Shooting Portraits With Fujifilm’s XF14mm, 16mm and 23mm lenses

· 10.May.2018

Here are my experiences of shooting portraits with the wider XF lenses. I hope they give you the information you need to make informed lens choices for you Fujifilm X system whatever your genre or shooting method of choice. Zooming in on the shots in this post will reveal a higher resolution.

01. This mid close up portrait(or MCU) was taken with the Fujifilm XF14mmF2.8 at f/3.6 I used the wide field of view of the 14mm lens to pull in all the room features. Notice how the background is out of focus but renders beautifully. I controlled the available light in the room using shutters and relied on reflected sunlight to deliver the kick light from the right.

The bigger picture often takes in the wider view.

XF 14mm

02. I used the XF14mm lens for these three portraits. The big dramatic sky adds to the top shot while the bottom shots both benefit from the wider environmental view. I lit the top shot with a small flash head on a boom arm just out of the top of the shot. The bottom left shot used the ambient light at the location while the bottom right shot was lit with a flash head and silver brolly in the room to the left.


Shots taken with the XF 16mm lens

03. The wonderful XF16mm is a great location portrait lens and one that can be used to show the scale of a background. I shot from above eye level in these shots to keep the verticals upright. I used available light for the left and centre shots and a Lupo 1000 dual colour set to 3200 Kelvin for the shot on the right.


04. I regularly chose the XF16mm lens for portraits out and about too. Top and bottom left were taken on sunny days in Spain and France respectively and used the natural light. The shot on the right was taken in Paris and lit with an off camera Speedlight.


05. I love the way the XF16mm lens renders shots from above and below. The wider field of view gives a more dramatic look to everyday scenes. For the top left shot outside a bank in Holland I used natural light and a low angle viewpoint to dramatise the lines. Top right was taken in Switzerland and was lit with a speedlight on a stand behind a pillar on the left. The shot at the bottom was lit with on camera flash at the Manchester Hilton Hotel in the UK.


Shots taken with the XF 23mm lens

06. I used the XF23mm for these shots in Cambodia. I got in close for the shot on the right and this has added to the captured intimacy.


Shots taken with the XF 23mm lens

07. Here is another trio of portraits shot with the moderately wide angle XF23mm lens to show off the locations. The shot on the left was taken for a Bristol Museum poster campaign and was lit with three Lupo 1000 spotlights. The centre shot was taken in an abandoned Chateau in Belgium for my forthcoming book called Tutu and it was lit with one Lupo 1000. The shot of the Buddhist monk on the right was taken in Cambodia and I used an off camera Speedlight to light him.

It is easy to shoot portraits with telephoto lenses because you can just knock the background out of focus but shooting portraits with wide angle lenses requires interesting backgrounds. It’s the desire to shoot visually-exciting backgrounds that takes me all over the world. When I have a beautiful location in front of me, I want to get out a wide lens to make the most of it.

Here are a few film industry terms I learned whilst at the BBC that are given to a wide angle shot. The “money shot” is the wide shot that shows the complete set. It shows where the money has been spent on set design and props. The “scene setter” or “establishing shot” is used first in a sequence to show the geography of the set. Once this is established the director can go in for close ups. Wide shots tell so much more of the story and directors on dramas that I shot lived by the phrase “If in doubt, zoom out.” Tighter shots give more impact to an actors delivery or reactions so they are used when the dialogue gets spicy. Wide shots from different angles get intercut every now and then to reestablish the geography and add visual interest.

Shooting sequences of photographs to tell a story can benefit from the same techniques that video and filmmakers use and that’s exactly what Julie, my wife and I did when shooting 400 weddings from 2000 to 2010. We shot them all just like a movie with the wide shots intercut with closeups in just the same way. There was a rhythm in our albums that went: Wide establishing shot followed by three or four close ups, then a page turn and the same again. This simple strategy defined our product.

08. These three shots were also taken with the XF23mm lens. The 23mm lens has a 54º horizontal field of view and this has always been a favourite of mine. That is why I’ve been shooting mainly with the 32-64mm zoom on my GFX50s over the past 18 months. 45mm on the GFX is approximately the same as 23mm on the X series cameras and that is similar to 35mm on full frame DSLRs.


09. The XF23mmF1.4 is a hefty bit of glass but it produces pictures that are virtually distortion-free.  The ’23’ is a joy to compose portraits with wherever you happen to find yourself. The shot on the left taken at an art gallery in the South of France is naturally lit while the shot on the right taken in Paris has a bit of fill light from a white towel in sunlight hanging on the back of a chair beside me.


10. The 23mm serves my needs time and again for portraits. I could quite happily shoot portraits just with an X100f if no other cameras or lenses were at my disposal.

