The 50mm Lens: One of Best Classic Portrait Lengths

I’m fortunate enough to have been a pro shooter for many years now. I shoot a wide variety of subjects, but they all tend to fall into the categories of commercial portraits and fashion work. I’m always photographing people—no still lifes, product shots, or architecture. To say that I always photograph people as a portrait and fashion photographer may seem like an obvious statement, but it has a crucial impact for me and the lenses in which I choose to invest.

In addition to being a professional editorial and fashion photographer, I’m also heavily involved in training emerging photographers in the industry. The one question I get asked the most is: “Which lens should I buy to attain the best classic portraits?”

This is a very poignant question and one that we have all faced at least once in our photographic journey. To answer this question properly though, you have to bear in mind a few key factors, such as what you plan to photograph and whether you are allowed any creative freedom in capturing it.

If you’re going to be photographing products and architecture, then you need to bear in mind that 99% of the time you’ll have to document these things without any distortion and with very limited creative freedom. If you take a picture of a building with a 50mm lens from the ground, the distortion lines created by that lens can give the impression of it falling over. The same theory applies to smaller still life shots. Certain focal lengths of lenses are not suited to properly represent the straight lines we see in architecture and packaging. Your client is not going to be overly happy when you show them their building appearing to fall over or their packaging appearing bent and warped.

If, on the other hand, you are going to be photographing people, there are no straight lines in sight and you can afford to use the lens distortions to your advantage.



This shot was taken with the Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens. Even with the model’s hand closer to lens than her face, the distortion is minimal and certainly not distracting.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ve probably realized this isn’t going to be a scientific article with distortion charts and algebraic formulas. This is simply my advice and opinion based on many years of experience and client perceptions of the work that I produce for them. If I’ve taken a portrait shot with my 50mm lens and I’ve made my subject appear taller—and thus slimmer—then they have yet to complain about such lens distortion! The point I’m making here is that, as photographers, we’re all in a creative field. We have creative freedom to create what we perceive to look good, not necessarily what looks “right.”

Understanding the Key Differences Between 50mm and 85mm Lenses

Let’s back it up here a second. What actually is “right” when taking a portrait or fashion shot? What is deemed “right” by photographers is usually dictated by what our human eyes see. If you attach an 85mm lens to a full frame DSLR, hold it in portrait orientation, and then open both eyes and look through the viewfinder, you should see that both of the images from each eye line up, almost like you aren’t looking through a lens at all. Do the same with a 50mm lens and you’ll soon find that you can no longer merge the two images together. This happens because the 50mm lens is distorting its field of view. To photograph your subject in anything but 85mm then would cause some sort of distortion. This is the theory behind the slightly dated notion that 85mm-105mm are the classic sweet spot focal lengths to eliminate any accidental distortion.



This image was shot with an 85mm lens to maximize the impact of the look from the model. The 85mm lens has compressed the image so that nothing appears closer or further away and all of the attention is brought to the model’s eyes.

As I just stated above, an 85mm lens is going to give you a more accurate representation of what’s in front of you. This lens will compress the shot so that things that are slightly closer to the camera appear to be on the same plane as things that are slightly further away. This will not only create some really nice shallow depth of field effects, but it also can be a little easier in general for beginner photographers to use. An 85mm lens won’t distort the subject in any way and will only compress your image, so whichever angle you decide to shoot your subject from you’re going to get pleasing results. For example, if somebody has a large nose and you photograph them with an 85mm lens, this won’t distort the nose but will rather give the impression of it being closer to the face and thus smaller. If you’d taken the same shot with a 50mm lens, you would certainly need to be a lot more careful about the position you photograph your subject from.



85mm lenses are great for tighter crop shots like this one. Here you can see that I’m very close to the model. Had I been using a 50mm lens, then I probably would have distorted her face and shoulder too much, which may have been distracting to the viewer.
 

 

Selecting a Classic Portrait Lens: 50mm or 85mm?

Perfect. So if an 85mm lens won’t distort my image and I can pop it on my camera and shoot away without worrying about making people look ugly, then why on earth would I ever want a 50mm lens? The reason you may want one is so that you can enhance what’s in front of your camera, using experience and a little knowledge. The 50mm lens will definitely distort your subject. This will become more pronounced the closer you are to your subject, but you can use this distortion to your advantage with the right technique. If you get down a little lower than your standing subject (for example, you can start shooting up at them), you can make them look a little taller and thus a little slimmer. This won’t work all the time. It does depend on the body shape, but with a little experimentation you can usually find the right angle.



This image was taken of a singer who was was much shorter than the typical 5’10″ height of a professional model. I was sitting on the floor looking up at her with my 50mm lens and from this angle I was able to utilize the lens distortion to make her appear taller and more dominant in the image.
 

 



Again, I sat on the floor shooting up at my model with a 50mm lens to take this shot. I personally like the extra depth a 50mm lens gives you in a shot like this. A longer lens may well have compressed the image, but I like how the model’s shoulders have been given extra shape through the lens distortion.

There are also times when you’ll be shooting in an interesting environment and you’d like to show more of the subject’s surroundings. This will be very tricky with an 85mm lens as it is more zoomed in, eliminating any room for your location to be displayed as well. The 50mm lens, on the other hand, with the proper usage, will have just enough distortion to show a lot of your surroundings but without distorting your subject negatively.



