Is 35mm or 50mm Better for Portraits? We Take a Look!

This is a pretty classic question. Is 35mm or 50mm better for portraits? Lots of photographers are told these are two of the most versatile focal lengths you can buy. And that’s indeed very true. Portrait photographers can do a lot with these lenses. Years ago, they were made with more distortion and not with the consideration that portraits will be shot with them. Further, only the center area was really best for shooting portraits. But over the years, lens technology has really, really improved. So we’re looking at 35mm and 50mm lenses for portraits across various manufacturers.

The 35mm Lens for Portraits

We’ve covered a pretty comprehensive amount of information on shooting portraits with a 35mm lens. And we always say pretty much the same thing: stick to the center. The edges of a 35mm lens are still fairly distorted even by today’s standards. But they’re far better than they used to be. Some companies try to get around that by making their optics really large. This sort of makes sense if you’re shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless medium format. But for mirrorless full-frame, it will get annoyingly heavy. 

In one tutorial, we state:

“Remember that when you shoot with a 35mm lens, whatever is closest to the frame will be distorted. In some cases, that’s okay and it can be rather acceptable. Depending on who you ask about the image above, the distortion of the subject’s arm is either perfectly fine (no distortion), or there is some and it’s unflattering. All of this has to do with posing.”

So how do modern 35mm lenses fair for portraits? We went into our archives to find images from various manufacturers over the years. The following photos are from these reviews. We’ve done no distortion correction to these images.:

As you can see, all of the lenses render a very acceptable look to them even when the subjects are toward the edge of the frame. Is there distortion? Yes. But it’s not at all awful. Most clients aren’t going to look at it and freak out. But photographers, and anyone that does a ton of photoshop will. 

The 50mm Lens for Portraits

In my personal opinion, the 50mm lens is fantastic for portraits. And in recent years, the 50mm lens has truly come into its own for portrait photography to even rival an 85mm. Yes, they’re really that good. In fact, one of the best is the Canon RF 50mm f1.2 L USM. Canon even ethically sponsored a post with us years ago to show it off for portrait shooting. But with the modern 50mm lens, you can’t really go wrong.

Over the years, we’ve tested a lot of 50mm lenses. So we’re rounding up images here of portraits shot with these 50mm lenses. We’ve got:

Which is Better? 35mm or 50mm?

Truly, both 35mm or 50mm are good options for portraiture. But if I had to pick one over the other, I’d reach for a 50mm lens for portraits. The 35mm lens is great for environmental portraits and even great for standard portraiture. Its wider angle lets you tell more of an atmospheric story. The 50mm helps you shoot just a great portrait. It’s hard to go wrong here.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.