boudoir photography with the 50mm lens

boudoir photography with the 50mm lens

With shooting space often times so tight for boudoir photo sessions, there is the temptation to use a 50mm lens for tighter headshots on a full-frame D-SLR. Instead of stepping back a bit and using an 85mm lens or longer, a bit of visual laziness comes into play, and we rely on the 50mm lens too much. It really is too short a focal length for a tight portrait. I think many photographers are even too in love with their 50mm lenses, and use it without thought of how this would distort someone’s face when used too close to their subjects.

I totally understand the need for compromise. Quite often the angle we need to shoot from, dictates a shorter-than-ideal focal length – whether because of the shape of the room, or the direction of the light. This still doesn’t make the 50mm a good lens to shoot tight portraits with. A longer focal length would still give you more flattering results.

The example photographs in this article are by Petra Herrmann, Kansas City boudoir photographer. Petra also maintains the Business of Boudoir, website which has a lot of useful info for boudoir photographers.

She used a 50mm lens for these images, but kept to half-length as the closest distance to photograph her subject. The 50mm really is more of an environmental portrait type lens, rather than a tight portrait lens.

On a crop-sensor camera, the dangers of using a 50mm lens as a portrait lens is reduced. Because of the crop factor of the specific camera, it forces a different perspective, similar to that if a short telephoto lens had been used on a full-frame (FF) camera. So the rest of the discussion here relates more to how the 50mm lens behaves on a FF camera, but users of crop-sensor cameras will find this relevant.

Now, before we delve deeper into this, some disclaimers to head off a few obvious arguments:
– yes, a 50mm lens can be used effectively,
– yes, wider lenses provide interesting angles and perspective,
– and I’m even aware of Bill Brandt’s work,
– yes, I am all for individualistic style,
– and yes, I know Suicide Girls style of photography,
– yes, I know my favorite pin-up photographer, Robert Alvarado, mostly uses a 24-70

For all that, here is the basic problem in using the 50mm lens as a tight portrait lens – it is just too short for what is attempted.


general advice for choice of lens for boudoir photography

– Fall out of love with your 50mm lens. Use it when it is appropriate.
– Use a longer focal length for tighter portraits. Start with an 85mm lens.
– Even then, ideally use the 85mm lens for a loose portrait, rather than a really tight portrait.
– Use a 100mm / 105mm macro lens for portraits.
– For tighter portraits, also consider a 70-200mm lens rather than a 24-70mm lens.
– When you do use a 24-70mm lens, try it at the longer focal lengths first.

So please, for the love of all that is good on this planet, fall out love with your 50mm lens and pull out some other lenses better suited for portraits and specifically, boudoir photography!

Again, the example photographs in this article are by Petra Herrmann, Kansas City boudoir photographer. Petra also maintains the Business of Boudoir, website which has a lot of useful info for boudoir photographers.


recommended lenses for boudoir photography

42 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Aniversari says

    Even on crop-sensor camera, my Nikon 85mm, even 1.8, remains my favorite. Of course I can’t shoot always comfortable, but I prefer to squeeze in a corner to be further than shooting with 50mm.

  2. 2 says

    I just converted to Full Frame and I noticed the same thing! Funny you should mentioned it now, just after my switch. The 100mm was my favorite lens with the crop sensor and is even more fun now with the full frame. Now I just have to make sure I don’t step in too close with the 50mm when I take candid portraits of my kids at home.

  3. 3 says

    Mr. Neil,

    I also believe that for boudoir photography, 85mm. and 70-200mm. lenses are recommended, despite the longer focal lengths, since these give out outstanding bokeh that greatly contributes to the intimacy found in photos of this genre.

    On this note, I’m reminded of two special lenses, the AF Nikkor 135mm f/2 DC and AF Nikkor 105 f/2 DC., both of which (from what I’ve heard) are highly suited for portrait photography. Any chance that you’ve used one of these lenses before.? If so, could you share us your thoughts on this? :)

  4. 4bartosz wegrzyn says

    I am new to photography and i was wondering why the distance matters?
    If i take two pictures with 50 and 85 mm and align them so the sensor sees the same area what would be the difference?

