Wide or long? Why lens size matters

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I photographed all these images as headshots to show how different focal lengths distort facial features. At 24mm the facial features look like a caricature, which is probably why this is the preferred focal length of many photographers who photograph comedians.

A focal length of 50mm has the least distortion and is the closest representation of what people really look like, which is why this is the focal length of choice at passport offices.

A focal length of 200mm compresses facial features and is the most flattering, making this focal length a favourite amongst portrait and fashion photographers.

Ever wondered why you look so bad when Jan at the passport office takes your photo? Aside from the fact that she gives really poor direction, it may also have to do with the fact that she’s working with the most unflattering focal length.

Your choice of lens makes a huge difference to how your subjects look in their portraits.

Longer focal lengths of 85mm and higher compress facial features and are more flattering. A focal length of 50mm is the most accurate representation of a face, and under 50mm tends to distort facial features, making these focal lengths ideal for character shots.

I love working with a focal length between 85mm and 200mm for most of my headshots, because I think it’s the most flattering.

The other thing I really love about shooting with longer focal lengths is that it gives a narrower angle of view in the background. This is perfect for locations where there is lots of clutter in the background like dumpsters in an alleyway, random people in the background or cars parked on the street.

I will work with a wider focal length of between 24mm-50mm if I need to photograph someone in their environment because a wider focal length will give me a wider angle of view in the background.

Your lens choice is as important to defining your style as the subjects you photograph, the lighting you use and the way you edit your images.

If you’re not sure which lens works best for your style, try spending a week only shooting with one focal length. I know that no matter how much I shoot wide, I’m always drawn back into shooting long.

So what’s your preference? Wide or long?

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