So in the argument around which is best for a corporate headshot, a long or portrait lens the answer should be obvious, right? After all one of the lenses is called a portrait lens – the debate ends here. Or does it?
It’s not quite as simple as that because each type of lens offers different qualities that appeal from one client to the next and even amongst photographers. Before we get into explaining the benefits of long or portrait lenses I’ll break down the different types of lenses.
There are so many varieties of lenses for different purposes that each create different effects. Some lenses like tilt shift or fisheye will cause obvious distortions that you would typically avoid when taking a portrait. Other more standard lenses will cause a distortion too, however, they’ll be less noticeable and in some cases beneficial.
The normal lens choices start with a wide angle lens, moving through the spectrum before reaching the long lens. A photographer will probably eliminate the extreme ends of this range. A wide angle lens is great for photographing interiors, architecture or product photography. One of the reasons for this is because they allow you to fit more in the frame (the picture). The reality is that a human face is never going to be so big that it needs to use the same 16mm lens used to photograph the outside of a large building.
The reverse is true of a long lens – the longer the lens the less that it will fit in the frame. Perfect, a corporate headshot only needs to accommodate your head and shoulders. However, be careful, the longer the lens the further away the photographer needs to stand. If your photographer is using a 600mm lens more popularly used by bird watches or paparazzi, he or she will need to set up in the building down the street to be able to take the shot.
Despite this, long lenses are quite popular choices for some headshot photographers, choosing something more manageable like a focal length of 100mm.
This is also partly why a portrait lens exists. Something in the middle of the two lens types. Something like 50mm or 70mm lenses are great for portraits. They’re neither too close or too far away. There’s also my personal favourite, the 85mm which is my prefered portrait lens.
The Pros of a Long Lens
Long lens can help to make people look slimmer. This is an effect of perspective. The closer something is the bigger it looks. Long lens requires the photographer to stand further away so the subject therefore looks slimmer.
The Cons of a Long Lens
Because the photographer has to stand further away it can sometimes be hard to find a room big enough to allow the use of a long lens. This isn’t usually a problem in a studio but most corporate headshots are shot in a client’s office.
The Pros of a Portrait Lens
You can get closer to the subject when photographing them. The interaction is something that can be overlooked amongst discussions like these in which the debate is entrenched in the technical capabilities of a lens. A corporate headshot shouldn’t just be a head and shoulders picture without personality. A headshot should be creative and authentic, showcasing a person’s character. This is how a business portrait will help to make that all important first impression. To achieve this the photographer needs to engage with the person he or she is photographing, put them at ease and coach them to get the best out of their headshot sessions. The people being photographed for a corporate portrait aren’t trained models so they need the help and being physically closer helps to achieve this through the one to one coaching.
The Cons of a Portrait Lens
The reality is that there aren’t really any negatives. Yes a long lens will have a slightly slimming effect but that’s a benefit to the longer lens rather than a negative of the portrait lens. You won’t look bigger than you are and you won’t look bad.
Which Lens Would I Choose?
As I’ve already mentioned I would probably choose an 85mm, which is one of the longer portrait lenses if I had to choose between the two. But that is very much down to my own personal preference. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with using a long lens, a lot of good photographers use this approach really well. I just prefer to be close to people when taking their picture. Conversational distance helps me to get the most attractive shot.
It can sometimes be too easy to get caught in the technical debates surrounding photography rather than the creative abilities of the person taking the shots so rather than being concerned with what equipment they use I’d recommend looking at their portfolio to see what sort of images they produce.
Lizzie Tschornow is a Photographer for Photoheads, a London-based company specialising in commercial, events, editorial and product photography with a proven track record of successful shoots and satisfied clients.