  • Long lenses tend to isolate the subject from the background creating separation.
  • Wide lenses incorporate the background and integrate the environment.
  • If the background is needed in the shot to add narrative or relevancy choose a wide lens.
  • If the background is not needed or is a distraction choose a long lens.
  • It’s easier to shoot with a long lens but the shots can have less impact.

You can shoot the bigger picture with long lenses too but this requires putting more distance between you and your subject. The long distance telephoto portrait look can be fabulous and the extra leg work running back to get the shot nearly always pays off.

11. The long lens portrait look can make the run back away from your subject worth while. In these wider long shots the background is important to the overall look of the image.  Top: XF50-140mm lens at 140mm using f/2.8 on the X-T10 and bottom 140mm at f/4.4 on the X-Pro1 using the fabulous XF55-200mm zoom lens. I’ll be taking a more in depth look at shooting portraits with these zoom lenses next month.

I’m often asked by those starting out in photography, “What lens will I need for portraiture?” The easy answer would be to give a value, perhaps the fabulous XF35mmF1.4, or the XF56mmF1.2 but those are not helpful answers unless the ‘why’ is explained too.  There are a few important factors when choosing and using lenses for portraiture but perhaps the most important ones are: What kind of look do you like? What do you want your portrait to say? Is the background important to the narrative of the shot? Some photographers use just one lens for most their work. This helps establish a personal style and keeps the vision simple. For inspiration I suggest you look at the work of Vincent Peters. He uses a 110mm lens on a Mamiya RZ67 for most of his shots.

12. The long lens head shot can easily suffer from too little depth of field as is shown in the picture on the right taken with the XF90mm lens at f/2. Of course this ‘error’ is subjective but the top left shot is pin sharp front to back taken with the same XF90mm at but at f/8. The spar and cables of the Erasmusbrug bridge in Rotterdam are beautifully out of focus. The bottom left shot needed f/11 on the XF90mm lens to get everything in focus.

A few truths…

  1. Depth of field for a given shot is not related to focal length. It is related to aperture
  2. Background blur is related to focal length
  3. It is possible to have a lot of depth of field yet have a completely blurred background
  4. It is possible to have a shallow depth of field yet see the background almost perfectly

A few myths…

  1. Wide lenses have more depth of field for a given aperture than telephoto lenses
  2. A large aperture lens is best for portraits because it has less depth of field
  3. The best portrait lenses are expensive
  4. Wide angle lenses are not good for portraits

Those claims need a bit of explaining so here goes…

Truth 1 explained. If you shoot a mid shot of someone (from the belt to 150mm above their head) on a wide lens at f/1.4 and again on a tight lens at f/1.4 the amount of depth of field will be the same. That is the tip of the persons nose and the hair beyond their ears may be just out of focus leaving 150mm of in focus depth. The wide lens shot will need to be taken much closer to the subject than the long lens shot to match the shot size.

Truth 2 explained. The background blur on the wide lens shot will seem a less than that on the long lens shot.

Truth 3 explained. A fashion photographer shooting a catalogue shot who wants let’s say 400mm of depth of field on a mid shot to get all the clothing sharp may need to use f/8 to achieve that. They may then choose a 300mm lens to put the background out of focus.

Truth 4 explained. A wide angle mid shot portraits taken at a wide aperture will include a wide field of view with the background completely recognisable but rendered out of focus to some degree. This is where the bokeh quality is paramount to give a pleasing rendering.

Myth 1 debunked. All lenses, wide or long framed to make the subject size the same will have the same depth of field for a given aperture.

Myth 2 debunked. Close up and mid shot portraits taken with too little depth of field often look weird. Having just one part of a face in focus looks unnatural and like an effect. Large aperture lenses used for long shot portraits will give enough depth of field for pleasing results.

Myth 3 debunked. The kit lens XF18-55mmF2.8-4 is a very capable portrait lens and is far cheaper than the the equivalent prime lenses.

Myth 4 debunked. Apart from head shots and mid close up shots wide lenses are perfect for portraits. For closer portraits the camera to subject distance becomes small and distortion of facial features comes in. I suggest camera to subject distances of 1.5m and greater are ideal for portraiture. The closer camera to subject distances deliver more intimacy and a lot of the great portrait photographers settled on using the standard lens for impactful head shot portraits. Shoot slightly looser on the framing and a wide lens becomes ideal for impact. It is also perfect for environmental or street portraits.

Next month I’ll discuss using the Fujifilm XF zooms for portraits. If you are in the mood for adventure and inspiration join me in the USA for a portrait in the landscape road trip adventure (June 2018) or in Tuscany for a three day portraiture workshop (September 2018).


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