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135mm best for portraits? What's your favourite portrait focal length?
Old 12-19-2007   #1
steve kessel
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135mm best for portraits? What's your favourite portrait focal length?

It's often written that 135mm is the best focal length for portraits, because it blurs the background and eliminates distortion in the face (putting it crudely). But why not 150, or 90? Or something wider where the distortion is not so pronounced, the background muted, a composition with depth maybe or ambiguity. What's your preferred portrait focal length and why?

Last edited by steve kessel : 12-19-2007 at 14:12.
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Old 12-19-2007   #2
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To be clear; I am strictly an amateur photographer and not a terribly good one. However; I feel that my approach has evolved over time. When I started taking portraits, I was inclined to shoot with longer lenses (~135mm +). This is partly because I wished to put more space between myself and the subject and to abstract away from the scene. But over time I started to favour a more interactive approach to my subject (where I would consciously try to include myself in the setting rather than abstract away) and I started choosing shorter and shorter, and also smaller and smaller, lenses. Because of this, my preference now is for portrait lenses in the ~75-85mm range.

Note: as you get closer to a subject, the relative difference in distance between the nose to the lens and the cheeks to the lens increases. This makes raised facial features more prominent, and distorted, and can be unflattering. However, I have not found this to be a significant issue in head and shoulders portraits with a 75mm lens (or even a 50mm lens). If you are looking for really tightly cropped head shots then you may want to go longer to compensate for this issue but I have personally found no need.

As for background blur; depth of field (or lack there-of!) is effected by two factors: 1) focal length of the lens 2) size of aperture. Longer focal lengths and larger apertures produce shallower depth of field. At equal aperture (say f 2.0), a longer lens (ex. 135mm) will have a shallower depth of field (more blur) than a shorter lens (75mm), shorter lenses often have a larger maximum aperture. A 75mm lens at f1.4 will have less depth of field than a 90mm f2.8.

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Old 12-19-2007   #3
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An 85 or 100 would be a classic portrait lens, but 135 is more available.
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Old 12-19-2007   #4
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While I own several 100s, 135s and 75-85s, I prefer the 50 for the portrait. I think perhaps because I don't generally like the portrait without context. I want some information about the person and what's around them.

Also, the flattening of the features caused by telephotos can also be distancing. Portraits taken with a 35 or 50 from closer to the subject ... well... feel closer to the subject. I prefer that intimacy.

Much depends on the purpose of the portrait - of course. This is just for those pictures I take for my own enjoyment. If a client has a different need and aesthetic in mind, the lens choice reflects that need.
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Old 12-19-2007   #5
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Seems it depends on what is a portrait, simplistically a head shot or the subject in some kind of setting and the 135 "works" for the former but some others could as well.
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Old 12-19-2007   #6
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"Mug shots" at the newspaper where I used to work were always done with 85mm on a Nikon SLR or 90mm on a Leica RF. That was as close to "formal" portraits as I've ever done. For informal shots with an SLR, I often used 180mm and 200mm lenses for tight face-only shots. But many portraits can be done with wide angles and normal lenses, depending on the portrayal.
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Old 12-19-2007   #7
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I've standardized on the 105mm. I have it for both kits (Leica and Nikon). It gives me the best blend of compression as well as speed and sharpness. I used a 85 and then a 90 for years because of speed. Now film is a bit better I do not feel bad about loosing the 3/4 of a stop.

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Old 12-19-2007   #8
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135mm is one of my favourite focal length, but I do not do a lot of portrait photography.
http://www.fuwen.net/index.php?optio...d=26&Itemid=67

However I feel that 85-100 focal lengths are more ideal for portrait work. These are the focal lengths I work least on. But too many portraits with long tele can sometimes be boring, whereas the wide angles will allow the human subject to interact with his/her surroundings.
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Old 12-19-2007   #9
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i found that taking portrait with rolleicord is so rewarding in term of framing, atmosphere, Bokeh, and good contact with the center of attention (a closer subject means more humanity). If the style is more like shooting fashion icons then a longer lens is better. Rollei is 75mm in medium format so thats 35mm in the 35mm world. I would say a summilux 35mm would be an very good portrait taker. The faster 50mm is the best choice for portraiture with a rangefinder/
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Old 12-19-2007   #10
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1. Where is it written? Photography books I've read say that anything from 85-135 mm is fine, with a longer focal length better for tight face shots.

