Photography Technique: the portrait, lens choice

This is one of a series of articles dedicated to portrait. They are written by the professional photographer, Attilio, who has already helped our blog in the past.

Portrait is the more practiced photographic genre in the history of photography.
This genre is not easy and should not be underestimated. Technical skills are essential and they have to be combined with the photographer personal sensibility to make a person's picture a real portrait.

There are so many possibilities to enhance our subject. It’s essential to understand what we want to show: beauty, sensuality, shyness, intensity, great - heartedness, naughtiness, innocence etc.

Keeping this in mind, we can think about realizing our portrait and wich techniques we could use.

Portrait lenses focal length range is conventionally between 85mm and 135mm. These allow a nice portrayal of the face, without perspective distortions of shorter lenses and the crushing effects of longer lenses.
However a good portrait can be made with any kind of lens, also an extreme wide-angle lens, but in this case the photographer have to use at best his interpretative and control skills, because he easily risk to caricature the subject.

The choice of focal length to use is also constrained by the habits and personal interaction we have with our subject: using a shorter focal length, a 50mm or a 85mm, will allow us to shoot in close contact with our subject, otherwise the choice of a longer focal length will allow us a greater freedom of action, to turn more easily around our party and give him more room to move and get comfortable. Anyway, we have to choose the tool that makes us comfortable and makes the subject at ease. Some people in fact can hardly be natural with a goal at half a meter from his face and pointed at, other can flirt back without any shyness. It's up to us to interpret the signals and act accordingly.

I've deliberately avoided to make distinctions between film and digital. In the case of the picture, the problem can be considered negligible; the variation of the sensitive support, in fact, vary the angle of view embraced by our lenses, but not the optical behavior.
So problems of perspective, distortion and flattening of the focal planes remains unchanged by using the film or a digital APS-C. It will only take a step forward or a back if our subject does not fit or lose in the frame.

Another key aspect in the choice of the lens for the portrait is the maximum aperture. Speaking theoretically a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is the minimum wage to think about making portraits, having it at you disposal would be desirable to have lenses with aperture f / 2 or even f/1.4. To have a very open aperture has many advantages, first of all the ability to blur everything that we do not care or, worse, it distracts attention from our subject, we have also the possibility of having a bad background that with a blur effect could improve.
Imagine you have a rose bush, the probability that they are all perfectly in bloom is almost null, however this condition could persist not more than a few days, but you could effectively have a perfect background with a blur effect even though most of them are faded and withered.

A bad curtain, an ugly wall, anything that has the proper distribution of color will become better as our background where environment portraits. A very opened aperture allows to use the light easily; a standard flash at f /1.4 is sufficient to illuminate all our subject even if they reflect on a panel, f /4 will be well over 3 stops closed if we can increase the power in the flash lighting is great, otherwise our shots will be underexposed without appeal.
Outdoors on the problem gets worse: the best times to take pictures are the sunrise and sunset, when the sun is low and the light is warm.
In these situations to take a 1/250 f /1.4 ISO 100 is not unlikely to have a minimum aperture of f /4 would be to take 1/30 and then shaking problems from the subject and the photographer coul be present. having an aperture of f/2.8 would allow to shoot at 1/60, a time that wards off greatly of the subject movements to a certain extent also amplified by the shake given by the length of the lens.

Last but not least, a wide aperture allows you to give depth to the subject: a face that fills our frame, shot at f/1.4, with the focus perfectly centered on the eye closest to the photographer, will have the distant parts of the features that will begin to show a slight blur while remaining legible, an effect that allows a perception of threedimensionality during observation of the portrait.

Specialistic lenses: on the market there are lenses dedicated to portrait that allow a blur control. These lenses while maintaining an excellent fire under normal conditions, allows to soften, through a command sequence, the optical yield making the result softer.
The effect is apparently similar to that of a soft filter, although with some differences, in general, if the wedding photography is not your job I tend to avoid them, the cost is significant and they have a very specialized use.
In contrast, there are macro lenses, created for completely different uses and sometimes used more frequently, in recent years, to take portraits. The use of these lenses has only one drawback, the extreme incisiveness, so any defect in the skin of the subject is inexorably pulled out. If you want a clear yield and contrasted, and your subject has a flawless skin, use them safely, otherwise you will spend many hours at the computer to hide wrinkles, pores of the skin and various defects.

I cose with my personal observations.
I use preferably two lenses for portraits, a 50mm f/1.4 zoom and a 70-200 f/2.8 stabilized, with a clear preference for the latter.
The reason I choose this lens is that it allows me great freedom of movement around the subject. Especially outdoors it allows me to shoot well from long distance, leaving the subject in the chosen position, also shooting at longer focal lengths from 100mm up allows me to not keep up with him too, so leave it free to move naturally and then have a free of awe attitude towards the camera.

I use that lens also for street portraits, in fact, the ability to shoot from several feet away, despite the size of the optics, makes it easy to take shoots before the subject perceives my presence, leaving the expression on his face of the moment.
Instead I use the 50mm in the case of professional models, where the fear of the objective has been exceeded and the relationship with the photographer is more mature and direct. In such cases a 50mm allows to have a very close contact and get different results compared th those who probably already fill their photo book.
I find it comfortable even in the case of informal portraits, in situations where the more formal perfection counts less than the expression of a moment, in this case, if the light allows it, a 50mm f / 8 allows you to take the fly without worrying too much of the focus.

Article written by Attilio and translated byAlessandro Amante

Related Articles:

4 comments: said...

Very well written, thanks for sharing. said...

At times i use lenses wide open to get that extra feel of very selective focus and mostly blurr effect to get that extra nudge in portraits.

tale of many cities said...

thanks for visiting my random world! i am now a new fan of yours. great blog! :)
many blessings,

Becky said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and thanks for your kind comments, Marco. I don't have a fancy camera and don't know much about "real photography" ... I'm just a snapshot girl, but will enjoy adding your blog to those I follow and will check out your articles on techniques. Kindest Regards, OM girl