I’ve been seeing chatter on the forums (even PPA’s Loop) touting the “Nifty 50mm” lens as the go-to lens for beginning professional photographers; REALLY? I understand that money can be a factor when starting-up a business, but it’s all about priorities. There are many areas where you can save money—your set of lenses are your primary tools; this is where you must spend the money in professional photography! The single most creative tool we have, when we’re creating an image, is lens choice. More than anything else the lens you select will create the look and feel of your portraits.
In professional portraiture we use the LONGEST FOCAL LENGTH the situation will allow in any given session weather in the studio or outside. WHY? Because ALL lenses distort reality in some way and it’s vital that we use that distortion to make our subjects look BETTER; How’s that for an idea!
Well it appears to be a novel idea judging by the portraits being posted on many self-proclaimed professional photographers’ websites. Too often I see group portraits where the people in the front row have much larger body mass and larger head sizes than those behind them. This is called Extension Distortion, which any lens will do when you move close to your subject. It’s the natural effect where the closer an object is to the lens the Larger it appears. In addition there’s, many times, a lack of depth-of-field where either the back row of people, or sometimes the front row, are soft.
The problem with the 50mm (or wider lenses) is that when you move-in to fill the frame these lenses will magnify the extension distortion! This effect is not pretty on people!
These images compare and illustrate the difference in distortion between a relatively wide lens that is making the woman in front appear larger than the women right behind her due to extension distortion. This optical effect appears to pull her forward-out of the group. In contrast the portrait on the right where i backed off and zoomed-in to 170mm changed perspective and created the photographer’s best friend: Compression Distortion. The optical effect here appears to push the group together and into the background.
Using telephoto lenses (150mm to 300mm) for portraits has many benefits:
- equalizes head sizes
- pushes your subjects into the background
- you don’t need wide apertures to defocus backgrounds
- the more telephoto you use the larger the bokeh
- by backing-up and using a longer focal length you can get More depth-of-field on your subject and better booked at the same time!
The depth-of field problem is easily addressed with education. Too many photographers think that their short prime lenses (50mm to 85mm) that have these really wide possible apertures (the f1.2, f1.4, f1.8 etc.) means they’re obliged to actually use them! No, that’s not a good idea, especially for portraits, for several reasons:
- If you move in for a close-up portrait with your 50mm you’re already getting less depth-of-field, and then you use that super fast wide open aperture giving you depth-of-field that can be 2 to 3 TENTHS of an inch! Posing your subject in a 2/3rds view of the face you will only get ONE EYE IN FOCUS even at f2.8!
- Lenses just aren’t their sharpest at their Widest or Smallest apertures.
- Sure you can get some nice bokeh in the background at these wide apertures, but you don’t want to sacrifice your subject on the altar of bokeh…do you?
280MM @ F4.5
300MM @ F56
These portraits illustrate how I get nice depth-of-field at moderate apertures and great bokeh using Focal Length instead of wide apertures.
Technical issues aside we need to set ourselves apart from the amateurs by using techniques and equipment that they don’t know how to use. One way to do this is to “stay out of the middle” in our lens choices. Let the amateurs have the 50mm territory.
As a professional I like to use the extreme edges, in focal length for portraits: 150mm for groups, 200-300mm for individuals, and for a really different look—my 15mm fisheye! I like to surprise my clients by showing them something they haven’t seen before.. When I show them their images, on the back of my camera during a session and they exclaim “WOW!” I know I’ve done my job and succeed.
‘Till next week…
Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Certified, Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com