How to Take Great Pictures: Portraits (Knowing what focal length to choose)

Over the past few years I have been developing my skill as a photographer.   I have spent hours reading material, and even more hours testing out new methods of shooting.  One of the biggest questions I find people asking is how do I take a great portrait?  People want that professional look but often don’t know how to get it.  Portraits bring the life of a person to the screen or page, they are an amazing way to capture lasting memories of friends and family.  You may have purchased a DSLR, either Canon, Nikon or maybe some other brand, and never felt that you truly utilized the power the camera has.  For the following sample photographs I shot each one in Av mode or Aperture Priority meaning I force my camera to shoot only at  f/4 and the camera decides according to the light what shutter speed to use.  I use this mode the most while shooting.  Each shot was also set at 100 ISO because I was outside in the afternoon.

Specifically for this instructional post I want to talk about the effect focal length has on how a portrait turns out.  The best way I believe I can explain this to you is to show you some sample photographs.  I am going to walk you through 7 photographs each taken at the following focal lengths, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 105mm, 135mm and 200mm.  The first 5 pictures were taken with the Canon 24-105 f/4L IS lens, and the last 2 were taken with the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II lens.  What I want you to know is that choosing a focal length for a picture as a professional photographer is not random.  For each picture I slowly moved backward while the subject stayed in the same spot, I wanted to have relatively the same crop but change the focal length each picture.  This is what I came up with.

24mm   f/4.0  ISO 100  shutter 1/400 sec

What you will notice with this picture is a few things.  First, the picture has almost a fisheye look to it, not very flattering to the subject.  Second, you will notice that you can see a great deal of the relative background, buildings on both sides and down the street.  The blur (or depth of field) doesn’t seem that pronounced, you can still make out what is in the background.

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35mm   f/4.0  ISO 100  shutter 1/320 sec

You will now notice a slight change between 24mm and 35mm.  In this 35mm picture you can see less of the buildings on each side of the subject.  As we go through each picture watch carefully as the background seems to be pulled closer to the subject.  The distance between subject and background hasn’t changed but the focal length of the lens makes it appear that it has.

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50mm   f/4.0  ISO 100  shutter 1/400 sec

Now at 50mm you can no longer see the building on the left of the subject, the background has been pulled closer to the subject that it isn’t even in view anymore.  The fisheye look has now pretty much disappeared but the portrait still doesn’t quite look like the pros!

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70mm   f/4.0  ISO 100  shutter 1/400 sec

Now in this image you can no longer see the curb on the left hand side and the buildings in the background are getting seemingly even closer.  You will also notice that the blur in the background seems to be blurrier.  The photo is now looking less like a snap shot and more like a portrait.

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105mm   f/4.0  ISO 100  shutter 1/400 sec

Now the one building that was there on the right for the first tree pictures is gone, the blur is even greater and now we are working with what a lot of people would consider a nice portrait.  The shape of the face and head of the subject looks normal, not distorted.  They are almost completely separated from the background and pop right off of the picture, but we can still increase that look and blur by extending our focal length even further.

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135mm   f/4.0  ISO 100  shutter 1/500 sec

This focal length would be where a lot of great portraits are taken.  Canon has a prime lens (only one set focal length, not able to zoom) at this focal length that people absolutely rave about.  The subject has simply popped right of of the background and she looks completely beautiful (she’s my wife by the way)!  This would now be an image that would be more considered a professional looking portrait and all we have done is simply chosen a longer focal length and stepped further away from the subject.  The blur in this picture is fantastic and it isn’t even a really wide open aperture it is still at f/4!

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200mm   f/4.0  ISO 100  shutter 1/320 sec

Now this is the max focal length we have in any of our lenses.  The image is still shot with an aperture of f/4 but the blur in the background is really strong now.  You can hardly make out what it is behind her.  Any distracting elements in the background are now gone and the eye is free to focus it’s attention only on the subject.  With the aperture of f/4 the background is completely out of focus but the subject is completely in focus right from the tip of the nose to the eyes.  This can sometimes not be the case when you choose a focal length less than f/4.  This now is a very professional looking image that many people would be proud to take.

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So there you have it, if you want great looking portraits don’t simply stick with a focal length of 24-50mm, if you can try getting a little longer, anywhere from the 70-200 range takes amazing portraits, even if you are still shooting at f/4.  There are very specific reasons why this takes place, but for the purpose of this post I have not gone into that detail.  I hope you enjoyed this lesson on how focal length effects a portrait!

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