Welcome to the forum!

As an adjunct to the Tangents blog, the intention with this forum is to answer any questions, and allow a diverse discussion of topics related photography. With that, see it as an open invitation to just climb in and start threads and to respond to any threads.


Hi - I'm sure all of the things I will mention in this post are second nature to portrait photographers. But I have never set up anything to take a formal portrait. But now, with my Christmas present from my wife - Harry Head - I would like to start looking at different lighting, etc. I have a 24x24 softbox, two umbrellas, radio controllers, three Speedlites. I think I've got enough to play around.

The first thing I've always wondered about is the "portrait lens". Why are 50, 85, or even a 100 mm lenses commonly called this? So I started to think about the setup, zoom compression, subject-to-backdrop distance, etc. I would like to know if some or all of my assumptions are correct or way off.

- If I have a backdrop, and off-camera lighting, I will want to place the subject far enough away from the backdrop so there is no shadow cast by the lit subject onto the backdrop.
- If the subject-to-backdrop distance is large (#'s of feet) to avoid these shadows, it's not going to look so good.
- A long prime lens/zoom lens is then used to "compress", and give the appearance that the subject is right up or close to the backdrop.
- A "portrait lens" focal length is long enough to give this illusion. Of course, you need room behind the camera to move back far enough.

Am I way off on this way of thinking, and trying to figure out how to set things up?

Thanks for any feedback - Dave


  • Hi Dave! 50mm is commonly referred to the "normal lens", which is the closest to what the human eye sees. Anything less in focal length will start to distort your subjects features to varying degrees. I like the 85mm and also the 70-200 focal lengths for portraits. (zoomed to 200). In studio I use the 70-200 usually around 100mm plus if room allows. 

    You have plenty to play around with! In your particular case, I would try to get the subject roughly 6 feet from background if possible. Use soft box as main light, umbrella as fill. One speed light to light background (you can bounce it off a white box back into the background to give better dispersion and coverage if needed)  the other as an accent light or hair light. But to answer your original questions, your assumptions are correct. However I would like to add that you can also place your subject close to the background and light them both with one light also. 


  • Thanks, Jay. I appreciate the input. I was glad to hear I wasn't too out of whack with my assumptions. The info about the 50 mm and human sight also is something I had not heard before.

Sign In or Register to comment.