Lens Choices For Portraits

When it comes to portraiture and beauty work, lens choice can make a big difference. The last thing you want is a distorted image that doesn’t accurately portray your subject. Lens choice can dramatically change an image so it’s important to understand the effects, pros and cons of each

In this photography class, Karl demonstrates a variety of lenses, from 16mm to 400mm, clearly showing the results of each. Looking at the shots, he explains which lens is best for portrait or beauty photography.



In this class:

Comparisons between the following focal lengths:

  • -16mm
  • -35mm
  • -50mm
  • -70mm
  • -85mm
  • -100mm
  • -135mm
  • -200mm
  • -400mm
  • Results from each
  • Selecting the ideal lens for portrait or beauty photography

Questions? Please post them in the comments section below.


  1. Hi Karl. I presently work as an architectural/ Interiors photographer but have just decided that it makes good sense to start learning about product photography and explore the possibilities it might create locally so that I am not soley relient on property photography.

    I am at the stage of putting together studio equipment for this and my first question is I plan to use the Nikon D850 FF for this so can you give me some guidance on what would be a good choice of lens for product photography. Thanks.


    1. Hi Glasgow21, somewhere around 100mm focal length macro but it also allows focusing at infinity too so it can be useful for other things. You will see Anna and I using her 100mm Macro on a Canon for lots of food photography. I’m using 100mm on Medium Format for most of my product work which would be equivalent to about 70mm on 35mmFF, but anywhere in the 70-100mm area of 35mm FF would be good as long as it can focus very close which is what Macro lenses do.

  2. I’m wondering if Ben is Stiffany’s brother? 🙂 How it’s even possible to have the same face across 12 shots?

    Great video. One interesting thing – if you take Ben’s picture with a 16mm lens and 400mm lens from the same distance – he’ll look exactly the same. Only the framing will different. I.e. distortion has a little to do with a lens, and only depends on the angle of view (or distance to the subject).

    I _think_ all this stuff has to do with how our brain is used to “see” faces. Based on my experience, a comfortable distance is about 2-3m. Of course IRL we can see faces much closer without noticing much distortion, but that’s because our brain is doing some “automatic correction”. The brain cannot apply this correction to a 2d image though…

    Karl, I would appreciate if you share some lens selection “tips and tricks” for different face types, moods, and applications/goals. It’s possible to gather some lens ideas from your wonderful video lessons, but having one “dedicated” video on the topic will be extremely helpful. Thanks!

    1. Hi Oleg, thanks for your comments and yes you are absolutely correct if they were shot from the same distance different focal lengths would look almost identical (there may be slight distortion differences due to lens design) however with certain lenses such as the 200mm it would be impossible to get very close because of the minimum focusing distances and the scale of the subject in the frame. But yes essentially what you see is based on how far you are viewing it from, we did an automotive tutorial recently and the car looked great with the 100mm but then I moved further back with a 150mm so both headlights would become visible in the same way that Ben’s ears are less visible when right up close to him. My go to lens for nearly everything though is my 100mm on a medium format camera which would be equivalent to about 70mm in FF35mm, I use this lens for portrait, beauty and product. Sometimes I go a little wider for full length (80mm on MF). Most product photographers use the 120mm macro on MF but I prefer 100 or 80 with extension tubes so I can have a closer perspective to the product.

  3. Tom

    Hello Karl,

    Best demonstration of focal length on a portrait I have ever seen! Love the comparison images below the video. Having a live model really added to the effect. Ben held the same pose perfectly. A 85mm lens is the best choice or baseline as you explained. I have had success shooting with a 35mm lens for a female subject of Asian descent to help narrow her wide face and pull her nose forward. Likewise shooting slender young adults and children with a 135mm lens helps slightly widen the face and provides a bit more space between the photographer and the subject. Thanks so much!

        1. Hi it would depend on the quality of the lens, it’s depth of field etc. But at around 70-120mm is a good focal length range for portraits and I’ve used my 70-200 many times for portraits. If in the 70-120 focal range it has a pleasing look and depth of field then it should be good, just test it at this range to see.

  4. Hi Karl, brand new student. You mentioned focus markers. How would you go about setting those up? I’ve never heard of that. 🤦🏻‍♂️ I’m also shooting on a canon (EOS R).

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for joining. Please can you indicate at what time in the video this is. It’s best for future reference on any content to make a note of the time in a video so we can jump to it and check. I’m guessing on this one I was simply talking about putting something like a lighting stand in as a focus check position.

      1. Thank you for the reply, it was at 4:33. I have a single point focus option. But sounds like you said 2 focus markers. It’s probably a feature not included on my camera I’d guess.

        1. Hi Paul in my viewfinder on the 5D there are a number of focus markers to choose from but I can only choose or activate one as far as I’m aware. I think what I was saying in the video was that I could see two markers that I could choose from that were overlapping his eye. We have an updated video on focus areas here – https://visualeducation.com/class/focus-2/ that you might be interested in.

