Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Longer, Closer, Wider

When it comes to shooting glamour, headshots, as well as many other types of portraiture, two factors often come into play in big ways for producing great results: focal length and aperture. Actually, I should make that three factors and add the distance between the subject and the camera into the mix.

It's no secret that telephoto lenses are preferred by many photographers shooting many types of portraits. Often, those "longer" lenses tend to be in the 70mm to 200mm range. That means they include all the medium telephoto lenses up to the beginning of the really long telephoto lenses.

Longer lenses tend to compress the image, including the subject's features, thereby reducing the illusion of a third dimension in photos, i.e., the illusion of depth. That kind of compression often yields very pleasing results in terms of beauty, glamour, and other attributes. Longer lenses are also used to help isolate the subject from the background and foreground. When longer lenses are used at shorter distances from the subject, that compression become even more pronounced.

Yeah, there's other ways to control the illusion of depth. Perspective is one such way, although perspective is most often used to enhance or extend the illusion of depth. But for this update I'm focusing on compressing the illusion of depth with focal length, aperture, and distance-to-subject as it relates to many types of portrait photography, glamour as well as other genres.

Photographs, as we all know, are two-dimensional. Photographs that appear to have dimensional depth still remain two-dimensional. The illusion of depth can be enhanced or reduced. One of the ways to reduce the illusion of depth is by using longer lenses at shorter distances from the subject and at wider apertures. Hence, my subject title: "Longer, Closer, Wider." Compressing (the illusion of) depth is an oftentimes preferred characteristic in many types of portraits.

I'm not going to write a mini physics lesson here. I'm a photographer, dammit! Not a physicist. I'm also not going to delve into other sciences with explanations of how and why the human eye and brain perceive things like depth. Again, I'm a photographer, not a scientist or a doctor. Aside from curiosity, I really don't care all that much why these things work the way they do. I mostly care that they work the way they do. I also care about knowing how to control and manipulate these perceptions, i.e., the perception of faux-depth (or lack of it) in two-dimensional imagery. Mostly, I care about their uses in various types of portrait photography.

I'll make this compressing depth stuff real simple, boiling it down to its essence, that is, to three ingredients. If you want to reduce the illusion of depth in a photo -- something portrait photographers of all types often want to do -- do three simple things: 1) Use a medium to long-ish telephoto lens and, if that lens is a zoom with focal lengths ranging from wide to telephoto, mostly shoot at the lens's longer focal lengths; 2) Position yourself closer to the subject (rather than further) while still being able to frame as much of the subject as you feel is appropriate for whatever it is you're shooting; 3) Use wider apertures, that is, the widest (most open) apertures you feel comfortable using while still being able to maintain critical focus, usually on the subject's eyes.

Certainly, depth isn't the only factor important to great portraiture. But doing those three things, in addition to all the other stuff you're (hopefully) doing in your quest to capture great pictures, will generally yield portraits that are better received by its viewers.

The B&W headshot at the top is one of Ms. Tera Patrick from a few years ago. I thought the picture decently illustrates this blog update. I captured the image with an 85mm prime lens at f/4. It's not cropped much. The image is pretty much the way I framed it in my camera so, even using an 85mm prime (on a full-frame sensor camera) it meant I was in fairly close to Tera. (And I'm certainly not complaining about that!)

2 comments:

after6photo said...

Deja vu. I had this same conversation Saturday with a photographer from South Africa but he started talking about the physics of lens compression factors he lost me right away.

At the end of his explanation I asked, "So you use a long lens to make the model look better?" He looked at me as though I hadn't been listening and said, "Yes."

Rick D.

luis said...

Great post as always.
Just passed to say I enjoy reading your blog, you make a perfect mix between technical aspects (not many) and human factors when taking photographs (many of them).
keep posting please!