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  1. #1
    David Lyga's Avatar
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    Is there a definitive focal length for tight head shots...

    ...or do the facial characteristics matter in this determination?

    Fat faces, thin faces, faces with large features in proportion to the head size, handsome faces, homely faces...HOW MUCH COMPACTING DO WE WISH TO IMPART?

    For 35mm, the 'proper range' runs from 80mm through 105mm. Some even swear by, (or swear AT), the mighty 135mm. But what is REALLY the best way to determine this flexible number in order to optimize the results? Do different faces require different aspects? This is a question that is not parsed too often because the 'literature' gets into the way of challenging theory. - David Lyga

  2. #2

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    As long as it suppresses the urge of the subject's nose to appear too large it's long enough. How large is too large is subjective and dependent on how good God (or the plastic surgeon) has been to them. I have been very happy with an 85/2.8 Sonnar.
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails R1-03994-033A.jpg  

  3. #3

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    Don't forget to consider head/camera positioning which can either enhance or subdue particular features. Also, don't forget to consider the feel of the final image. It's a combination of subject, distance and desired final effect. I do have a rule of thumb for "very" tight head shots though... I quadruple the diagonal of the usable film size. For 135, if cropped to 8x10, the diagonal is about 38mm so I'd probably use something near 150mm. But this is if I'm actually cropping the hair out of the frame right to the face. If I'm including all the hair and a bit of shoulder (straight on and not to the arms) then I might start with a 105mm. These are just averages... for me. A long nose or chin requires different posing and lenses... subdue those features by shooting them straight on with longer lenses... or accentuate those same features, as one would when "characterizing" someone like Jay Leno, by doing the opposite.
    Last edited by Old-N-Feeble; 12-09-2012 at 01:31 PM. Click to view previous post history.

  4. #4
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    It's better to think in terms of distance thn to think in terms of focal length. The thing that controls the perspective distortion is distance from the subject. You should first decide what perspective you want, then choose the lens you need. Doing the opposite is allowing your equipment to control you.

    If you don't have a long enough lens you can always crop reasonably. Just be careful about focus. Also, you can use a zoom lens and just don't admit it if you think it will damage your internet cred.

  5. #5
    Slixtiesix's Avatar
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    I would put the ideal focal length somewhere between 85mm and 135mm with 35mm, 135mm and 180mm with medium format, depending, as said, on the subject´s face and framing, if you want to keep a somewhat intimate and not to much compressed look. I really think the facial proportions do matter in this regard. I have seen many portraits of children made with an 80mm in medium format (which is about 45mm in 35mm) and they looked great. Portraying an adult with a rather large nose with an 80mm lens on the other hand is a real crime.

  6. #6
    David Lyga's Avatar
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    There really are alternate preferences with how much one wants the features compacted. One is not 'right' over the other. 'Character' might be imparted with shorter lengths and 'subtlety' with the longer lengths.

    Obviously, as we all should know, distance from the subject is the REAL determinant for perspective here, as elsewhere. But, since adult heads are usually about the same size, that 'distance qualification' becomes somewhat moot if you seek uncropped, tight shots. - David Lyga

  7. #7

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    For 35mm I use 80 to 135mm. Best is 135mm because it gives a more reasonable working distance. I swear BY it!

  8. #8
    David Lyga's Avatar
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    You know Brian, I have also felt that way but was always afraid to say that because it is 'incorrect'. The 135 allows a smoother face to be photographed and I do not find the 'telephoto' effect damaging. All the literature says that we are wrong, however, but I guess we do what seems best for our perception of attractiveness. The 135 seems to eliminate a lot of rough edges. - David Lyga

  9. #9
    David A. Goldfarb's Avatar
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    There's no hard and fast rule. Pick the lens you like that works for the DOF characteristics you want and that's fast enough for the amount of light you have. My favorite 35mm portrait lens is a Zeiss 85/1.4 ZE, because it's fast and seems to be designed with the aesthetic of classic large format portrait lenses in mind. For a really smooth background, there's nothing that says you couldn't use a 200mm or 300mm lens for portraits, as long as you've got enough space to move back.
    flickr--http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidagoldfarb/
    Photography (not as up to date as the flickr site)--http://www.davidagoldfarb.com/photo
    Academic (Slavic and Comparative Literature)--http://www.davidagoldfarb.com

  10. #10
    fmajor's Avatar
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    On 35mm I have tried and tried to get portraits from a 135mm focal-length that i really like. I know there are some photog's who have genuinely mastered this length, but i've just not gotten it and it's wickedly frustrating. I can't fault my gear - i have a great lens (Minolta MD Tele Rokkor-X 135mm f3.5), but somehow cannot find the sweet spot that others have exploited.... The 135mm is great for other things i've shot, but faces/features seem less 'natural' (for lack of better adjectives) - arrgghhhhhh.

    I'm not shooting much 35mm anymore (or anything really - i'm in a rat stinkin' slump....), but if i was, i'd be seriously looking at a MC Rokkor-X 85mm f1.7.

    I have made some great (to my amateur eyes) portraits with my 58mm f1.4 (and a few w/a 50mm), but it requires me to be rather close to fill the frame appropriately. I typically only do portraits of my family, but these focal lengths seem a shade wide. Additionally, there are times when a little distance would help without the "compression" (? - again, bumping into failed adjectives) the 135mm provides.

    Though i'm not an accomplished photographer, i am aware of the different FOV each focal length provides (though haven't memorized them - i'm such a slacker....). The frustrating part of this is that simply 'foot-zooming' doesn't always settle the challenge of subject compression of the tele's or the detail expansion of the wides as it related to subject inclusion in the FOV.

    David Lyga, thanks for starting this thread. Thanks also to all you more experienced photographers for your input.

    This is the kind of gear question that i strongly prefer (over the 'which is better - Canon, Contax, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus or Pentax?' type threads), but see as often.

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