will offer a single focal length (the 85mm of course), there is no ability to zoom in or out.

When I use this lens for a headshot I like to frame the image quite closeup and with a vertical ratio. I usually leave a little bit of a gap at the top of the image between the top of the head’s model and the end of the frame. And I really love the final result I can achieve using the focal length. Using an 85mm for portrait I not only make vertical photo but I also like to shoot in landscape mode. This add a more cinematic touch to your image. In fact the 85mm is a zoom lens and you have a lot of compression at wider aperture. In this way whatever is behind your subject isn’t going to be distracting. Shooting a portrait in landscape ratio I usually find interesting to cut a little bit the head of the model out of the scene as you can see in the image below.

This image was captured with an 85mm lens.

For this reason you may think that a wide-angle can only be used for landscape photography. But wide-angle lenses are so interesting because can show you different perspectives and angles for your portraits. The wide view allows you to create an interesting relationship between the subject and the location.

Amazing compression, no distortion, separation from the background.

This lens is loved by portrait photographer exactly for the compression you can easily obtain in your photograph. Photographers also appreciate that the 85mm focal length don’t distort the face and the facial features of the model. It also provide more subject separation from the background than other lenses (the 50mm lens and the 35mm lens for example). If you are a bokeh lover this is really the right choice for you. And you should prefer an 85mm lens to other wider lenses.

Anyway you should always remember that compared with a 50mm or a 35mm the 85mm focal length make more difficult capturing images in narrow places. But you can use the 85mm for the same kind of portraits: headshot, 3/4 portrait, and full body if there is enough space to move around. The only things is that you need to be further away from your subject to achieve the same result than with a 50mm or a 35mm.

Perspective compression.

The perspective compression is characteristic of any telephoto lens. With an 85mm focal length it is just amazing. The perspective compression is essentially the illusion that the background is closer to your subject, an effect of the zooming in given by the 85mm lens. This helps you make your subject stand out from the background, and the background will appear to be closer than in reality.

Control the background.

If you want to remove any distraction from your subject and hide the background you just need to grab your 85mm and open it at the wider aperture possible. On the other side you can keep more of the environment just picking up a slower aperture. But if you have a busy background the 85mm with a wide aperture is the answer to this problem. In fact it allows you to blur the background removing any distraction from the scene.

As I just wrote above with an 85mm you can shoot full body images, 3/4 portrait and headshot. About headshot it is the best option compared to the 50mm and the 35mm. In fact this wider angle lenses are going to cause a lot of distortion to your subject when shooting headshot. Using an 85mm lens for headshot you don’t have any issue about distortion. With a wide aperture on a headshot you will get also a beautiful fall off in the background.

Another interesting thing to do with your 85mm lens is shooting trough an object while focusing on your subject. This will add a mood of voyeur within the environment and improve the storytelling of your images at a higher level.

The 50mm lens for portrait photography. The Nifty-Fifty.

The second focal length every photographer will reach for is the 50mm also called Nifty-Fifty. Why is it called Nifty-Fifty? The name Nifty refers to the stock market (the 50 hot stocks) meaning the great usefulness of this focal length. As a prime lens in fact it is great to shoot low light. And you can use for portrait photography, street photography, fashion, landscape and more.

The 50mm lens is a great choice for every photographer ready to expand beyond the kit lens given with the camera. This lens has a great versatility and for this reason is really easy to use.

The 50mm focal length offer sharp optics, fast apertures, and the ability to easily capture a variety of different subjects, so decide to buy one to this lens is always a great idea.

The 50mm lens compared to the 85mm lens.

As the 50mm, compared to the 85mm focal length, has slighter wider view of field you can capture more background in your photograph. This will be really helpful if you are in a beautiful location, or if you want to tell more of the story behind the shoot. In other words you will have more compositional option with this wider focal length.

The 50mm is really good for 3/4 and full length body shoot. On the other hand ti is not as good as the 85mm focal length when it come to head and shoulder portraits. In fact the 50mm is not as flattering on facial features as the 85mm lens.

When it comes to bokeh also the 50mm is a good lens, depending on how fast is the lens. But with a 50mm 1.8 lens you can create a valuable subject separation and won’t be disappointed.

Another great characteristic of the 50mm lens.

When you look trough a 50mm focal lens the scene you see trough the viewfinder seems completely normal, same as you have been looking trough your own eyes. There is no telephoto magnification, no wide-angle distortion. So you see what you are used to see and it can be a relief for beginners photographers.

