The seven best focal lengths for portraits

13123303 s image There are numerous ways of taking a good portrait and this brings us to the question of lens choice. We have put together a list of the seven best focal lengths for portraits and when to best use each.


This is a great all round focal length. It’s wide enough for environmental portraits, but not to wide to distort corners. It is also very close to the human eye perspective. A proof of this is the fact that some very successful compact cameras use it. The Sony RX1 and the Fuji X100 (23mm with the crop factor makes 35) use this focal length.

There are some great 35 mm lenses for DSLRs. Besides the interesting perspective, a wide aperture is a great advantage as it will help separate the subject from the background, as well as allow you to shoot in conditions where light is less available. Great models come from Nikon and Canon, as well as Sigma.

I wouldn’t recommend a 35 for headshots , as you would have to get really close and become potentially uncomfortable for your model. For weddings and event portraits, it could also make a good choice.


The 50mmm lens has earned its name of standard lens for the 35mm format. It is the best choice for full body portraits. It’s not too short to make you get too close, yet not too long to be used in a tighter space, like a studio. It’s a lens no photo kit should be missing. Even the less expensive, f1.8 versions are highly capable of delivering top quality.

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Probably the most popular choice for headshots. Almost all 85mm lenses deliver very smooth bokeh and incredibly sharp details. The wide aperture versions do an incredible job of separating model from background. It is the choice of a wide range of professionals from fashion, wedding ,commercial and classic portrait photography. Although not the lightest lenses in terms of weight, they aren’t very large and you still stand a chance of capturing candid portraits as well.

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For many years, this was the most popular lens for portraits. This was due largely to the popularity of the 1960s Nikon 105mm f2.5. This is the lens Steve McCurry used to take the world famous Afghan Girl portrait in 1984. It is therefore a truly fantastic choice for headshots. The extra length allows you to shoot further from your subject. Also, some of today’s 105mm versions have great macro capabilities and offer a reproduction scale of 1:1.

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These are the only zoom lenses in this list. We mention them because these lenses offer a multitude of portrait focals in one package. Instead of buying three lenses, you only buy one. Sure, you’ll lose low light capabilities as the best versions of these zooms come with a 2.8 maximum aperture. They’re also bulky and a quite unpleasant to carry around all day ,but still, what great tools they are. You get great glass, incredible focusing speed and the ability to shoot a full body portrait as well as a detail on a face. For this, we highly recommend them as all-round portrait lenses (not to mention all the other things you can shoot). It is fair to mention however, that no zoom on the planet will have all the optical quality of a prime lens. That’s how things are at this point in technology, but for what you’re getting, it’s a good compromise. 

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It is a focal length used primarily in sports and wildlife photography, but it is also the option of professionals in other fields. For one , you can stand a good few feet away from your model. This makes it easier for whoever your shooting to feel more freely. Second, the longer the focal length , the better the separation from the environment. The issue of background is far less concerning than it would be with a 50mm lens because you won’t get much more than a very even blur. You are pretty limited to head shots though when taking staged portraits. However, if you’re after candid street shots and distance is required , this is the way to go. Many private detectives and paparazzi use this tool for their work.

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Tilt and shift lenses

The last position in our list is taken by these rather special optical instruments. They offer a unique look no other lens can mimic. Varying focus regardless of depth of field allows for great creativity. They come in different focal lengths, but for portraits, 85mm and 90mm versions are optimum. They are creative lenses by definition so shooting an event probably won’t be easy, especially since the focus is done manually. In terms of personal style, tilt&shift lenses can provide great help in achieving a special touch.

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