    • 4.1Bryan says

      The shorter the focal length, the more the features are drawn out. Faces may be narrowed, noses become longer. For an exaggerated example, think of the puppy dog pics taken at a close crop with a wide angle lens. It’s the same affect, but less obvious, with a shorter focal length like a 55mm or 35mm. The longer focal lengths compress the image and give a more flattering portrait.

      And I found out first hand, my DX camera make crop my 50mm lens image to look like 75mm but the perspective distortion is still the same as a 50mm. So to get a pleasing portrait perspective I need to mount my 85mm and take a few steps back. I had a real hard time getting my head around the whole idea until I tried it out myself, then I could see it.

  5. 6Gorka says

    I am wondering why Neil doesn’t even think about the 50mm EF 1.4 USM.It’s third times less expensive,has only 1/2 stop less light and produces (according to a lot of photo web sites) excellent results and not that far from his super-pricey “L” brother.

    Maybe due to …..”crap Bokeh”? ;-)

    • 6.1 says

      Because that is a garbage lens to many people. Of all the lenses I have in my life, there has never been one I loathed like the Canon EF 50 1.4. The look of the images just do not do it for many, many people. If you want a good alternative without going to the 50 1.2, check out the Sigma 50 1.4. It is vastly superior to the Canon 1.4, and is a much more cost effective option than the Canon 1.2

      • Mark Mobley says

        Or wait a few months; Sigma has announced a new 50 1.4 lens to add to its Art line which is likely to improve on the old Sigma 50/1.4. If it’s as strong a performer as their 35/1.4 it should be a good’un.

  6. 7 says

    Yes, a great article mr. Neil.
    for portrait can be between 85mm and 135mm. I have Canon 100mm f/2 and 50mm f/1.4. Both lenses are fantastic, especially the 100mm f/2. Anyway is not the same thing 50mm on crop versus 85mm on ff. I know you know it. Maybe others don’t. A 50mm on crop of 1.6x will be 80mm very close to 85mm but to have the same dof we need to open the 50mm with 1+1/3 stops more. As example 50mm at f/1.4 will give on crop almost the same view and dof like an 85mm f/1.8 at f/2.2. The benefit is that on ff we have the possibility to close the aperture a little bit when on crop we are forced to shot at maximum (f/1.4). In this case the quality is not the same. That’s why ff cameras gives better and sharper photos in some cases. This words are for begginers, mr. Neil know this technical issues for sure. Regards, M

  7. 8 says

    Thanks again for a informative article.
    The lens you mentioned – Nikon 105mm f2.8 macro VR, is it the best lens to shoot wedding details, such as necklace, wedding bands etc. ? what other uses can this lens have in the wedding photography. I am still wondering whether to buy this additional lens for those details or keep shooting those with other lenses i have (24-70, 70-200etc.)
    Any help is greatly appreciated.

  8. 9allan says

    Correct me if wrong Neil (for real), but I understand that the 50mm lens behaves pretty much the same on a crop sensor as it does a FF. That is to say that facial distortion on a crop is the same as on a FF.

    However, the difference becomes evident because on a crop sensor one is forced to shoot from further back in order to achieve a similar framing to a FF. Thus, the distortion effect is lessened.

    On the other hand if the image is shot from the same distance with both cameras and the same lens, the distortion will be similar but the framing will be different.

    It is also my understanding that this is why it is called “crop factor” and not “zoom factor”.

    Sound reasonable?

  9. 10John says

    Allan, that was my thought exactly. What’s the difference between shooting a 50mm on FF and then cropping, versus shooting a 50mm on a “crop factor” camera? A 50mm is still a 50mm. It behaves the same, optically, regardless of the sensor size. Unless I’m missing something …

  10. 11pasquier says

    Allan and John,
    As Neil said there is a difference in perspective.
    On the crop factor the 50mm will have the character of a short tele ie compress facial features more pleasingly, whereas on a FX it will have it characteristic “rounded and distorted” feature.
    Personally, I don’t like the 50mm much for portraits.
    HTH, P:)

  11. 12pihaime says

    Allan and John,
    to keep the same occupation of your subject on the frame, the usage of a 50mm on a FF requires to be 1.5x closer compared to the same 50mm mounted on a DX. Hence the perspective will change.

    If you stay at the same position and crop the FF image, result will be the same (FF vs DX, both with 50mm).
    If you stay at the same position with a DX+50mm and a FF+75mm, persperctive is the same. DoF will be better (shorter) with the FF (assuming same aperture).

