When it comes to taking portraits and choosing the "right" lens, the general rule of thumb is using 50 mm or above for an accurate depiction of the person. This is especially true when the subject takes the majority of the frame. Many folks, including myself, prize the 85 mm for its true representation. Others love the compression of a 135 mm, and some even prefer a 200 mm lens.
What about the wide-angle lens family, though? Are they off limits for the portrait? Like so many other choices in photography, it comes down to personal opinion and preference, and I say wide angle all the way!
I love taking portraits with a wide-angle lens, even up close. I find that the result is often unusual or quirky, and I like that. The wider view also encourages me to consider different angles and perspectives that I may otherwise overlook.
This isn't a look that everyone appreciates in a portrait, but for those who are of the mind to give it a go, there are some key things that you have to remember about wide-angle lenses. Failing to do so could result in unintentionally distorting a person in an unflattering way, and no one wants that.
First, let's take a look at the basic properties of a wide-angle lens and what it means for the images created with one.
Without diving full on into the details of lens compression, suffice it to say that a wide-angle lens "pulls" things closer to you. This effect is called barrelling or barrel distortion. It looks like this:
The wider the lens, the more barrelling you're going to see in your image (think about a fish-eye lens, which creates tons of barrelling). Now, it's one thing to take a landscape image at a wide angle, especially from further away, making the distortion minimal and easily fixable in post-processing. Taking an up-close portrait, on the other hand, is quite a different scenario.
You see this:
Your wide-angle lens sees this:
Exaggeration is part of it.
This is not something to fight against but often the very reason to use a wide-angle lens to begin with. This broader perspective has the power to place the viewers in the scene and make them feel as if they are a part of the narrative rather than only a witness to it.
Be sure your subject is clear.
Given that you can capture so much using wider angles, it can be all too easy to focus on fitting everything into the frame rather than on the subject of the frame. Keep your focus on the subject. Anything else in the frame should support the story of that subject. Photographer and Mastin Labs community member, Zalby B. is excellent at wide-angle composition!
Mind the edges.
This is where you can get into trouble if you're not careful, especially with portraits. Having someone's arms, hands, or parts of their face too close to the edges of the frame can put them in the most "barrelled" section of the image.
Here is an image of my friend, Randy.
I took this image using a 24 mm lens. You can see that his hands are quite large in the frame. This amount of distortion was intentional, and I enjoy it; but had his hands been any closer to the lens, its shape would begin to distort in a more exaggerated and unpleasing way.
Make the distortion work for you.
Once you're aware of where the limits of your wide-angle lenses are, you can make them work for you—creating perspective, drama, humor, and personality in your images.
Use low angles.
Hero shot, anyone? A low, wide-angle portrait can create a powerful image, adding strength and drama. This perspective is so powerful and enticing that regulations forbade ad agencies from using low angles in tobacco ads before they were banned altogether.
Getting comfortable shooting wide is arguably one of the best things that you can do as a photographer, especially if you shoot people doing things. If you even somewhat regularly photograph people getting married, partying, living, loving, or existing, you should at least have a 35 mm in your bag. It will change your life!
Pros and Cons of Wide-Angle Shooting:
- Distortion and barreling
- Less bokeh than longer lenses
- Wide-angle lenses are often expensive.
- Easily create drama and forced perspective
- You can fit more into the frame.
- A large depth of field
- Shooting low angles
- Closer to subjects
We always love seeing your work. Share all of your wide-angle shots with us on the Mastin Labs Facebook community!