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What is the best lens for headshots?

Updated: Jan 16

A debate between photographers since the dawn of time, or at least for awhile, has been what is the best focal length? It's a loaded question I know, but I'm going to try to unravel some of the mystery behind different focal lengths, and why some are better than others for headshots and portraits.

As a portrait and headshot photographer, I am usually looking to use a lens with a focal length that is flattering for a person. That ends up being a 24-105mm f/4 lens (usually at 105mm) for about 99% of my studio portraits. With that being said, if you're an architecture photographer, or you shoot wildlife, you're going to use different lenses for your specific needs. Just know that I am going to write this from the perspective of a headshot photographer.

Distance = Distortion

A common misconception is that wide lenses lenses cause more distortion, but it’s not the lens that causes distortion at all. What really makes your subjects face look distorted and unnatural is when you use a wide angle lens but try to keep the same crop as you would with a telephoto lens. In the animation above, the in-camera crop stayed pretty much the same, but the distance between the camera and the subject changed. This gives the illusion that a headshot taken with a 24mm lens compared to 300mm has a warped effect.

What do you think would happen if you changed your focal length, but not the distance to the subject?

300mm vs 105mm vs 24mm

As you can see, the photo on the left looks like a normal headshot crop, but the image on the far right side looks like a wide shot that I would never consider using as a headshot. Not to mention it's not a real person ;-) Overall, everything still look proportional because the distance didn't actually change.

So what would happen if you just cropped the image taken at 105mm and 24mm in post?

300mm vs 105mm vs 24mm (cropped)

When the images taken at 105mm and 24mm are cropped, the photos look virtually the same as the shot at 300mm. One thing you'll notice however, is the cropped images have a much lower quality. With the resolution of some of the cameras these days, this really isn't too much of an issue unless you go to the extreme like I did here, but just know that you'll be losing quality if you crop an image this much. If you're ever in a pinch and need to take a headshot, but for some reason only have a wide lens, you can always shoot it wide and crop later for a more natural look. Your client will thank you later.

That’s great, but what if you’re not shooting on a solid backdrop?!

This is where shooting with different focal lengths actually does matter. I’m sure you’ve heard the term lens compression, but if not, lens compression refers to the visual effect produced by using a telephoto lens to capture a scene. It can create the illusion that objects in the background appear closer together than they actually are. Basically, the longer the focal length, the more compression you get, and the more isolated your subject will be. Think blurry backgrounds and bokeh.

300mm vs 105mm vs 24mm (all images taken at f/4)

Much like the examples above, the 300mm image looks like a standard headshot with a nice blurry background, but as you move over, the images get wider. What you may not be able to notice from these un-cropped photos, is the impact of lens compression.

300mm vs 105mm vs 24mm (cropped)

Just like the photos taken on the solid backdrop, the 105mm and 24mm photos start to lose quality because of the crop. What you really start to notice when you shoot in a natural environment, or just have some sort of background interest like this shot, is that the lens compression becomes very apparent the longer your focal length.


If that animation video above was too fast for you, here are the images from that, so you can take a closer look.

So let’s get back to the question at hand… What is the best focal length? I personally love 135mm for headshots, but as I mentioned above, you can create a natural looking portrait with just about any focal length, especially in a studio environment on a solid backdrop. When you step outside, you may need to be a bit more diligent with your lens selection to get your desired effect. So, I want to know, what is your favorite focal length to shoot headshots or portraits?


If you ever want to to take your photography and lighting to the NEXT LEVEL, join me at an upcoming workshop, or book at 1:1 class! We also have a FREE online community for photographers.

Until Next Time

Jeff C.

You get a FREE copy of my e-course with a purchase of any in-person workshop ticket or voucher! ($500 value)

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