  12. 13 says

    @ Allan – 50mm on FF and cropping (with 1.6x on canon) to the exactly the same frame like 50mm on crop will give you, i think, the same image, with the same dof (if the aperture is the same).

  13. 14pihaime says

    Side remark,
    The 105mm micro VR is a f/2.8
    The best aperture is distance-to-subject dependant:
    If the subject is more distan than ~3m, you can get your 2.8 aperture.
    Closer than 3m, the max aperture goes worse (all the way to the worst f/4.8)
    For portrait the impact is limited.

  14. 16Dan Rode says

    Not to belabor the point but distortion is more about the distance between the camera (sensor) and the subject than the field of view or any particular focal length.

    A 50mm lens and a 85mm lens both have no appreciable facial distortion when you stand 15 feet away from the subject. 50mm on a full frame body from 15′ will get the entire person in the frame. 85mm on a crop body from 15 feet is close to head-shot range.

    The difference between using a 50mm on crop body and a full frame body is where you have to stand to get the same field of view. Using the same lens, the crop body puts the photographer 1.5x farther away, so less distortion.

  15. 17 says

    I’m doing 2 Boudoir shoots this weekend – and have a 5D MK II and was thinking of using mainly the 50mm 1.8. now I’m having 2nd thoughts. I also have the 100mm Macro F2.8 L IS USM, and the 70-200 F2.8 L lens… would you suggest using mainly the 100 and the 70-200 (heavy to work with for too long!!) Also, what is the best F stop you’d suggest (minimum and maximum)
    Many thanks – love your articles and work.

    • 17.1 says

      Robyn – use your fifty :) You’ll find that the focal length will allow you capture a large variety of angles and unique perspectives you simply cannot capture while pretzeled into a corner because your lens is too long.

  16. 19 says

    Best portrait lens ever made….. the STF 135 f2.8! The use of twin apertures gives incredible control of the DOF, and the bokeh is in a completely different league!

    Oh, sorry – it’s not a Nikon, or a Canon lens…. It’s a Minolta / Sony mount!

  17. 21 says

    Thank you for another great article! I’m one of those that hasn’t put the $$ down for that nice piece of glass. We’ve got the 70-200 and 28-70 and some others around. I’ve been using the 50 until I pull the trigger on the 135 :) I promise I’ll switch… for the love of good portraits, I’ll switch!!! I only got the 50 b/c I had seen photog Kelley Ryden use it for newborns and it was only $100~

  18. 22Anil Kakde says

    Thanks Neil. Most of my shots being tight portraits, I realized this conclusion pretty quick. But, seeing so many professional photographers use the 50mm as a default, even for tight closeups, put me with a fight with myself. I knew it was not good but could not find an article like this and by a pro like you to back me up. Now I can give a reference when I proclaim an 85mm to do the job better :)

    -Anil Kakde

  19. 23OC Mike says

    Neil, I agree with your conclusions in another of your fine, technical articles. Keep up the great work! The questions which have arisen here point out the need for you to provide an article on “Full-frame & APS/DX-frame: what’s the difference in the center 50% of the frame.” The questions here scream out that there are a bountiful number of your students who seek to be enlightened by your wisdom!

    Point 1: A full-frame sensor projects a full-frames “sized image” onto a full- framed sensor, which just happens to be the exact size of a single, old 35mm film image. The world is safe.

    Point 2: An APS-C (Canon) or DX (Nikon) “sensor” is much smaller than the “ff” sensor. So, for ease of explanation, let’s pretend that there’s a magic switch on my camera which changes the sensor from “ff” to DX…and back again whenever I flip the switch. So, I take a photo using the lens being spotlighted here, i.e. the 50mm. Does every one agree that it doesn’t matter whether this lens is a f1.2, or a f1.4 or a f2.8? Ok. So, my “ff” lens puts all of the image onto the “ff sensor”, this is the big sensor. Now, I switch to a DX (smaller) sensor. What happens, remember that I have not changed the lens! This lens puts a full framed image onto the smaller sensor so that the perimeter (the edges) of the image falls onto internal camera body instead of the sensor because the sensor is SMALLER…remember, I did NOT change the lens.

