Portrait Theory: Lens Selection

The Mona Lisa

After reading several articles in a row, like Ken Rockwell‘s March 2008 article, “Portrait Lenses”, I found myself fearful that good information about classical photographic portrait technique technique is being drowned by voices high in search ranking but low on education and skill.  I belive that the classical foundations are critical to producing consistent, top caliber work.  It is easy to demonstrate that portrait masters like Irving Penn, Yousef Karsh and Arnold Newman used the classical portrait techniques as the point of departure for their work.

What is the ideal classical portrait?  Like it or not, the ideal that challenges us all, even photographers, is Leonardo DaVinci‘s Mona Lisa.  I don’t think it is a surprise that the most famous painting in the world is a portrait.  We are hard wired to recognize and appreciate every nuance of the human face.  Furthermore, we have the ability to detect even the slightest asymetry or distortion.  Classical portraiture, whether painting, sculpture or photography, aims at simultaneously capturing an accurate likeness and idealizing the sitter.  This balancing act is mastered by only a few artists in each generatation, so it must be very difficult.  At least, there are rules of geometry that guide the way, which is the topic I plan to cover here in the next few posts.

So, the first order of business is to choose a suitable portrait lens.  The rule of thumb criteria for this is well established and nothing like Rockwell’s 15 foot theory.  Perspective is extremely important to making a pleasing portrait.  Perspective is determined by the camera to subject distance.  Most of use believe that the ideal camera to portrait subject distance to 5-7 feet and that the lens focal length should be twice normal focal length of the capture format, where the normal focal length is defined as the diagonal of the capture format.  For example, the full frame DSLR diagonal is 43mm.  Therefore, the ideal head and shoulders portrait focal length is 86mm.  It is therefore no surprise that Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and other lens makers offer several 85mm lenses that are tuned for portraiture.  Leitz is a bit of a maverick here.  First it set the standard normal focal length for the 24x36mm format to 50mm, a few millimeters longer than theoretcal.  Continuing the trend, 90mm is the Leica portrait standard, which it holds alone.

So, what does a classical portrait look like?  Simple, classical portrait of Ernest Hemmingway is the first Karsh I ever saw in person and the power of it is still impressive.  It was shot on 4×5 film using a 14″ Kodak Ektar.  This is the image most of us have of Hemmingway.

What happens when a photographer deviates from the ideal?  Given a lens focal length that fills the frame with the head and shoulders, if the camera is too close, we get an unpleasant wide angle distortion, making th nose too large, forehead bulbous and ears recede.  Arnold Newman used just this technique as a deliberate hatchet job in his famous portrait of Alfried Krupp.  The classical foundation led him to choose the “wrong” lens to momentus effect.

Alfried Krupp portrait by Arnold Newman

On the other hand, if the camera is too far away, the subject appears too heavy and flat.  I could not find an example of a master portrait made this way, in spite of Rockwell’s claim that “pro model shoots in the field” have photographers shooting head shots with 300mm and 400mm lenses perched on monopods.  While this might happen if a timid sports photographer is asked to shoot a swimsuit model, surveilance gear is not the norm for portraiture or fashion.  It achieves a creepy, voyeur effect that is not flattering to the subject.


So, keeping with the formual that 5-7 feet yeilds an ideal perspective, we have two common variants; full lenght and extreme close-up.  To accomplish a full length shot, a normal lens is in order.   For instance, the portrait below of Max Ernst and Dorthea Tanning by Irving Penn was made on 8×10 film using a Schneider 300mm.

Finally, the extreme close up, which can be very powerful, but seldom flattering.  Irving Penn used a normal 80mm lens on his Rolleiflex to shoot Truman Capote:

Whereas Arnold Newman used a Leica with a 135mm lens to capture Marilyn Monroe:

Since most people reading this blog use a DSLR, I’ll confine recommendations to that format:


(24mm X 36mm)
(23.7mm x 15.5mm)
“Voyeur” Effect 135mm 85mm
Full Frame Head 105mm 70mm
Classical Portrait 85mm 60mm
Medium 60mm 50mm
Full Length 50mm 35mm



7 thoughts on “Portrait Theory: Lens Selection

  1. nice recommendations on the lenses. way back when i was just starting out, i got a 50mm for my crop sensor n i thought it was impossible to take a portrait. now i have a couple to choose from for exactly wat i need

  2. It’s worth noting that many of these shots are using even wider lenses as (for example Newman’s Monroe shot) many of them are heavily cropped.

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