One of the many things I love about photography is the freedom it allows for me to share my world the way I perceive it at any given moment. Freedom of expression has to be the point which all art revolves around or else it’s not really art. This is why I find many of the photography rules that are often dogmatically espoused to be troublesome. Not because there’s no value in learning the fundamentals — photographic theory, as it were — but clinging to those ideas as if there’s only one right way to achieve something is terribly shortsighted.
For those who are new to portrait photography or who are looking for simple but effective ways to change up your portrait work, I’ve got a couple of easy suggestions that might work for you.
Any Lens Is A Portrait Lens
Ok, 85mm may be the “perfect” portrait lens but the way I see it, what’s perfect in one scenario may not be in another. Perhaps 85mm is perfect for headshots. It’s not ideal for environmental portraits, however. A 35mm lens is probably the one you’d want to go with for environmental portraits. Headshots? You’ll want to stay away from the 35mm. The point is that with any focal length you have to know what you’re gaining and what you’re giving up and how those factors will impact your portraits. That’s it. If you own one camera and one lens, you can make portraits.
Concerning focal length, here are a few things to keep in mind: shorter focal lengths tend to be accompanied by distortion. Whatever is closest to the lens is going to appear larger than it is in reality; keep noses, eyes, hand and feet at a reasonable distance from wide angle lenses. These lenses are great for lifestyle, environmental and event photography, or for when you just want a full body portrait.
Conversely, longer focal lengths minimize distortion and compress the background, generally creating pleasing bokeh and beautifully blurred backgrounds. Telephoto lenses also make it easier to compose in such a way to eliminate busy/distracting backgrounds by isolating your model in the best part of a scene. One possible downside to using very long focal lengths is that you risk removing the intimacy between yourself/your camera and your model due to the need for greater working distance.
This Angle Or That Angle
You’ve probably gotten just as much advice about what angle to use for portraiture as you have gotten about what focal length to use. Again, I say, the choice is yours, and it should be based on the attributes of your model and what look you’re striving for. Allow me, however, to throw my support behind the low angle. Very low…like, lying on the ground or flood with your camera low. Getting low works for any kind of photography — street, macro, landscape — but it’s an angle choice too seldom used by portrait photographers. Photographing your subject from down low adds a sense of engagement, power, and importance to the individual’s persona. Plus, shooting upwards is another useful method of eliminating background distractions.
So, to sum up: any focal length (used effectively) plus a low shooting angle equals a dynamic portrait. Of course, things like location, posing and clothing might also factor into a good portrait. But when you strip the making of a portrait down to its most essential elements, all you need is a camera, a lens and a willing subject.