This is not hyperbole.
Amidst a plethora of tutorials of questionable value, along comes of GIF of unknown provenance that illustrates the effect of focal length on a portrait. Yes, it’s been done before (here, here, here) and many photographers intellectually know that a longer focal length yields more compression of foreground/background elements and less distortion facial features, but rarely is the effect so obvious – as made so by the animated GIF.
Amateur photographers tend to think of focal length as a zoom feature on their camera without realizing the distortive effects it can have on the subject. Professional tend to reach for their “portrait” lens (e.g. 85mm) without considering that there is still a dramatic difference between 85mm and 200mm (and perhaps the narrative effect of more environment).
On the filmmakers sub-Reddit that featured this GIF, an interesting dialogue played out about intent and focal length. capMSFC stated, “The point is that deciding the focal length should be the product of deciding the shot first.
“How close the camera is dictates the relationship of your subjects to the space they’re in. You can then decide how wide or tight you want the frame to be from that perspective. Those two things will tell you what focal length to use. Most people that work the other direction by choosing how tight they want the shot by picking the focal length first tend to not understand or utilize positioning the camera differently for various perspectives.”
A YouTube video featuring Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins explains his reasoning for selecting a wider lens for shooting dialogue.
Although Deakins speaks from the filmmaker’s perspective, the concepts are the same for the still photographer.