The 35mm focal length for portrait photography.

A 35mm lens is probably the most versatile focal length you come across as an option in your photography gear. In fact many portrait photographer love this lens. Alike a lot of street, wedding and landscape photographer use this focal length a lot for their work.

A 35 mm can do anything.

The 35mm lens allows you to capture many different types of angles of the same scene. It is wide enough to capture background elements, but close enough to use in more intimate shots like portraits and wedding photography. It is so versatile because is generally free of distortion. So it is wide enough to capture the scene or can allow you to get closer to your subject without any problem. It can get the job done at home and in any small places where can be really difficult to use a longer focal length.

Familiarity to the human eye.

This 35mm lens is almost the closest thing that gives you the point if view of the human eye. It is not as natural as the 50mm lens but it is quite similar to the human eye. For this reason when you shoot at this focal length you are giving your viewers a point of view similar to if they were on the scene. You can make this lens work for almost any situation in portrait photography. This can’t be said of most telephoto options or any wider lens.

This image was captured with a 35mm lens.


Not only you can always find a use for your 35mm for almost any situation you are heading into. It is also really compact. The reason is easy to understand: a smaller mm gives you a wider lens, a smaller mm corresponds also also to a smaller lens. The 35mm is really easy to bring with you when you need to travel light.

Focus distance.

Focus is controlled by three elements. The subject distance from the camera, the aperture, the focal length. With a 35mm lens you can focus closer than any other longer portrait lens.

It is amazing for Storytelling.

As a photographer you use the light and the moment to tell you visual story. With the 35mm focal length it is easier to tell the whole story compared to any longer focal length. You can make beautiful wide photos and perfectly fit a whole mountain in the frame. Or you can isolate your subject and decide to blur the background if your 35mm focal length lens is fast enough (from f1.2 to f2).


The 35mm as any prime lens is significantly sharper than a zoom lens. That is due to the fact that prime lenses don’t have extra glass inside that moves in order to zoom. As a result, you get better quality photographs due to less diffraction, which increases with higher number of lens elements inside as in the case of zoom lenses.

The secret power of the 35mm lens.

Wide-angle lenses make feel the viewer in the middle of the action. Which generates a big impact and creates an immersive experience for the person looking at the image.

As a portrait photographer, you have to see your subject as the main character of your movie. Every element on the frame goes around the subject to create an interesting atmosphere. But you have to be careful because, as you add more elements in the frame, the subject could become less important in the scene. So using a 35mm focal length you must ensure your subject is clear.

…using a wide angle lens remember this:

Use the rule of thirds.

Try to compose the scene using this rule. In fact with a wide angle lens you can have more elements in the frame, in this way you can give more order to the image. The rule of thirds is probably one of the most important composition rules to catch the viewer’s attention in the photograph. It creates a guideline through all the elements of the frame and gives more or less importance to the subject.

In this image captured with a 35mm you can see the use of the rule of thirds to have a good composition.

It is a composition guideline that places the subject aligned to the lines and to their intersection points. 

To obtain those lines and points you can mentally draw on your image two vertical equidistant lines and two horizontal equidistant lines. The result will be something similar to a chessboard upon your image. In this way your chessboard will be composed by nine panels of the same dimension and four intersecting point. Take a look to the image above to have an idea.

The lines are very important spots where the focus lands. According to the rule of thirds the photographer will place the most important elements on these points and lines.

Image distortion. Be careful!

Wide-angle lenses allow you to create an original story between the environment and the subject. However, they have higher image distortion than longer lenses, and their bad use can make the model look different from what you see in reality and create a negative impact on the viewer.

The image distortion can make objects look bigger by placing them too close to the lens. While if you capture them further away, they will look smaller. In this way you can also give less or more importance to an elements in the composition.

Barrel distortion.

On the other side, wide lenses cause barrel distortion, where lines that are straight in real life seem to curve inward. That happens because the view of the lens is wider than the sensor of the camera.

To avoid this problem try to put your subject close to the center of the frame where the image distortion is less strong. In that way you will keep the correct proportions of the body.

Depth of filed, fill the frame.

Wide-angle lenses have a bigger depth of field than longer lenses at the same aperture, which is a great tool to create an immersive experience for the viewer through the image. Try to put different elements between the lens and the subject. It may be a small leaf or even a window. In this way you will make a dynamic and original picture that will capture the viewer attention.

With a wider lens all you need is to create an interesting story around your subject.