Breaking Portrait Photography Rules With Wide-Angle Portraits

We all know that we should photograph portraits using an 85mm or 105mm lens. A 70-200mm will also work. But Tony and Chelsea Northrup are telling us to shake it up and go wide. However, how wide should you go?

It appears, according to the Northrups, what's old is new again. In the video, they recommend trying to go wide with your portraits to give your images a new look. Should we give up on the telephoto portrait look? I don't think so, especially for those portraits that call for a more classic or professional look. I couldn't imagine doing a set of headshots of the local bank's executives. Alternatively, the regional hospital board of trustees. However, If I'm photographing the local microbrewer down the road from me and I want to get a natural look that is different, I could see pulling out my 24mm and shooting away. Alternatively, if I was to do a family portrait session, I could see using the wide-angle approach with at least some of the shots. With the world now accustom to the wide-angle views that most cell phones use, I think people are more accepting of this look in portraits by professional photographers.

Are there limits to using wide angle for portraits? I think so. As I mentioned earlier, I think for professional types of headshots the wide-angle look is not appropriate. However, I also believe there are several types of subjects where this look may not be the best choice. For example, a person with a large nose or forehead may not benefit from the wide-angle look. Of course, a wide-angle portrait also requires additional care with the background.

What do you think? A good idea or just a fad?

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20 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

I just did a family get together shoot for friends who's kids were here from all over the globe for a reunion. I did all of the candid shots with a 70-200, but did the individual shots with a 35mm (FF camera). However, none shot with the 35 were head shots. The images came out nicely because the distance between me and the subjects made that "wide angle look" virtually non existent.

Fact is, the 35mm is my "stay on the camera" lens. All you need to know is its limitations.

These days using something on the shorter side are more like phone pictures, and I think that's a point as we are flooded with ugly looking selfies:)

Sticking a 24 mm up in somebody's face is silly. Someone dI'd research and came to concussion if you want a realistic selfie you need to keep 6 feet between yourself and lens. At that distance use whatever you want, it's not the lens.

They are provoking be purpose :)

Check out some of Joe McNally's work.

Douglas Turney's picture

Absolutely. Joe is a master of capturing people and using different tools and technics to get the right image. Not the correct "cookbook" image.

Kirk Darling's picture

Joe McNally, Mary Ellen Mark, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith. Decades of National Geographic photographers. Emulating my idols Mark and Smith, I was shooting wide-angle portraits journalistically in the early 70s.

Heck, photographers have been doing wide angle portraits for more than half a century. No, even longer--Jan Vermeer clearly used a camera obscura to produce wide-angle painted portraits hundreds of years ago. The wide-angle lens has always been the tool of choice for environmental portraits. Wide angle portraits did not begin with cell phone cameras.

This tends to be my complaint about the Northrups: Their sense of history only goes back as far as their own experience, and they pontificate authoritatively without even doing so much as a Google search.

I'm not familiar with those others. Of course I've heard of them but...

In a recent video, the woman (I can't remember her name. Maybe Chelsea?) was demonstrating using a 600mm prime for headshots. Her camera, with the lens mounted, was hanging by her side and she swung it, BY THE CAMERA!!, to the shooting position. That pretty much encapsulates my feelings about them. I never watch their videos. I only saw the one with the 600mm because someone referenced it on another site and I only watched up to that point. The last one before that was at the introduction of Nikon's 200-500 and I couldn't watch all of that one either.

Daniel Medley's picture

Nothing wrong with using a wide angle for portraits as long as it's used in proper context. Check out a lot of Frank Doorhof's work. He shoots quite a bit with a wide angle.

Douglas Turney's picture

Daniel thanks for mentioning Frank Doorhor's work. I forgot about him.

Robert Nurse's picture

I think I need to experiment more with wide-angles for portraits: i.e., shorter focal lengths than 35mm. I avoided them because of distortion. But, am I correct in that to avoid distortion, keep the subject close to the center of the frame?

David Pavlich's picture

Not only close to the center, not too close to the subject. That's why my shooting with the 35 is typically whole body shots.

Chad D's picture

another great (along with the above) folks should google up Joel Grimes he has been at wider angle for a long time
not just his sports stuff but his portrait stuff

Aaron Summerfield's picture

Mary Ellen Mark has beautiful wide angle portraits. 👌

Jorge Cevallos's picture

To me, it comes down to the context. I go wide only when I shoot people near beautiful places or buildings.

I've taken a liking to my Nikon 28mm f2.8 AIS lens for portraits. It's not overly distorted, but just different enough to stand out.

Diego Labrador's picture

A couple of weeks ago I took a canon 10-22 and tried a couple of portraits. I was fascinated about the look and "uniqueness" of the pictures, shooting as wide as possible (Well I've got a APS-C sensor, so...) brings a lot of distortion of course, but they can add up so much to that look, I went online looking for more about this but didn't find much about the practice.

I love you guys, but this is silly. Your heads and hands are distorted in this video so that your images are caricatures. Even at 50mm there is the danger of getting too close.

My favorite portrait lens is still the Sigma 24-105 that you recommended. Thank you.

Very nice. I really like those of the twins and little girl, second from the left on the bottom row.

Alex Dilem's picture

24mm shooter here. It's important to me to be close to the subject & capture the surrounding environment.