The Importance of Focal Length with Faces

After thousands of photos, through trial and error, reading, and seminars, I have learned the importance of using a longer focal length in getting good portrait photos.

Today I spent with my Muse (also known as Moose), and she was getting up close to my camera (a toy, in her book). I was using my standard 18-55mm lens, and I was shooting so close to her that I had to go down to the 18mm length to focus the lens. Even with a beautiful baby, you’ll see that a short focal length like that is not attractive for faces:

Muse shot with an 18mm focal length:


The shorter the focal length, or wide angle, creates facial distortions that are not attractive. You’ll notice that the Muse’s nose seems wider, her eyes are distorted, and it does not bring out the best in a person’s face.

Same event, shot at 50mm:IMG_7653Small

Much more attractive (I love that little face so much).

When shooting faces, do not go below 50mm (even with just iPhone shots, keep the wide angles for landscapes, never people). Go higher — longer is better. Using a telephoto lens (200mm or even 300mm) for portraits creates the most pleasing facial shots. Plus the longer the lens, doubled with wide aperture shots (lower F-stops), creates a nice bokeh effect in the background. What that means is the background is softened and out of focus, so the main focus is on the person (for my fellow nearsighted friends, you know that effect from the period before you finally got your first pair of eyeglasses. I remember my first pair at age 19 and looking out at my mom’s backyard, I realized that the leaves could now be seen on the trees! They had been a fuzzy, Impressionistic mess for years before that — that’s what bokeh is).

So take your cameras and iPhones out and start shooting those faces in tight, longer, telephoto lens shots.



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