2. Notwithstanding the above, I don't agree that there is a "best"focal length for portraits. If you read portraiture books, I think you'll see that there's all kinds of portraits, from environmental portraits where the subject is small in relation to the rest of the frame, to 3/4 length portraits and head and shoulders portraits, to close-ups of just the eyes or the lips alone.

3. Barring physical limitations (eg min focus distance), practically any focal length can be used for portraits, from fisheyes to 300 mm lenses. As to out of focus backgrounds, it's a combination of focal length and aperture. A 90/2 can give as much out of focus as a 135/4.


Quote:
Originally Posted by steve kessel
It's often written that 135mm is the best focal length for portraits, because it blurs the background and eliminates distortion in the face (putting it crudely). But why not 150, or 90? Or something wider where the distortion is not so pronounced, the background muted, a composition with depth maybe or ambiguity. What's your preferred portrait focal length and why?
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Old 12-19-2007   #11
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135 is really handy when you have somebody who is sensitive about the size of their nose and you want to make it look as small as possible. Also if you are taking a picture of two or three people and one has a much bigger head. That head size thing has given me endless fits.
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Old 12-19-2007   #12
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How the lens renders can also be a factor. I've always really liked 85mm (Nikon SLR) and 90mm (Leica) mainly I think because of the way the particular lenses I have draw the picture. I'm actually looking to use my 75/2 more for portraits, but that is a very sharp lens. Maybe too sharp for certain kinds of portraits.
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Old 12-19-2007   #13
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My favourite focal length for portrait lenses in M mount would be 90mm while with SLR's I am partial to the Nikkor 105 f2.5 and I would love a 100 f2.8 Zuiko for my Olympus (currently have a 135 f3.5).

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Old 12-19-2007   #14
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I usually go for a 28 or 35, but prefer the more 'environmental' portrait. I also like being that much closer to the subject.
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Old 12-19-2007   #15
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80 - 105 for straight up portraits (90 for RF and the 80 - 105/2.5 for SLR)
35 - 50 for candid portraits


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Old 12-20-2007   #16
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On a DSLR it's 70 and 90mm (105 and 135 equivalent).

But I find it very hard to make anything over 50mm work on an RF when it comes to portraits. The whole set-up with brightlines puts me in the 'environmental mode'.. It invariably makes me gravitate away towards a more documentary style.. and I end up with more people in the frame and it's not really a portrait anymore, is it?

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Old 12-20-2007   #17
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I like shooting them with a 50mm lens, lets me get a little environment and it works out great for me, like the following:





For me, 50mm is the best all around lens, which is why my 35mm gets so little love, until I get my paws on a m8 that is...
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Old 12-20-2007   #18
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If cost is a factor, then using a 135mm for portraits is a good decision since there are any excellent 135mm lenses available for little money. I prefer 85mm-90mm for portraits, and I also like the exceptional Nikkor 105mm/2.5 lens.

Canon has a great 135mm/3.5 lens that is among the best 135mm lenses out there, and it is inexpensive. The Nikkor 135mm/3.5 is equally good, but can cost more [because it is a Nikkor].

Steinheil makes a great 85mm/2.8 lens that can be bought sometimes for $50-$70. I love this lens.
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Old 12-20-2007   #19
steve kessel
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Avotius
For me, 50mm is the best all around lens, which is why my 35mm gets so little love, until I get my paws on a m8 that is...
Lovely shots Avotius. Which 50mm lenses are these?
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Old 12-20-2007   #20
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My favorite portrait lens is the Olympus OM Zuiko 85/2. Here's a sample (sorry to those who have seen it):



I think 85-100mm is the sweet spot between 50 and 200 that are especially sweet for portraits.

The only RF lens I have that happens to match its spec is the Jupiter 9. But I'm having too much fun using the wider Jupiter 8 and 12, so I've never tried the J9

One of these days, I'd take it out for a spin.
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