    Point 3: In the example of Point 2 above, how do the two images compare if you only look at the DX portion of the images????? So, we are looking at the “ff” image but were disregarding looking at the perimeter so that we can make a precise comparison. How do the two images compare? Hint: I did not change the lens, i.e., I used the same 50mm lens for both the full-frame image and also for the DX image. How are the images different (not looking at the perimeter of the “ff” image.) ANSWER: the images are identical! The photons going through the same identical lens do not care whether the sensor is ff or DX. Pause until this sinks in and it makes you say “oh yeah!”

    Point 4: Simplistically, if I change the lens and move my feet to make the image look the same THEN long, telephoto lens will flatten the nose and normal (same as what the human eye sees through an eyeball lens) 50mm will make the nose grow longer and a wide angle lens like a 24mm lens will make your subject’s nose grow even longer yet!

    So, in conclusion, changing ONLY THE size of the sensor will only change, or in this case it will cut off all the photons going to the perimeter of the image, thus the perimeter photons have no sensor to fall upon.

    So, in conclusion, changing ONLY THE lens will change the size relationship between items which are at different distances from the lens. This difference can be and are as subtle as the distance from the tip of your nose-to-camera distance versus the distance to other parts of your face that are ALL FURTHER AWAY FROM THE CAMERA. This is called perspective.

  20. 24 says

    Hi Neil, some very sound advice here,I have the Nikon 85mm 1.8 lens and it’s absolutely gorgeous for portrait work especially when shot wide open. I also think it puts me at a comfortable distance from my subject, a nice distance to allow easy communication.

  21. 25Leander Conradie says

    Trust me to read this 2 weeks after buying a 30mm f/1.4 Sigma for a crop sensor Canon, which basically comes down to a 50 on full frame :( However, I do like the f/1.4 aperture

  22. 29Mike Zawadzki says

    135 f/2L has become my go to lens for this kind of work, even though some would consider it a little long to use indoors.

  23. 30 says

    Is the 50mm lens recommdation for cropped sensor cameras? I’m confused why you listed for boudoir when the point of the article to NOT use it for boudoir. Thanks. :)

  24. 31 says

    Erica .. this article is really not about the 50mm lens per se, but rather about not using a lens that is too short for tight portraits.

    A crop sensor forces you to step back when using a 50mm lens, so offers less risk of the bobble-head effect.

    So read this entire article in context – that if you use a short-than-portrait focal length, that you don’t step in too close. That’s it.

  25. 32Ray says

    Hi Neil, When using a DX camera, does the 55mm length on a DX zoom give the same portrait perspective as a 85mm FX lens. Or would it be better just to use the 85mm FX?

  26. 33 says

    Yes, it would. For a similar composition as the 85mm on a FF camera, the 55mm on a crop-sensor camera would force you back to a position where you’d get a flattering portrait since you won’t be too close to your subject.

  27. 34Michele says

    Hi Neil you are a terrific teacher!

    I love the 50mm,it’s a magic lens, but if you are a photographer you know that the limit is half figure when you take a portrait.
    I will not be comfortable to get closer even if i’ve a 50mm on an APS-C sensor but I’m a control freak.

    So i agree with you. I disagree with you at the end of the article when there is a list of lens for boudoir photography.

    In old days but even today i’ll use for boudoir only two lens with natural/artificial light:

    Any 35mm

    Any 85mm (or a 100mm)

    You have time,it’s not an event. A 24 – 70/2.8 is good elsewhere but 24 is too wide and 70 is too short for boudoir.

    I love the 70 -200 but not for boudoir.

  28. 36Nick says

    Good advise. The photos in this article all have been made with a 50mm and they look fantastic. Perfect examples of how to properly use a 50mm lens for portraits. I think you can even get closer to the subject than the photographer did in the first black and white photo. Or just get a 36 megapixel camera and crop the photo to your liking.

  29. 37 says

    Nice article. You are correct in that the 50mm is the perfect lens of convenience when shooting boudoir. Walls, beds, dressers, etc., are often physical obstacles that may prevent “backing up” in certain situations, so the 50mm is a natural option. When it comes to the close up portrait, if you have an extra 3-4 steps of back up room, the 85mm does deliver superior results.

  30. 38robSC says

    Took an impromtu portrait of my mother. All I had was a 50mm Summicron and my Leica M3. Too tight ended with distorted facial features. SOOO frustrating. Lesson learned…

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