When it comes to shooting portraits, photographers almost always reach for an 85mm lens or even the 70 - 200 mm lens. As great as these two lenses are for portraits, they often fall short when trying to capture an environmental style photograph. In this video, I'm going to show you the most widely used lens in my camera bag and how shooting wide angle can sometimes create a better photograph than shooting telephoto.
Recently I posted a video on Fstoppers about how useful the 70 - 200 telephoto lens can be for shooting portraits. I have probably created my favorite photos with this lens, and one of my favorite reasons for using this telephoto lens for portraits is that it gives you so much control when choosing your background. When you combine the narrow field of view with a fast 2.8 aperture, it's pretty easy to make professional looking images in almost any situation.
However, no matter how much I love the 70-200 lens, most of the images I take day in and day out are definitely shot within the 24-70 mm range. Having a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens is super convenient when you need to shoot a variety of different types of photographs in a bunch of unique environments.
If you shoot weddings, you will often find yourself in tight spaces where any lens over 85mm is simply too telephoto to capture the scene. If you shoot headshots, 70mm is often a great focal length for removing distortion from the face while still allowing you to work in smaller studio spaces. If you plan on taking a single travel lens to shoot street photography or even landscapes, a good 24-70 lens will probably be your best bet as an overall walking around lens. Basically what I'm trying to say is that no matter what genre of photography you enjoy photographing, the tried and true 24-70 lens is usually the first lens you should include in your gear bag.
The Environmental Portrait
I love taking portraits of people, and one of my favorite types of portraits to capture is people in their natural environment. A solid environmental portrait doesn't necessarily need to show every little detail within a scene but it should be wide enough to make the viewer feel like they are part of the image. For me, the Tamron 24-70mm VC G2 lens is one of the best lenses for finding that perfect balance between a composition that is too wide and one that is too telephoto. Many photographers like to use prime lenses to change their perspective but for me personally, I like the versatility and quickness a good zoom lens provides.
For this particular photoshoot, I wanted to capture an environmental portrait of local kiteboarder Dan Liberty. The first decision to make with almost any photoshoot is how wide or tight do you want to photograph the scene. As you can see in the photo below, the image shot at 200mm is simply too tight. Although it compresses the background nicely, the background itself is not all that interesting. Sure, you can see the water, beach, and sky, but in my opinion, the overall background is pretty stale.
By shooting a wider composition and moving closer to my subject, I was able to create a much more pleasing composition. By lowering the camera and exploiting the interesting sand formations, I think this final image looks much more heroic and powerful than the telephoto image above. This would never be possible if I were trying to stand further back and shoot telephoto. Also, because there were no clouds in the sky on this particular day, I was able to shift the attention from the sky to the sand which I think plays better in the final photograph. Finally, by shooting wide, I was able to capture the entire kite in the photograph which isn't possible in the above image.
As you can see in the two images above, the harsh sunlight wasn't the most flattering light for Dan, but it did provide some interesting light on the sand. Because the wind direction was a big factor in how I positioned Dan in the scene, I knew the setting sun would act more as a rim light than the main key light on Dan's face. Therefore to make this image really pop, I decided to light Dan's face and body with a Profoto B1 strobe. My goal was to light Dan with a light that emulated both the harshness of the sun as well as the overall direction the sun was casting light onto the scene. One technique I remember Clay Cook using a lot in his environmental portraits was he always places his lights on the same side as the natural light. The angle doesn't have to be perfectly the same, but the idea is to make the light look like it's coming from a natural position. So instead of placing the light directly over my camera or even to the left of the frame, I placed a single Profoto B1 with a reflector dish off to the left of the frame. This single light was perfect for lighting Dan with harsh, hard light that wasn't too different from the light created by the setting sun.
After reviewing the above image, I decided that since the kite took up so much space in the frame, it might be nice to throw a little more light on the kite itself. I positioned a second Profoto B1 light just behind my camera but I faced it towards the left side of the frame just like the main keylight was positioned. To make the effect a little more subtle and highlight just a small portion of the kite, I placed a Profoto 10 degree grid on the light and aimed it at the 12' lettering on the Cabrinha kite. As you can see in the image below, this extra pop of light really brought some life to the kite itself.
Finally, after reviewing the image above, I felt like the entire scene was a little too dark and it looked too heavily flashed. I wound up dragging my shutter a little longer so that the scene was exposed a little more with the ambient sunlight. This allowed me to mix my strobe light with the natural light in a more pleasing way so that the final image didn't look too unnatural. The final step was to coach Dan into a bunch of interesting body positions so we could capture the strongest image possible. My favorite frame from this photoshoot is the image below with Dan holding the board towards the camera and looking directly towards the Profoto light.
The main take away I want you to leave with is that different shooting situations call for different tools. Many photographers are taught that all portraits are most flattering when shot with a telephoto lens. While this is true in many cases, I have found that many times, some of the most interesting photos I have taken are with lenses that are much wider than 70mm. It's no secret that my favorite lens is the Tamron 70 - 200 VC G2 lens, but when it comes to the most useful lens in my bag, the Tamron 24-70 2.8 VC G2 is probably my most used lens of all time (although I've recently upgraded to this lens after owning the first generation lens for years).
If you find yourself shooting fast-paced jobs that require a bunch of different focal lengths, I highly recommend adding a 24-70mm lens to your camera kit first and foremost. Having a mid ranged zoom has made my life much easier when shooting weddings, family portraits, environmental portraits, editorial work, and other genres of photography that require a bunch of different focal lengths. No matter what your favorite lens is in your camera bag, it's always a good idea to think outside the box and use the focal length that offers you the most interesting results.