Wide Angle Lenses Are For Portraits Too – Tutorial

Or How To Photograph People With A Wide-Angle Lens

I love shooting with wide-angle lenses. Why? Because they’re fun, funky and slightly out of kilter. Sort of like some of my favorite people! But seriously, the word on the street used to be NO WIDE ANGLE LENSES FOR PEOPLE SHOOTING.

But WHY?

 

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

Michał Grajkowski

Because of their inherent tendency to distort things.  People were afraid it wouldn’t be a pretty picture.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

Steve Rideout

So what’s wrong with a little distortion?  Nothing, if you use it judiciously.  People (read adults with any sense of vanity whatsoever) fear being made to look strange and goofy (read fat).  It is true that capricious use of wide-angle lenses can render subjects looking downright strange.  And it is also absolutely true that whatever sticks out most, can be made to look bigger.  If that something happens to be a stomach….well, there ya are.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

Ward

However, that need not be the case.   I LOVE all three of the images above because all of these photographers have totally ROCKED ultra wide angle for all she’s worth.   However, that said, I realize not everyone is as hardcore as I am.   So gentle reader, I will show you how to moderately rock it wide.

The first thing to understand is this; the further away from the subject and the more perpendicular to the horizon the ‘film’ plane is, the less distortion.   It is when we move in close and tilt the film plane off axis that distortion creeps  nay, BOUNDS in.   And that, my friends, is where the fun is.   Allow me to demonstrate.

This image was taken with a moderately wide (Nikon 20mm f/2.8) angle lens.   Notice there is very little distortion, because I am several feet away from the subject and I am shooting from a ‘straight on’ perspective, neither tilting the camera up or down.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

In this next shot of the same girl, I have stepped in much closer to the subject and am now shooting slightly down at her.Notice how the steering wheel and arm closest to the camera loom large?However, because this is neither an extreme wide angle (14mm or wider) nor am I shooting from an extreme angle, the subject is not grotesquely distorted.  Instead, we have created a feeling of childlike wonder and audaciousness, while also emphasizing the size and scale difference of the steering wheel in proportion to the child.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

A moderately wide-angle lens is great for conveying a sense of movement, as well.  The key is to work ‘with’ the lens, not against it.  In this image, I waited until the boy swung towards the camera to click.  Because I was shooting from a low angle, I knew the center of the image would ‘bow’ outwards, and therefore emphasize the swinging motion.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

Wide-angle lenses are fantastic for exaggerating size and proportion.  In this image, the girl appears to be much higher off the ground than she actually is.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

You need not have an ultra wide lens to achieve a bit of whimsy in your imagery.  These shots were all taken with a 20mm prime lens on a Nikon D70, which has a DX sensor, thus effectively rendering that lens into a 35mm.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

I just love FEET!

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

Remember, the closer you are to the subject, the more obvious any distortion will be.  Whatever body part is closest to the camera will appear bigger.

Creating a sense of depth in images you wish to ‘tell a story’ with is easy to do with a moderately wide lens.  Wedding photographers often use this technique.  This photo taken by Jennifer Esperanza illustrates my point beautifully.

Wide Angle Lenses are for Portraits Too - Photography Tutorial

Jennifer Esperanza

The ‘actual’ photographer of this image is shooting from a high perspective with regard to the subject in the foreground and is able to get all of the scene in.   We get a real sense of the setting in this image and it is a great visual story.   Notice how the door, which is near the center of the image, appears to slightly ‘bow’ outwards.   That is EXACTLY what I love about wide angle lenses, that fractured ‘Alice through the looking glass’ feel.

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

Depth of Field – Photography Tutorial

Using Bold Color in Portraiture – Tips and Techniques

Phototgraphing Babies, Birth to One Year – Tips and Techniques

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11 comments

  1. Hi there… great blog…interested in wide angle lenses. I have a Canon 40D and shoot portraits…what kind of lense do you suggest?