This is another 85mm shot but this time taken on location. The shot is a tighter crop and as such the 85mm lens compresses the image, leaving little room for distortion but also eliminating the majority of the model’s surroundings.

I personally use 50mm lenses all the time, whether it be in the studio or on location. I find them by far and away the more versatile choice. The most recent lens purchase I made was the new lensbaby_velvet-56 classic portrait lens. Not only did I want the lens’ signature edge diffusion, but I also wanted a lens that could properly represent my model and the location she was in for an upcoming editorial. It was a fashion shoot in a penthouse apartment, so I knew that not only would the space be tight but that I also wanted to show elements of the location in the shot with the model. With the available space and look I was after in mind, this shoot would just not have been possible with an 85mm lens.



I was very pushed for space in this shot as I am actually photographing the model’s reflection in a mirror. It was only possible to get the whole scene in with the wider focal length of the Lensbaby Velvet 56.
 

 



For this shot I used the Lensbaby Velvet 56 again, and I’m really pushing how far I can get away with the lens distortion a 50mm gives you. I really wanted a wider shot like this so I could get more of the model’s environment in the frame. I am at just the right distance from the model to avoid distorting her legs any more. Had I been any closer, her legs would appear abnormally large in relation to the rest of her body.
 

 

Bottom Line

If I could only take one lens to a portrait shoot, without hesitation it would be a 50mm lens. Yes, the 50mm does distort the subject whereas the 85mm lens doesn’t. However, with the proper skill and experience you can easily make this distortion work for you and not against you. Remember that we are the creatives. It’s up to us to make creative decisions on how our images look “best,” not “right.”


Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer based in London. To see more of his work, visit his website and Facebook page.

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    • Great article, Jake - I really enjoyed this.

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    • I've always liked the 50mm lens for portraits.  My portfolio from the 60's and 70's is full of them, mainly because that was the standard lens that came with 35mm cameras. 

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    • Nice explanation with examples. On of the better articles on the subject. Thank you very much. I learned a few things that I'll try to test in the near future.

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    • Thanks guys, I'm glad you found the article useful :)

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    • I am a bit confused.  I learned that the 50 mm "standard" lens for 35mm film (full-frame DSLRs) was close to what the human eye sees.  I am surprised that you said the 85mm did that.  The difference is a significant 30%. 

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    • Heya Robert, I would recommend trying the test out yourself  that I outlined in the article. Hold the camera up to one eye in portrait orientation and open the other eye. On a full frame DSLR the two eyes images should line up pretty accurately with an 85mm but not with a 50mm. If the images are lining up correctly with a 50mm lens then chances are its not a full frame camera…..or you have one cybertronic eye :D

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    • Very nice and informative article, thanks for sharing.

      Just one question: what if a 1.6x crop sensor body is used with a 50mm lens?

      Does that eliminate the distortion or there is still going to be a difference in how the image looks(besides the increase in depth-of-field), because the focal length is still a 50mm with different optical properties (slight difference in geometric distortion, etc.)?

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    • One other advantage of the 85mm over 50mm lens is noticeably shallower depth of field, making more aesthetically pleasing out of focus backgrounds easier to achieve. Nothing can ruin an otherwise excellent portrait than an sharp and distracting background. My normal go to lens for outdoor portraiture, where I have room to work, is my 180mm f/2.8 AIS Nikkor. But in tighter spaces I will always reach for the 85mm f/1.4 AIS.

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    • If I am to use one lens it will be a zoom encompassing a field of view from 24 to 70mm. This assumes that we want to have a model at some different poses and some different relationships to the camera. The 50mm is a standard and usually cheap to buy and of decent speed. When I shot Full Frame 35mm I was even partial to the 100mm. Being a distance away from the subject person or model is actually useful I think. But everyone should have a standard fast normal in the 35 mm to 85mm range of course to start off with. But why not a zoom though for flexibility for shooter and subject...I wonder. Interesting lighting in your work Jake. Distinctive. Hard to tell what FL you use which is how perhaps it should be, who knows...gs
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    • Very good and interesting article. Thanks 

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    • Great article, but with ASP-C lenses a 35mm sometimes optimized for wide angle shooting becomes your normal 50mm lens. A 50mm or 55mm becomes your 85mm on a cropped camera. I'm just wondering if you need a totally different approach to this ? 

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    • Heya Harry, yeah you're absolutely right, these figures and thoughts are purely based on working with full frame at 50mm. If you're looking for a similar 50mm look on the APS-C then you're probably looking at using a 35mm lens equivalent.

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    • Great article, sometimes the less expensive and standard "non- flashy" tools make the best tools For photography.

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    • Very useful info, thanks for sharing. I think it would be also important to remark the difference between optical distortion (inherent to the glass) and perspective distortion, which depends on the camera to subject distance (framing, camera angle...), which in turn relates to the focal length.

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    • Very interesting and useful article, thanks for sharing.

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    • Hi Jake  ! I just wanted to add that the angle of view of 50mm lens will differ from different manufactures . Take Pentax for example , their 50mm lens is a true normal lens , distortion free . I used pentax for many years and i liked shooting with both of my eyes opened . Once i went Nikon i had trouble with my 50mm , since it was much wider and caused some distortion just like you mentioned and when you open both eyes the images don't match . So ' based on that , Pentax shooters may want to go with something shorter like a 40mm or 43mm on full frame or the classic 35mm full frame which would be much shorter .

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    • Bueno!...

       

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