View Full Version : Portrait lens length

Steve Hamley
1-Feb-2004, 06:40
I just finished reading Mark Vieira’s book, Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits” and came across an unusual reference for the second time in a few months. On p.161, the later lens used by Hurrell is noted to be a 10 inch (Goerz) Celor. A few months ago at our local black and white group, someone that used to do professional portraits stated that 210mm was the correct focal length for portraits regardless of the format. The portraits he had did not appear to show the “wide” effect.

Any thoughts on the short focal length for portraits? I also wondered about coverage since he appeared to shoot from 10 - 15 feet at times. BTW, the book is a wonderful read - no “how to” stuff though, if that’s what you’re looking for.



David A. Goldfarb
1-Feb-2004, 07:57
That's a typo. Check p. 51--it was a 16-inch Celor, and he was shooting 8x10". Before that he used a 14-1/2" Verito mainly.

210mm is a nice focal length for 4x5" portraits, but kind of wide for 8x10", though I've done some portraits on 8x10" with a 10" (250mm) lens.

I don't think Hurrell was often shooting from 10-15 feet except for those full length shots that also involved elaborate sets.

Leonard Evens
1-Feb-2004, 09:05
The focal length you need to use is determined by the subject distance and how much of the subject you want to show in the frame. If you keep those the same, if you double the size of the format, you have to double the size of the focal length. That is elementary optics, and no matter how creative you are, you can't violate the laws of optics.

Normally, in portraiture, you want to keep a reasonable distance from the subject to avoid exaggeration of facial features. At such distances, you need a fairly long lens to be able to take a head shot or even a head and shoulders shot. Also DOF becomes more of a problem than it would be with shorter focal length lenses used with smaller formats.

This is not to say that you can't do portraiture in large format with what are, relatively speaking, rather short focal lengths. But it isn't the same sort of thing you would do with medium or 35 mm format.

Jeff Buckels
1-Feb-2004, 09:48
That thing about "210 for everything" is just weird. It makes no sense. It all depends on the format size and how much of the subject you want to show, and how much DOF you need or can live with, etc. etc. ... I have used the combination of 5x7 and 300mm (Imagon) a lot. I had advice going into LF portraiture that this was a good combination. It is true at least that Rodenstock marketed my lens -- in the late 20s, early 30s when it was made -- for use in combination w/ the "half-plate" (5x7) format. Anyway, I've always felt pretty comfortable with this lens/format and have stuck with it pretty exclusively, partly as a matter of discipline ("no chasing tail around with other formats, work with this one," etc.). It is very well suited to the head-and-shoulders form. The DOF certainly is not great, but as long as the sitter (stander) has a chairback or something similar to brace themselves with (so as to prevent swaying in and out of the focus zone), I don't see many logistical problems. If I want to get closer -- head only or similar -- then the DOF gets critical, really thin, and you can get the distortion problems noted above (depending on the pose and other factors). HOWEVER, even that situation is not all bad. The close proximity of this "outrageous old camera" causes some sitters to forget themselves in their facination with the camera/lens (the Imagon assembly is VERY odd-looking: I'll pop it off the camera and let them see it etc.).... -jb

Ralph Barker
1-Feb-2004, 10:22
Portraiture style, and thus focal length, are highly subjective. My preference for head-and-shoulders portraits is something around 2x the "normal" focal length for the particular film format, or the normal focal length, perhaps wider, for environmental portraits. Those choices keep the subject distance sufficient to avoid perspective distortion. With larger film sizes the 2x objective becomes more difficult to achieve, of course. But, a considerable amount of contemporary portraiture is being done with normal or wide lenses. Tastes and trends vary, but the "customer" is always king (or, queen).

As to the "210mm regardless of format" idea, I find that strange, at best. But, perhaps that's why the fellow no longer does professional work. ;-)

Jay DeFehr
1-Feb-2004, 10:27
As Leonard wrote, the lens focal length determines the image magnification, and the lens to subject distance determines the perspective. Those are the optical facts of life, but beyond that, the choice of focal length is an aesthetic one. The idea that there is a "correct" focal length for portraits is born from what most people consider flattering perspective. The old rule of thumb that the focal length should equal the two sides of the format combined might be more useful. That would indicate an 18" lens for 8x10, a 12" for 5x7 and a 9" for 4x5. Of course the above rule is intended for head and shoulders portraits, and would require greater lens to subject distances in order to include more of the subject in the image, which might be impractical for studio work, where a shorter focal length lens might be useful. I use focal lengths of 12",14 1/2",17",25" and 28", because that's what I have available to me, but I would like to have a 9" or 10" lens for 4x5 and 5x7.