  2. deborahwolfe says:

    Hi Emily. Thanks so much from dropping by. My research indicates the Canon 40D is a DX camera, which will effect how ‘wide’ your lenses will functionally be. There is approximately a 1.5 magnifying effect, making a 35mm seem more like a 50mm, for example. I would suggest perhaps a 24mm or 28mm as a starting point. I’d probably lean more towards the 24mm. That’s my $0.02 worth.

  3. Thanks! Any suggestions help!

  4. Hi
    Excellent advice on site…
    I use a Canon EOS 40D to, my question is what is:
    What do you mean a DX Camera?
    Regards
    Chris

  5. deborahwolfe says:

    Hi Chris. When digital cameras were first introduced, they were all DX cameras, meaning they did not have a ‘full frame’ sensor.

    The best analogy I can come up with is the difference between old film point and shoot cameras and 35mm SLRs. The point and shoots usually used 110mm film, whereas the 35mm SLR cameras obviously used, well….35mm film. The smaller negative produced by the 110mm cameras meant you couldn’t enlarge the final print very much. In fact, the typical 4×6 inch ‘snap shot’ was pretty much at the outside limits of that film. If you’ve ever seen an 8×10 inch enlargement from that film, you would have noticed the significant ‘grain’ and ensuing softness of the image.

    A DX sensor is 1.5 times smaller than a 35mm negative. In other words, those of us who started shooting back in the day, couldn’t help but notice, when we switched to our first DSLR, that we couldn’t seem to get as much image within the frame as we were used to. That’s because we were, in essence, shooting with smaller ‘film’.

    Now, of course, Canon and Nikon both have full frame cameras, meaning the sensor is now the same size as a 35mm film negative.

  6. Hi Again.
    Well thanks for explaining that I now have a clear understanding of what you mean.
    I have been into photography since “way back in the day”, to. but had never been explained that before.
    I started with a 126 camera then progressed to film using a russian built Zenith ET, yeppers it was built like a tank and as heavy as one but it got me into photography. I moved onto a Fuji Bridge camera, before buying the EOS 40D…

    I will be back thanks again
    Chris

  7. deborahwolfe says:

    You are very welcome Chris. I look forward to future comments.

  8. Deborah,
    Ilove your tutorials and and enjoy reading them to “brush up” on techniques.
    I too love to use my Sigma 10mm-20mm wide angle on my Canon 40D
    I gett great shots “full of life and energy!”
    Here are some examples
    http://strongtreeimages.smugmug.com/Family/Family-Reunion-2009/IMG0158-6/615107593_ZFbc8-S-2.jpg
    http://strongtreeimages.smugmug.com/Family/Family-Reunion-2009/IMG0141-7/615097978_weYWA-S-1.jpg
    http://strongtreeimages.smugmug.com/Events/wedding/IMG0228-13/679180571_Xupe4-S.jpg

  9. deborahwolfe says:

    Hey Matthew, so glad you’re enjoying the tutorials and thanks so much for sharing some of your images with me! I love it when people share. I ventured on over to your website and you have some really stand out images. Thanks so much for commenting and happy shooting.

  10. jessie De Laby says:

    hi!
    so i’ve been looking at wide angle lenses
    and i would like to know the best length for one.
    i have a nikon d60
    and i really love how it looks with portraits:)

  11. deborahwolfe says:

    Hi Jessie. Thanks for dropping by. To answer your question about which wide angle lens to get for a Nikon D60 – a DX camera, I’ll reference my earlier comment to Emily:

    “My research indicates the Canon 40D is a DX camera, which will effect how ‘wide’ your lenses will functionally be. There is approximately a 1.5 magnifying effect, making a 35mm seem more like a 50mm, for example. I would suggest perhaps a 24mm or 28mm as a starting point. I’d probably lean more towards the 24mm. That’s my $0.02 worth.”

    Still my two cents worth. Have fun and happy holidays!