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.
The bigger picture often takes in the wider view.
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.
- 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.
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.
A few truths…
- Depth of field for a given shot is not related to focal length. It is related to aperture
- Background blur is related to focal length
- It is possible to have a lot of depth of field yet have a completely blurred background
- It is possible to have a shallow depth of field yet see the background almost perfectly
A few myths…
- Wide lenses have more depth of field for a given aperture than telephoto lenses
- A large aperture lens is best for portraits because it has less depth of field
- The best portrait lenses are expensive
- 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).