Today’s Question: A while back you explained the “long lens compression” was really more about the photographer’s position relative to the subject, not because of the focal length of the lens. But f the subject is a person, isn’t it true that a wide-angle lens will distort their face in an unflattering way?
Tim’s Quick Answer: Yes, wide-angle lenses will tend to create an unflattering effect in portraits. This is due in part to perspective distortion, and in part due to the lens distortion that is common with wide-angle lenses.
More Detail: Wide-angle lenses are essentially taking a view that extends beyond what the image sensor could theoretically “see”, and bending the light rays so that wider field of view fits within the view of the image sensor. That causes distortion that can clearly be seen by photographing a scene consisting some form of grid pattern, such as a brick wall.
That same distortion can alter the appearance of a person in ways that can be unflattering. If the person is very close to the camera, their face (for example) would appear very large in the frame. But because of the wide field of view of the lens, the rest of the person (such as their body) would appear very small by comparison. This same effect can cause a person’s face to appear distorted, such as by having a very large nose with comparatively small eyes and other features.
Similar to my discussion of long lens compression not too long ago, there is also a perspective effect at work here. If you’re using a wide-angle lens to photograph a person, they need to be closer to the camera to fill the frame. Thus, the relationship between foreground and background subjects will be exaggerated.
So, as a general rule it is best to use a lens with a relatively long focal length to photograph a person, to create a more flattering facial appearance and more accurate overall reflection of their proportions.