The concept of a portrait lens has always baffled me. When I first started out in photography, reading the Internet and listening to other photographers would have led me to believe that I needed something around the 85mm or 135mm focal lengths if I wanted to photograph a person. Anything else wouldn’t work. Well, that simply isn’t true, is it? Any lens can be used as a portrait lens. In fact, the moment you photograph the likeness of a person with it, it becomes a portrait lens. So why not experiment using different lenses in your portraiture?
Once you understand the optical properties of your lenses, you will find that they can no longer be categorized for a specific use. Longer focal lengths bring with them a tighter field of view and inherently narrower depth of field. Wide angle lenses provide, as the name suggests, a wider angle of view. With that comes a few optical phenomenon that can be exploited to our advantage.
The Wide Angle Lens
When talking in 35mm “full frame” terms, wide angle lenses are generally considered to be anything lower than a 50mm lens (a “normal” lens). Common focal lengths like 18mm, 24mm, and 35mm are all considered “wide angle.” Let’s take a look at their optical properties.
Wide angle lenses come with an inherently deeper depth of field. This means that at the same subject distance and aperture, you will get a deeper depth of field than with a longer lens. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve an extremely narrow depth of field. In fact, the portrait below was shot on a Fujifilm 16mm f/1.4 lens.
Another property of optics that affects us when using wide angle lenses is that objects closer to the camera appear larger than those further away. Not only will getting closer to your subject make them larger in the frame, it will make them relatively larger. It is this phenomenon that tourists use to make photographs of themselves holding the Eiffel Tower.
We also need to be careful of the corners and sides of the frame. This is the part of the picture where the perspective will be different from how our eyes normally see, and placing a subject close to the side or corner of the frame can distort them somewhat. This can be further exaggerated by tilting the camera.
Wide Angle Lenses and Portraiture
Now that we understand how wide angle lenses affect the scene, we should be able to use them effectively for portraiture. Considering the above points, let's look at portrait specific considerations. As you experiment with each of these, you will start to get a feel for how your lens behaves and what sort of results it will give you. This is very important as every lens has its own unique characteristics as well.
Subject to Camera Distance
We need to be careful not to inadvertently place a part of a person’s body (think shoulder, nose, etc.) closer to the camera than other parts. Of course, this can be used for dramatic effect, but if the goal is to represent or flatter, this is something to be aware of.
You can see in the image at the top of this article that the man’s hands are disproportionately larger than the rest of his body. This was my goal. I wanted to make him seem larger than life. His hands were about half the distance from the camera that his face was and that resulted in the size difference.
Corners and Sides
As I mentioned above, objects close to the sides and corners of the frame will start to distort and the closer they get, the stronger the effect. Thus, if you’re looking to keep someone in relatively the correct proportions and not extend or bend any part of their body, it can be beneficial to keep them close to the center of the frame.
This distortion can be used to our advantage, however. Again, take a look at the photograph of the train repairman. The wide angle lens allows the lines of the train and lights in the ceiling to be exaggerated and form the leading lines that pull you into the subject.
Narrow Depth of Field
There are several affordable fast wide-angle lenses on the market now and we can use these to not only exploit the wide-angle field-of-view but maintain separation between subject and background. If you’re using a DSLR, you might want to look into something like the Sigma 24-35mm f/2. As a Fujifilm X user, I usually reach straight for the 16mm f/1.4. Of course, there are plenty of other options out there.
One of the key factors in creating a narrow depth of field is the aperture and another is subject distance. The closer to your subject you get, the narrower the depth of field. However, remember what I mentioned before, wide angle lenses begin to render things closer to the camera much bigger than things further away. This can be used to give more visual weight to your subject, but could also introduce unwanted distortions. It can be a subtle dance to find the best balance of subject distance and distortion.
In the video below, I go into a little more detail about the difference between wider and longer lenses in the same scene, and also the use of panoramic images to give a faux wide-angle effect. Check that out for some side-by-side comparisons of the effects of wide lenses.
What is a Portrait Lens?
A lens is a lens. It has a set of optical properties that you can exploit to your benefit. When approaching a scene, I always ask myself what I want to say. Is one thing more important than another? Are there lines I can use to draw my viewer in? Just how much crap do I need in the frame? Once I’ve nutted out all of these things, it’s time to choose a lens. If that lens is a 200mm, great. If it’s a 16mm, great. As long as the lens I choose tells the story the way I want to, it is the right lens for the job.
Next time you’re out, shoot a portrait with your usual 85mm or 135mm and then switch out for a 24mm and make a frame. How is it different? What changed in that picture? How are the lines rendered differently? What happened to my subject? When could I use this style of portraiture to my benefit?
So, I’m hoping that by now you’ve thrown the term “portrait lens” out the window and are seeing some new possibilities for your wide-angle lenses. I hope that this article has encouraged you to experiment with wide-angle portraiture if you haven’t before. Happy shooting!