Understanding Portrait Lenses Part 2: Exploring Photography with Mark Wallace


Hi everybody welcome to another episode of Exploring Photography right here on AdoramaTV. It’s brought to you by Adorama, the camera store that has every conceivable piece of photography equipment. Make sure you check them out at Adorama.com. Well we are continuing, this is Part 2 of help with “Which lens should I buy?” Specifically, which lens should you buy for portrait photography. Joining me today is Natasha, she is going to be helping us understand some things about the distance of our camera’s lens from our subject. Now if you didn’t check it out, make sure you watch last week’s episode where I talked about field of view, depth of field and distance from subject to lens, all kinds of technical things. Now we’re going to put that into practice in this very small studio. One thing I want to point out is, this isn’t a tiny studio but we’re trying to emulate a tiny studio. Specifically because a lot of people want to buy wide-angle lenses when they shoot in very small studios but a lot of seasoned professionals will say don’t do that. Make sure you use a longer lens of 50mm or 70mm, or longer. So what we’ve done here in this studio is, we’ve sort of shrunk it by not using this space back here. We’re not using this intentionally so we’ve got a gray background here We’re trying to shrink this studio just a little bit to make it look more like a tiny studio. So why is it that so many photographers will tell you to buy a lens that is 70mm or longer, maybe 50mm at the very edge, to shoot portraits? Well it all has to do with the angle of view problems that we get and most importantly the distance between our camera and our subject and what that does. So let’s start with a misnomer and that is that wide-angle lenses distort faces. They actually don’t, it’s the distance. Let me walk you through this. So what I have here is a Canon 5D Mark III and I’ve got a 24-105mm lens. So I’ve got a wide-angle lens and I’ve got a telephoto lens all in one. First I want to show you that wide-angle lenses don’t actually distort faces, it’s the distance that does that. So I’m going to go back here, there’s a little stool and I’m going to shoot two pictures. The first one I’m going to shoot at 24mm and we’re going to get everything in this shot. So it is the studio and it’s Natasha and it’s the background lights. What I’m doing is, I’m keeping Natasha’s face right in the center of the screen. I’m going to take a second shot from the exact same location but this time zoomed in. What I’m going to do here is, I’m going to take these two shots and I’m going to crop both of them so that they match. So we have the same amount of Natasha’s face in both shots. Now watch what happens when we crop them and put them side by side. You’ll notice from the wide-angle shot, her face looks the same as it does from the telephoto shot. The wide-angle lens is not distorting her face. Watch what happens when we put our wide-angle lens on our camera and I fill the frame by getting close. Now what I’m doing is, instead of going far away and cropping, which you shouldn’t do, I’m going to get the frame nice and full by getting close. Watch what happens. I have to get really close and that is not something you normally want to do with your model because look at this shot, now her face looks wonky. It is distorted because we’re so darn close that it starts to warp things and it makes Natasha feel a little bit uncomfortable. Nobody wants a camera right in their face. That’s really the main reason why you don’t want a wide-angle lens because you have to get really close and it makes things wonky when you’re that close. We also have field of view problems, in other words, we’re starting to see these striplights, the backlight and this light up here and everything, it’s really messy. By zooming in, it cleans everything up our field of view shrinks, like we saw in our last episode and it’s really nice and simple. The other reason that a wide-angle lens messes things up is because the relationships between things get all wonky. Let me illustrate this. We already said that Natasha is a little annoyed when I get close to her and so Natasha give me your best ‘stay away’. Watch what happens to her hand. So I’m going to have your hand about right there. Take a little picture here. Oh my gosh her hand is gigantic, it’s huge! The reason for that is because her hand is so much closer to the camera than her face, it makes her hand look gigantic and her face look really small. That’s sort of the distortion that people are talking about. It’s not the lens necessarily, it’s the distance between the subject and the lens. Watch what happens when I walk back here. We’re going to take the same picture but now I’m going to zoom my lens. So I’m going to zoom in, we’ll sit down here. Natasha give me the ‘get back.’ I’m going to take a shot. Now look, her hand looks more proportional to her head. It looks just like it should It’s a little blown out because it’s too close to the light but you can see the difference there. The point of this is if you’re shooting portraits, even in a small studio, you need to get back and zoom in. That’s going to put distance between you and your subjects, that’s going to make things look more natural, it’s going to narrow the angle of view, that will clean things up, it’ll make your model more comfortable in the space and everything is going to be much better. So the question is, what do you do if you want to shoot full-length shots in a very small space? Well, my suggestion is find a different space. Find something that works for what you’re trying to do. The other question is, is there ever an exception to the rule? Can you shoot portraits with a wide angle lens? Absolutely. That’s what we’re going to do next. Well this is the quintessential exception to the rule, it’s the environmental portrait. What that means is we want a portrait of a person in their environment. We’re going to mimic this by having Natasha here in this kitchen having her morning coffee, getting ready for the day. I want to make sure I get a great portrait of her but also I want to get some of the surrounding area here so I can put her in context. To do that I am using a 35mm lens, that’s not an extremely wide lens but it’s definitely wider than what you’d normally use for a headshot or an in-studio portrait but a lot of people consider a 35mm lens the perfect environmental portrait lens. This guy here I can open all the way up to an aperture of f/2. That’s great because with a wide-angle lens that allows me to get nice, soft, shallow depth of field but not so shallow that this falls completely out of context. I can still see these shapes and it’s nice and identifiable but it’s also nice and soft. Now as with all wide-angle lenses, this is something that you really should consider as a close-up lens. I’m going to be shooting pretty close to Natasha but I want to make sure I don’t distort her too much by putting her at the edges of the frame. So what I’ll do is I’ll put her either to the right third or the left third and then let the scene take up the other two thirds of the image. I’m saying a lot of words, let’s put it into practice and show you exactly how you can make a portrait that looks fantastic. I really like that shot of you having the coffee, you got a nice after coffee smile going on, it’s pretty good. Thank you so much for joining us, Natasha Thank you for joining us for this episode of Exploring Photography. Don’t forget to subscribe to AdoramaTV that way you don’t miss a single episode, like last week’s episode that helps us understand what we’re doing this week. Also, make sure you check out the Adorama Learning Center because we have videos and articles and things that will help you understand things like depth of field, field of view, aperture, shutter speeds and all that kind of stuff. All of it is absolutely free, so make sure you check that out. Thanks again for joining us and we will see you again next time.

