Lenses for making portraits

This was a sad weekend for me. My next-door neighbors, who were the first to greet us when we moved in 14 years ago, are moving away to a new home a few miles away. Because all their kids were home and I wouldn't have many chances to gather them like this again soon, I offered to make a family portrait as a going-away gift.

As I prepared to shoot them in our neighborhood, I realized that for most portrait situations I really like to use telephoto lenses rather than shooting wide.

Why? Two main reasons..

First, shooting with long lenses cleans up the background.

You are tightening your field of view to a much smaller area than you see with a wide-angle, taking away much of the feeling of clutter that can really distract from the subjects.

For my neighbors portrait I just walked them outside between our two houses and put them in the shade, throwing a little bit of fill light with and SB-800 and using the sunlit trees behind them as a background. You can see from the wide-angle photo that this isn't the prettiest place you might start with for a portrait, but their time was limited and it was not intended to be a fancy production. But I did want the picture to look nice, and frankly it wasn't gonna if I included my siding and utility hookups in the photos.

So my best option was to put on my 70-200 and use it pretty much fully zoomed in. Instead of parked cars, mailboxes and the brown patches in my yard I ended up with a set of photos that show off what good-looking neighbors I used to have.

Second, your depth of field is much more limited with telephoto lenses.

Even with a very small f-stop (I'm at f/4 below) you still get enough definition and just plain stuff in the scene that you can barely concentrate on that special H1N1 mask my anonymous assistant is wearing to keep away the swine flu.

"Can you get this narrow zone of focus with a moderate telephoto, or do you have to own one of those big lenses the pros and all those movie stars use?"

A number of "consumer level" cameras these days come with zoom lenses built in that go out to 135mm and more. But to really bring the effect to life you've got to go to 200mm or longer. The B&W photo below was made with a Nikon 35-70mm lens at just around the 50mm mark. I actually wanted to show them "in amongst the rushes," and it's a nice picture, but I don't think it's as graceful as the color photo of them that was shot in about the same place in the field but with a longer lens.

One way to "help" drop the focus on the background is to have your subject fairly close to the camera. The further you get out toward the infinity setting on your lens, the more stuff that's close to being in focus, proportionately. That is, if your subject is only six feet from you, the range of stuff that fits in your depth of field is pretty small — say, five to eight feet. So stuff thats further away in the back will be much blurrier. But if your subject is 25 feet from you, the range of your depth of field covers maybe from 20 feet to 40 feet, so most everything is going to look a little more defined. All of that depends on your f-stop, but perhaps you get the idea. If not, just experiment. Photography is about screwing up and learning from it.

"So, when would you want to shoot a portrait with a wide-angle lens?"

Well, there are times when you have to, usually because there just isn't enough space to step back away from your subjects in order to frame the various elements like you want to.

Photographing Kate & Rob for their engagement portrait in St. Michaels, Maryland recently, we started out on the dock behind the inn where they were staying. It was pretty, and I loved the sun reflecting off the water, but if I stepped by more than about five feet from them I would have gone in to the drink. So at this angle I didn't have much choice but to go wide. This photo was made with a Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 set at around 20mm.

Also, there are times when you WANT to show off the background. As we walked around talking and taking pictures in a couple different spots in this quaint old watermans' village on the Chesapeake Bay, we came across a restored sailing ship. I wanted to show the masts and rigging behind them, and as we were getting close to sunset the sunlight really started to play nicely with the clouds and I wanted to show that too.

Again, below, with Joanne & Scott I shot some pictures wide because I wanted to show the docks and atmosphere of Baltimore's harbor as the sun went down, but very quickly at dusk that interesting texture goes away as you lose detail in the shadow areas. Switching to a long lens let me still work with the small area that was still reflecting the last glimmers of sunlight. The wide-angle was taken at 5:25 p.m. (this was still in winter) and the telephoto image just over four minutes later.

"Are there pitfalls to shooting portraits with wide-angle lenses?"

Yes. Aside from the clutter issue, you have to be very careful about the way in which wide-angle lenses distort objects close to the front of the lens. Particularly noticeable are hands and feet, or really anything that gets up near your filter. Think Dirty Harry pointing that .44 Magnum right at you. You want that effect, but most of your subjects won't want freakishly bloated hands. This becomes especially pronounced toward the edge of the frame, so I try to remember to have people pull their hands in toward the center a bit. If you do get bloated hands, you can correct a little bit of this in Photoshop, but usually not all of it, so I like to avoid it if I can.

In the photo above, because she's leaning back on him, the hands start to get just a little bit big. But they're not yet so exaggerated that they look weird, and the interaction between them is so nice that I'll just let it be.

Also, you have to watch your perspective when you shoot wide. I'm very careful to make sure that the camera is as level as can be when I'm shooting. I use grid screens to help me line up horizon lines and architectural features like doorways and building edges, which really helps control distortion. If you're going super-wide (say, wider than a 24mm lens on a 35mm camera) you can really get a lot of perspective distortion if you tip the camera even a little bit.

"Are there pitfalls to shooting portraits with telephoto lenses?"

If you're shooting a big group portrait, you need the depth of field to get the people in back as well as up front in focus, so you wouldn't make good use of a telephoto in that situation. And it's easy to end up with a fairly flat image — not in the sense of contrast, but remember that you're taking real-world three-dimensional objects and compressing them down in to two dimensions. So you have to use other elements like lighting and tonality to keep your subjects from looking like paper cutouts on a flat surface.

In this photo the dark forms of the trees, the highlights of the foliage and the fact the couple is backlit help to separate them out from their surroundings.

Probably, of all the photos I've shown you here in this post, the pictures of my neighbors are the ones with the least amount of "creative spark," but they mean a lot to me because we've been such good friends for so long and I hope they will be important to them for that same reason. Often, photography is more about relationships than it is about technique.

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