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The portrait lens: 50mm vs 85mm.

One of the most common mistakes I see other photographers make is choosing the wrong lens when making a portrait. With the 50mm and 85mm both being billed as “portrait” lenses, a lot of photographers use them for portraits without regard to what they are actually shooting. The truth is it makes a difference what you use and how you use it. Choose the wrong lens and you can potentially be doing your client a disservice when a more flattering lens option is available.

Take the two examples below for instance. While it’s hard to fault our lovely model Sandy, there are differences in the two photos both taken wide open with an 85mm and a 50mm respectively. The differences might not be profoundly apparent, but the trained eye will see that at this range the 50mm heavily distorts. Still don’t believe me? Take a look at Sandy’s nose in the 50mm shot, and then take a look at the 85mm shot. Now compare the foreheads. Most of the brides I shoot don’t prefer bigger noses or elongated foreheads; I’ll choose the 85mm for this shot every time.

So you may ask when do you use the 50mm? I follow a simple guideline when making portraits. 200mm for face only, 135mm for entire head, 85mm for head and shoulders, 50mm for upper body, and 35mm for full length. Below is another example comparing the 50mm and 85mm on an upper body shot, and using the 50mm in a more appropiate manner. There is still some distortion in the 50mm shot, but it’s arguably more desirable as it slightly slims Sandy in this portrait orientation. Hope you’ve learned something and enjoyed this edition of “For Photographers”. Be sure to try out these techniques on your next shoot! Like this post? Click the like button below!