69 Replies to “Understanding Portrait Lenses Part 2: Exploring Photography with Mark Wallace”

  1. EXACTLY the same camera and objective I use (24-105)…Most used lense..use it all the time… hehe… 😀 What would you recommend on the settings for the softboxes? 😀 Btw, great video… 😀

  2. Thank you so much Mark for all of these videos! I have learned so much from watching you these pass 3 years.

  3. Good video, Mark, thanks for the great info. It's one thing to talk about this phenomenon but you actually illustrate it.

  4. Awesome! I just finished using my 24-70 lens for a photoshoot and I had concerns about distortion. Now, I am at ease as like you said… It is not the lens, but the distance that could cause distortion. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  5. Natasha… Where do I know her from? She looks familiar. Was she in other Adorama videos or was she somewhere else?

  6. Really enjoy your videos Mark and think you're one of the top educators on YouTube but the Adorama marketing folks need to put enthusiast and pro-sumer gear in your hands for these types of videos on occasion. Those product links above point to over $17,000 worth of gear. Teach us newbies with more reasonably priced gear and I'm sure the ROIs on these videos sky rocket. All of this assumes, of course, that Profoto/Leica/Canon aren't paying product placement fees!!

  7. It is good to see Natasha come out of her shell. She has a nice smile. Also, what is with the barefoot photographer? My next photoshoot, I will barefooting!

  8. OK Mark. Profit batt. powered strobes or Broncolor? I watch Adorama and B&H vids all the time. I also watch a certain British Photog that has more Broncolor gear than their warehouse does. 😉 LOL Is One brand easier to get serviced in the USA than another?

  9. As always, extremely useful info presented in a clear, concise fashion. I'll start experimenting with my 35mm for portraits!

  10. it doesn't matter what camera or lens you use, pictures will come out better if you shoot barefoot 🙂

  11. I think going back and defining what a portrait is is extremely important. Some could argue that the coffee pics at the end were not portraits. I have been wondering about that for a bit. Is "portrait" simply an umbrella term for any shot of a person? or is exclusively shoulders to the top of the head?

  12. I have more fun watching the models looking a bit uncomfortable while Mark talks than anything else. (sorry, Mark!). "Where do I look? Look straight ahead. WHAT"S THAT?! Dammit, look straight ahead! Maintain dead eyes…"

  13. You did a very good job. Short and simple explanations and the right doing afterwards. And the Pictures Shows that. Keep on. You have one subscriber more from Germany!

  14. Hi Mark. I would like to know what are the supporting stands? are they from the floor to the ceiling? and the heavy duty holders for equipment? could you provide me with more info on those? Thanks, Lubomir

  15. Is it possible to take portraits of group of people (10-12) with wide angle lens i mean to say with nikon 35mm 1.8G. If it is possible then please help me out how to take the portraits of group of people with wide angle lens.

  16. In a small studio, wouldn't it be better to have a selection of prime lenses, like say a 10mm, an 85mm, and a 50mm and take advantage of the sharper images at known distances with known lighting qualities?

    I did appreciate the demonstration of the difference between small focal length up close and longer focal length further away.

  17. How do you explain the distortion in the corners of an image taken with a wide angle lens?
    Is that because of the distance too?
    This video is so pointless, you explain brainless things like the watchers are babies, "oh look, her palm is closer to the camera, noo ! that doesn't mean it's bigger that her's head" -_-
    Learn physics and remake this video explaining why the distortion happens and what it really is, I'm gonna dislike for now.

  18. Mark what is that adapter that attaches the camera to the light stand? I don't even know what words to use to search for it.

  19. Look who has a hookah!!! Mark, I had no idea you were a fan of hookah….or are you about to break my heart and say that the hookah is just a prop.

  20. Yea distortion but it's still perspective,
    The film the Revenant was shot on a 24mm, loved the perspective

  21. Mark, lol…you are already having such a big hall for photography. When i am shooting at my home – hall, i never get this much of open space back of the model. That is the main problem what we face to use small space and separating the background/backdrop or avoiding shadows of the subject.
    Wide angle shots are really nice to use portrait at public and resort like places, that too starting at 35mm which won't create any distortion. Even in TV studios, they use this 35mm prime, but not 24mm.

  22. Did anyone else see the orb fly in from Natasha's(?) right should, just above her head at :42? That is not dust or a fly!

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