I cannot even tell you how long I've been wanting to do a post on this subject. It's been over a year, actually. I've been really surprised at how many photographers have no idea that they are doing this! My goal today is to point out the huge difference that one small turn of your wrist (and a giant leap backwards!) will make in your photos in terms of whether your subjects look like themselves (and whether they will be happy with the picture) or not!
Without going into the science of why, let me just tell you this:
Low mm = distorted. Whatever is physically closest to your lens will look disproportionately large.
High mm = not distorted. Always shoot portraits at the highest mm possible unless you are intentionally trying to distort the image for an artistic reason.
To illustrate, I photographed my subject using my 24-105mm lens without letting him move between shots. The only thing I changed on my camera during this shoot was the zoom on my lens. When I zoomed in, of course I also had to physically move backwards to make him fill the frame the same way. To show the two sides of the distortion spectrum, the photos on the left were taken at 105mm and the photos on the right were taken at 24mm, except for the last set, which I'll explain when you get there. Levels of distortion will vary proportionate to your level of zoom. Typically I do not like to photograph someone's face at anything lower than 70mm. Look at the huge difference it makes in how he looks! He is a handsome man at 105mm, but 24mm is a totally different story! At which mm would you like your portrait taken? :)
The picture on the left is what he looks like in real life. In the picture on the right, I can obviously still tell it is him, but it is not flattering! Don't do this to people! :)
In these close-up pictures, the distortion is even more noticeable because he is physically closer to my lens. No one wants a close-up picture of themselves that was taken at 24 mm - I promise!
Notice above how the 24mm wide-angle shot on the right makes his left foot (closest thing to my lens) look bigger than his head. This is not the case in real life, so why would I be wanting to make it appear to be so? Have you ever seen a picture of a family where a child who is on the front row appears to have a bigger head than his parents who are sitting behind? This is why.
Also notice how the change in mm even makes the background look drastically different. Look at the size of his body relative to the window in the photos above! You will also notice how it affects the look of the wall in the photos below. The things that are closest to me appear to bulge out toward the camera when I shoot at 24mm.
And like I said, there may be times when you want to distort on purpose. Below are pictures of a snowball he is holding. The picture on the left is kind of cool, since I'm focused on the snowball and its disproportionately large appearance makes it stand out (at 24mm). The picture on the right just looks dumb. A guy holding a tiny snowball. Yes, that's how it looked in real life, but wasn't what I was going for in my photo. It is acceptable to distort an image of someone if you know what you're doing and it is on purpose.
I hope this has helped illustrate how much of a difference the mm on your lens makes and will help put an end to unintentional distortion and wide-angle portraits.
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