  5. Hello,

    Thank you for the comparison. I wish you you used the 100mm macro lens as well to compare it with the 85mm lens.

    1. Hi, you will see us using the 100mm Macro in a lot of our food photography tutorials in the ‘product photography’ section.

  6. Hi Karl
    Amazing tutorial!!! … I have a question. What if you want to include more of the background, let´s say add a one piece sofa a little table … what would be your choice of lens? something a little wider perhaps?

    thank you

    1. Hi Raul, thank you. I’m afraid and you need to understand the basics of photography better if you are asking this question. Lens focal length has a bearing on many factors such as perspective, distortion, compression all of which mean certain lenses are better suited to particular tasks. You also haven’t considered distance of the lens away from your background so your question doesn’t really make sense in this scenario. Please watch this course, and especially the part on lenses and focal lengths https://visualeducation.com/section/introduction-to-photography/

    2. Hi Karl, wonderful video. I have a question, why 85 mm is suitable for portrait, why it is not 100mm or 200 mm?

  7. Karl, first of all thank you for an extremely informative series of training videos. I have owned a commercial photography business however, I have learnt more on portraiture from this series of videos than a lifetime of photography. Currently I have the Canon 5DS R and the 70-200mm f2.8 lens. This is a remarkable lens and coupled with the Canon EF12 extension tube it has turned this into an excellent macro lens although I now have the Canon f/2.8L IS macro lens. This particular lecture has answered the big question on how a prime 85mm lens compared to the 85mm setting on the 70-200 mm zoom lens. I cannot see much visible difference but there does appear to be a huge difference in weight and portability. I would not want to do an extensive portraiture session using this zoom lens. What are your thoughts? Peter

    1. Hi Plato, my preferred choice would always be the prime 85mm for portraiture as it’s easier to handle and for full aperture shallow DOF shots it will have a different look to it. It also makes you move your feet as there is no zoom option to fall back on. If the 85mm 1.2 is too pricey then the 85mm 1.4 is a good alternative.

  8. Hi Karl, The content covered a lot of information I already knew, but you deliver it in a very informative and entertaining way. Was well worth watching to get such a great refresher course.
    I am one of those that does have a fairly low ceiling height in the studio and agree with all you say on that subject. If possible it would be the one thing I would change to get more out of the space.
    Really enjoying your videos.

  9. Thank you Karl. I have learnt more in two weeks from your classroom than anywhere in my over ten years of photographing. You have given my desire to own a studio a leap. Thank you for your love.

  10. Hi Karl, your courses are phenomenal. You’ve blown the world of photography open for me and I can’t thank you enough. The breadth and depth of the content on this site brings together an incredible wealth of knowledge that I can’t imagine finding anywhere else. I’m a hobbyist, but I love photography and I’m always looking to learn from the people who have mastered it. Putting it all in one place like this almost feels like cheating…. 🙂
    Thanks again.

  11. kasunranamuka

    Hello Karl,

    Does the light fall off (inverse square law) apply to the lens focal length..? Assume that if you are in 16 mm and right next to the subject more light comes to the sensor and if you are in 200mm or even 400 mm does that light from the subject reduced a certain amount..?

    1. Hi Kassa, no as lenses are based on Aperture values that account for this. So f8 on one lens should be the same amount of light as f8 any other lens. In practise though they are a little but off but close enough.

  12. Hi Karl, I just open this courses today, and I am so interesting to build small studio at my house asap. I need more information about the software that you using ( Adobe Lightroom CC ) to plug in to my camera (Canon 5D mark 3). In which one section I will get the information (downloads sections). Thank you

      1. Dear Karl,
        Thank you for your answer. I tried to open the Lightroom CC or Capture One to Work with as you said, but my computer automatically. In this case , did I have to buy software Lightroom 4 (Lr 4) by my own separate ? Thank you. best regards Yato

        1. Hi Yato, Capture One you purchase as a standalone software. Lightroom and Photoshop are $10 per month I beleive.

  13. Hi Karl,
    thank you so much for your work! It really inspires me a lot and i’m learning soo much!
    I signed in just few days ago and it seems to me to be entered in an amusement park jumping from a class to another ?
    I’m on a FF camera and have a 50mm and a 100mm macro lens (mainly for products and food photograhy)
    Is the 100 macro lens suitable for portraiture?
    And (maybe a very stupid question…) do you always use manual focus?
    Thanks, Andrea

    1. Hi Andrea, I use manual focus about 70% of the time, one of the reasons is that I can also manually adjust the focus in very small amounts from the Phocus software for my Hasselblad camera. It is also easier to manual focus on a medium format camera because the viewfinder is bigger and brighter. However if it is difficult or dark then I’d switch to the AF, on 35mm cameras I use MF about 50% of the time. In answer to your other question yes it’s possible with a 100mm macro but I’d prefer a fixed 85mm portrait lens.

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