Tuesday, October 6, 2015


This is Huge!  Your lens choice, and how you use it for portraits, is far more important than any other piece of equipment—including the camera.

The two types of distortion that affect our subjects the most are extension distortion and compression distortion

Here’s what these distortions do:

Extension Distortion happens with ALL lenses. It’s the effect where the closest part of your subject to the camera appears larger than normal; for example:
  1. The subject’s hand or foot is larger than his head.
  2. In a group portrait, with multiple rows, the head and body mass of people in the front row are much larger than those of the people behind them.
  3. In an individual portrait your subject’s nose appears larger than it actually is.
If any of this is happening in your portraits you can’t blame it on your lens—it’s YOUR FAULT!  

This type of distortion is actually Perspective Distortion caused by being too close to your subject(s) because you choose to use that “nifty” 50mm or wider lens for portraits.

Short lenses will also make the background appear to recede from your subjects and simultaneously keep the background more in focus. Theses are not desirable effects especially when doing portraits outdoors when you want to include some environment.

So, what’s the cure here?  BACK-UP!  Yep, back-up and use a more telephoto lens. When doing portraits I use the MOST telephoto I can given the space I’m in, whether it’s studio or outdoors.

Lens: 200mm, f6.3 @ 1/125 sec., ISO 400

Using telephoto lenses (say 135mm to 300mm as practical focal lengths) for portraits has many benefits:
  1. They equalize head sizes of those rows of people. Because you must back-up to use a telephoto lens on a group it eliminates extension distortion (you have changed your perspective by backing up) and the more telephoto you use the more it compresses the group.
  2. They push your subjects INTO the background. In environmental portraiture we want to put our subjects INTO their environment.  The compression effect binds the image together.
  3. You don’t need wide apertures to defocus the background; the more telephoto your use the larger the bokeh
  4. On individual portraits, using a 200 to 300mm telephoto, you can easily minimize facial features (that large nose) and create dramatic painterly backgrounds while maintaining good depth-of-field.
Lens: 250mm, f4.5@1/320 sec., ISO 400
You want great Bokeh? More telephoto not super wide apertures is the way to go.  The Bokeh is better and you maintain good depth-of-field.

There’s no downside here, especially for our clients. using a telephoto makes them look great, creates beautiful backgrounds outside and gives our portraits a look that our clients can’t do themselves and rarely see amid the clutter of wide angle cell phone and nifty-fifty amateur pictures that are the norm.

So, what focal length telephoto do I use for portraits?  My rule of thumb for this is:
  • 70-135mm for large family groups (multiple families)
  • 150-170mm for one family group
  • 200-300mm for individual portraits
Lens: 70mm, f6.3 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 1000
With a group this large I had to back-up a lot (about 30 feet) and go to 70mm, which is about as wide as I ever go in portraits.  Backing up that far really minimized the perspective distortion. In any given situation I use the MOST telephoto I can employ. The results speak for themselves.

In Part #3 I’ll be talking about your working f-stops, depth-of-field, and custom white balance.

‘Till next week - have any questions or comments?  Don’t hesitate to post them…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

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