Headshots should be simple, direct, and effective, with a clear view of the subject, but also a simple but professional backdrop. So, which focal length lens should you use, and how does it affect the final image?
I decided to test out a variety of lenses at different focal lengths for headshots, from 24mm right up to a ridiculous 1,200mm, to see how they impacted the shooting experience and the final photo. So, I captured shots of my subject outside and kept the same camera settings throughout, with aperture set to f/4, shutter speed at 1/500 sec, and ISO at 1,600.
There are a couple of cases where I used a teleconverter, which altered the aperture, and I’ll signpost those when it comes up. But in an attempt to keep things as consistent as possible, I captured separate shots, trying to fill the same space in my frame of the subject at each focal length, and took shots at 24mm, 50mm, 70mm, 105mm, 200mm, 400mm, 600mm, and 1,200mm. There’s a lot I learned doing this process, and hopefully, it’ll help you decide on a focal length for your own headshots, too. Be sure to check out some more before/after comparisons at the bottom of the article.
Wide-angle lenses are perfect for including plenty of the environment that surrounds the subject. They have a wider field of view, so it makes it easier to include more of the background in the portrait. In order to have the subject larger in the frame though, the camera needs to be positioned nearer the subject, and at 24mm this can be uncomfortably close.
The wider the lens, the greater the depth of field we get in the photographs too, so if subject separation or soft, out-of-focus bokeh is what you want from your background, then you might want to look for a longer lens.
Otherwise known as the nifty fifty, the prime 50mm is lightweight, fast, and relatively inexpensive. It’s probably one of the cheapest wide aperture lenses you can buy, which makes it perfect for beginners and pros alike. At 50mm, the lens is approaching almost the same focal length as the human eye, so it looks most natural when compared with our own vision. The background is beginning to get a little softer, but it’s still clear what’s in the environment.
This is where perspective compression starts to come into play. At 70mm, the background starts to perceptibly move closer to the subject, and depth of field decreases. A narrower aperture is required to compensate for this shallower slice of focus.
The 85mm prime lens is the quintessential portrait lens for most photographers, and when combined with a wide aperture of f/1.8 or so, can produce incredibly dreamy, out of focus backdrops that look fantastic.
As focal length increases, so too must the speed of the exposure length. At 105mm, there’s now an apparent zoom into the subject as we step back to allow them to take up the same amount of space in the frame. This extra zoom can easily cause camera shake blur, so a fast shutter speed is required to keep things sharp.
Facial features are noticeably flattened, which can be quite flattering in a portrait. Macro lenses at this focal length (such as the Nikkor 105mm) can be great portrait lenses so long as they focus to infinity.
Whether shot on a prime or the long end of a 70-200mm zoom, at this focal length, the background starts to turn into more of a walled backdrop than a contextual environment. The shallow depth of field when capturing shots at a wide aperture allows pure focus on the subject.
The focal length is getting very long now, and it’s difficult to handhold the camera and lens steady enough to get sharp shots. A shutter speed of 1/400 sec or faster is required to keep things sharp and devoid of camera shake blur.
At this length, image stabilization is required to steady the frame during composition. In low-light conditions, handholding is now turning into a bad idea, unless you boost the ISO to 1,000 or more to keep the exposure balanced or have off-camera flash.
A monopod or tripod is the best option for shooting a portrait at 600mm, as it bears the weight of the longer lens and steadies the motion as the portrait is composed. Once identifiable details in the background behind are now smeared into abstract colors and shapes in a most pleasing way.
Handholding a shot at this focal length is, if not before, now almost completely impossible. The perspective compression is immense, and just a fraction of the background is now zoomed up to fill the entire frame that looks like a paper roll backdrop behind the subject.
It’s impractical to take portraits at this focal length, but it looks like nothing else. Cinematic, and stylish, taking portraits on a lens this long is both insane and cool in equal measure. This would be great for those not able to position themselves right in front of the subject who instead have to shoot from afar. However, communication is difficult, and I practically had to shout as loud as I could to converse with the subject.
Below are some comparisons between focal lengths, with the wider example always on the left.
24mm Versus 70mm
50mm Versus 105mm
70mm Versus 200mm
400mm Versus 1,200mm
Overall, if I were to pick a focal length to capture headshots outside, it’d be between 200mm and 400mm, because it flattens the facial features, and enhances subject separation from the background. The backdrop is gorgeously out of focus but still contains a little detail to remain interesting. It’s also relatively easy to communicate with the subject as you’re not too far away, and the settings don’t have to become too extreme to maintain a fast enough exposure to keep things sharp, especially if aided by image stabilization. However, if shooting inside with limited space, I’d probably opt for 70mm if shooting on a f/2.8 zoom or 85mm at f/1.8 to maintain that shallow depth of field.