If you have ever taken a close-up portrait of someone with the wide angle lens of your smartphone, you may have noticed that they look a little bit. . . from. Maybe their nose looked a little big, or their face was just a little too wide. You didn't imagine it.
There was nothing physical about your friend that day. This weird distortion is exactly the effect that wide-angle lenses have on people's photos. You don't get a wider field of view without changing the perspective in other, more subtle ways.
And it's not just wide angle lenses; every lens affects how people (and everything else) appear. Understanding what's going on is important if you want to take better photos, especially since smartphones now have more lenses.
Let's go in!
Focal Length Redux
Lenses are measured in focal length. We've looked at some of the underlying physics before, so we'll keep it practical here.
The focal length tells you the field of view of a particular lens. This is basically how wide or zoomed your recording will be. In photography, the 35mm film and full-frame digital cameras are used as the standard reference when it comes to focal length.
When a lens is described as having a "35mm" or "full-frame" equivalent, or simply an "equivalent" focal length of 50mm, that means the field of view is comparable to a 50mm when used on a 35 mm camera This is how almost all smartphone cameras, including those on Apple's iPhone 1
In reality, the field of view also depends on the size of the digital sensor (or piece of film) relative to the focal length of the lens, the smaller the sensor, the more zoom (and the narrower field of view) you seem to get.  The telephoto lens on an iPhone 11 Pro has a true focal length of 6mm, but that's the equivalent of a 52mm lens on a full-frame camera, so that's what Apple is marketing. the ratio between the actual and equivalent focal lengths is the crop factor .
For the purposes of this article, we usually work with full-frame equivalent focal lengths. You don't have to go too deep to get involved. Just understand that, like almost everything in photography, there is some serious simplification going on.
Generally, there are three types of lenses:
- Wide Angle: These have a 35 mm equivalent focal length less than about 40 mm. The shorter the focal length, the wider the viewing angle and the greater the associated distortion.
- Normal : Has a focal length of 35mm equivalent between about 40mm and 60mm. Their field of vision approximates how people see things. There is some blurring around the edges, but most subjects in this focal range usually look quite natural.
- Telephoto: Their equivalent focal length is longer than about 60 mm. The longer the focal length, the narrower the field of view and the more they seem to zoom in on distant objects.
Focal Length and Perspective
Now that you know the basics of lenses, it's time to talk about perspective. The following pictures are all taken with a DSLR to get as much contrast as possible, but the same underlying things happen with the different lenses in your smartphone. Note that the car is about the same width with every shot.
A normal lens takes a picture that just looks normal. The field of view usually matches what you see with your eyes.
A wide angle lens no longer just contains a scene in a photo – it fundamentally changes perspective. Remote objects appear smaller than in real life, while closer objects appear larger.
Conversely, a telephoto lens not only makes objects appear larger; it is an optical compression effect that makes things look as if they are closer together. Do you see how the houses in the background appear much closer in the image below than in the normal shot (the first image in this section)?
Lens options for smartphone camera
On a smartphone, your lens options are more limited than with a DSLR. Since the lenses are built into a smartphone's camera, there are some physical limitations you need to fix. A giant telephoto lens may sound like a nice idea until you realize it would double the size of your phone. Wide angle lenses are much easier to use and more practical for ordinary everyday photography.
For example, the iPhone 11 Pro has the following three lenses:
- Ultra Wide Angle: It has an equivalent focal length of 12mm (real focal length is 1.54mm).
- Wide Angle: It has an equivalent focal length of 26mm (real focal length is 4.25mm).
- A normal lens that Apple calls a telephoto: It has an equivalent focal length of 52mm (real focal length is 6mm). Since a longer focal length typically requires a longer physical lens, we are unlikely to see a real telephoto lens in a commonly available smartphone for the time being.
That's a great selection of lenses for everything except sports or nature photography. But even with a standard wide-angle lens, there is enough distortion to affect people's appearance.
Wide Angle and People
So, what happens when you make a portrait of someone with a wide angle lens? 
That's a picture of me. Here's another one made with my iPhone's 52mm lens.
Do you see how strange my face looks in that first shot? Without the normal one you can compare it to, it can be difficult to explain exactly what's wrong. The effect is most evident around my nose and eyes. In the wide-angle shot, they appear larger and bolder than in real life.
The shift in perspective also makes my head look weird around and pinched. This kind of distortion is the source of that old adage that "the camera adds 10 pounds".
There are a number of factors that influence how severe the distortion is:
- The focal length: The shorter the focal length of the lens, the more distortion you get. An ultra-wide angle lens makes people look weirder than a wide angle lens.
- Distance from Subject: The closer the subject is to the camera, the stronger the effect will be. If someone is a few feet away, you probably won't notice anything is wrong. You only really see the distortion when you get close.
- Subject Position : The effects of distortion are worse at the edges of an image. Limbs and other body parts can seem stretched in super weird ways.
How to do it right Wide-angle portraits
Wide angle lenses are not ideal for close-up portraits. If you want a headshot, you'll get better results with your smartphone's telephoto lens (if there is one). However, that doesn't mean you can't take great portraits with any lens.
Here's how to do it:
- Step back: The closer you are to your subject, the worse the distortion will be. If you give them some space, they will look more natural.
- Center Your Subject: There is less distortion in the center of the image. Don't just blindly follow the composition rules, such as the rule of thirds. Place them where it looks good.
- Recording Context: Wide-angle portraits allow you to record a great background and add a load of context to a photo. Capture someone who is doing something cool.
- Don't worry: Now that you know why people look weird in pictures taken with a wide angle lens, it won't surprise you. Play around and have fun!
RELATED: How to take a good portrait photo