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Beware of wide-angle distortion in portrait photography

The traditional wisdom is to shoot portraits on lenses ranging from 85mm to 120mm focal length when using a 35mm film or full frame DSLR camera. The reason is simple. You avoid distortion, and because of the slight compression produced by a telephoto lens the portrait tends to be more flattering.

However, in the world of photojournalism and reportage style photography wide-angle lenses are commonly used to give the viewer a feeling of being right in the middle of the action.

Nowadays in everything from weddings to corporate work, photographers reach for their wide-angle lenses and because we see so many images in magazines, books and online most people have grown accustomed to wide-angle distortion. It has become more acceptable to see celebrities, politicians and people featured in news stories looking slightly distorted.

I say more acceptable because we’ve gotten used to it. But at the same time I’d like to urge you to be cautious about how you use your wide-angle when it comes to photographing people.

I work with a business communications company and the company was in the news recently. A national UK newspaper wanted to run a story and they sent their own photographer to take a portrait of the Managing Director. This was a well respected, highly experienced photojournalist with many a story under his belt. He opted to shoot with a really wide-angle lens, capturing the MD in the foreground and his staff at their desks behind him. The newspaper ran the story and I’m sure that the readers just saw it as another typical news photograph.

However behind the scenes the staff of the company, family and friends all hated the picture. One of the directors commented that the MD looked like he’d been “photographed on the back of a spoon”. His face was distorted and anyone who knows him in the flesh would say that the image did not really look him, and it certainly was not very flattering.

Now if I had shot that portrait for the company’s annual report, do you think I would get another job with them? Of course not.

So the message of this blog is to use your wide-angle with care when photographing people. In certain circumstances you can get away with it. But overall if you want to take corporate portraits, or family portraits, wedding reportage etc do be careful about putting people’s faces close to the edge of the frame. That’s where wide-angle distortion tends to be worst.

The trick to using a wide-angle for a portrait is to keep your subject close to the centre of the frame, and also don’t press the lens right up against their nose. Play to the strengths of the wide- angle and let it do its work by showing the context around the person you’re photographing. After all that’s what wide-angles were designed to do – show everything in the scene while working reasonably close to your subject.

Unless of course you want to do a really wacky humorous image and your aim is to make it look like you photographed someone through a ‘door spy’ lens.

One of the greatest photojournalist portrait photographers in the world, Steve McCurry uses a few prime lenses, the widest is a 28mm and the longest is 105mm. Many of his famous portraits were shot on a standard 50mm lens (a 35mm gives you approximately the same focal length on a digital camera with a crop sensor). Others were taken on his 85mm and 105mm lenses.

As with all things photographic there are no absolute rules that we should slavishly follow. All I’m trying to say is beware and think about distortion. If you want to take a flattering, authentic portrait then the old conventional wisdom of not using a wide-angle holds true in most cases.

Also do not be afraid to put your subject in the middle of the frame. Many people harp on about the rule of thirds, which works a treat when you’ve got a scene and you want to control the viewer’s eye and get them to look at your focal point in the scene. But if you’re photographing a person and they are clearly the subject of photograph, then there’s a definite logic that says they have every reason to be in the middle of the frame. Don’t take my word for it. Just look at any master portrait photographer’s body of work.

Till soon,

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