I know it’s been a while, but I thought I’d make it up to you by divulging some of my favorite shooting tips & tricks. Whether you’re just starting out, or have been at this for a while, I think you may find the following helpful. I’m also going to pull up some older images in order to tell you exactly how I achieved them.
I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re shooting with a dSLR camera, or something similar, so I won’t go into detail about lens-reflux and all that. I’m also going to assume that you have a basic understanding of ISO, Aperture & Shutter Speed. If you all need more info on that, just let me know in the comments & I’ll do my best to answer or do another tutorial.
For now though, I’m going to share a bit about the subject I get the most emails about: Lens Length. Maybe it’s because I’m always harping about it, but I think you all are finally figuring out that size, in photography, really does matter.
Alrighty, here we go….
Aside from lighting, lens length is probably one of the most crucial aspects in achieving most of the images I create. Almost all of my portrait work is shot at 150-200 mm. There is a lot of talk online about the 85 mm lens being the “ideal” portrait lens, but that just isn’t entirely true. It’s a great lens, and I love it, but it has major limitations when it comes to portrait work, particularly head shots and traditional group shots. It’s seems ideal to some in the fact that a fixed 85mm (or 100mm) is extremely fast & accurate, which makes it foolproof for achieving focused action shots. It also is appealing because of how easily users can achieve smooth, blurred backgrounds & really isolate their subjects. Again, it’s a great lens, and if I was just starting out and could afford only one lens it would be either an 85mm fixed or a 100mm fixed, but it is not the “end all be all” of portrait work. Basically, if you stop at the 85mm and don’t explore other lengths, you are really cheating yourself.
Here is my cheat sheet when choosing a lens – in simple terms. In other words, this is the short version.
50mm fixed lens – use for babies & children.
100-200mm lens – use for head shots, adult/teen portrait work, and posed family shots. Step back to get everyone in your image if you need to, and scoot up close to fill up your lens with a single subjects face for head shots. I do almost all of my head shots at 200 mm with this lens.
16-35mm lens – use for landscape work, or for work where you are incorporating a subject (full body) into a wide landscape shot. Also, this is a great lens for photojournalistic style shots. Watch out for barrel distortion when you place a subject too close to edge of this lens. The edges of your image will be stretched when using this lens.
24-70mm lens – use for Baby work (typically at 50mm) or for photojournalistic/actions shots of families. This lens also lends itself to the very casual, “magazine-type” shots that are really popular among Momtographers these days.
If you want to learn more about WHY these lengths are what I (and most photographers) tend to gravitate towards, here is the longer explanation:
My 70-200mm lens (used at 150-200mm) is my absolute fave. For really beautiful, flattering, traditional portrait work you want to be shooting your subjects at a minimum of 100mm – preferably 150-200mm +++. ESPECIALLY for head shots. In fact, I can’t think of a case where I would ever shoot an adult female head shot at less than 150 mm. Here is why: the longer the lens, the more flattering it will be to most adult subjects because grown-ups have sharper cheekbones and more pronounced chins, etc. that tend to look better when softened under a nice, long lens. That’s all you really need to know. I could go into a long explanation of how length combined with distance from subject impacts what comes out of your camera, but I won’t right now. Just remember, if you’re shooting a family of 5, and if Mama isn’t looking as lovely as she’d like, whip out the longest lens you have – she’ll immediately become more beautiful. And as photographers, we all know that if Mama doesn’t like your photos, no matter how adorable the kids look, you’ve officially blown the shoot. Also, it’s important to note that almost every single well known fashion photographer shoots their subjects at at least 150mm. Read up on this if you don’t believe me. I promise, it’s true.
The below pictures should demonstrate my point. I have to say, the shorter length shots are truly some of my most awful work ever – they were purely test shots, so please don’t hold it against me. In fact, I may have managed to make each bride actually look far worse than they do in real life. They are also fairly poorly lit & sooc, so I’m really airing some dirty laundry here. BUT they demonstrate beautifully what the right lens length can do. Both brides had fairly strong, angular faces. When shot properly at 200 mm though, you would never know it.
The below image was also shot at 200mm. You can see that the edge of the structure they are standing on is not distorted in any way, and there is a naturally appealing fall off from the subject. The sky (although it’s pretty blown out here) is actually brought in closer to the subject as well. See how the trees look like they are almost forming a canopy over the subject, and the small wall in the background appears somewhat close by? In real life, those elements were much farther apart. The 200 mm brought them all in together though, creating a beautiful, nestled feel in this composition. For reference, I am standing about 100 yards away from my subjects in this image.
50mm lenses, on a full frame camera, record images as the human eye sees them. That’s why they work perfectly when photographing babies. I mean think about it – when is the last time you saw a baby with an extremely sharp jaw line or really pronounced cheekbones that need to be softened by a longer lens? It just doesn’t happen – so shorter lenses are just fine in those cases. Mother Nature does a great job of producing babies to appear ideal to the human eye. Plus, a 50mm is awesome for macro work, which of course is crucial in photographing babies.
The below image is of a baby’s feet shot with a 50 mm lens. I believe it was shot wide open, but it was likely at least at a 2.0. Notice the strong macro elements, and you can still see how appealing the baby’s face looks, even though it’s not in focus.
85mm and 100mm fixed lenses are also really great for working with babies and kids, when there is a lot of action, or when you’re just not confident that you’re going to be able to control your subject in the way you want. Also, if you’re just having an off day or are starting out in photography and a little unsure of what you’re doing, the 85mm fixed is going to be your friend. Why? Because it is basically foolproof. And the 85/100 mm is a long enough lens that it is still somewhat universally flattering to all subjects. This is why it is SO popular among Momtographers and photographers who specialize in kids.
16-35mm lenses (or other wide lenses) are awesome, and one of my favorites for landscape work, or for work incorporating large, vast scenery into a full-body portrait. Short, wide lenses stretch the edges of everything. That’s why when shooting a tight shot of a rock on a beach, the rock can appear very large while the rest of the beach & sky seems to stretch on indefinitely into the distance. I love my 16-35 for beach work too because of the amazing way it stretches the clouds, skies & sunsets. Don’t be afraid to get up close to your subject when shooting that wide, but I would NOT recommend using a 16-35 on anything other than full body work where your subject takes up a small part of the overall image, unless you are a photo-journalist. It is absolutely NOT a head shot lens, but when used right, it can produce some amazing work. It’s also my favorite lens to combine off camera flash of any type with, and I use it a lot when I’m shooting subjects from above or below.
Here is a great shot created with a 16 mm lens. The actual window is MUCH smaller than it appears in this shot, and I am standing almost immediately to my subject. Notice how the edges of the window are stretched out, and what is actually about a 5 foot expanse of wall that houses the window actually appears to extend indefinitely.
I will try to pull up some beach pics soon, but they’re on my other computer and I’m just too lazy today to spend another hour sorting and pulling up some good 16-35mm examples. You should get the idea though from the above.
24-70mm lenses are great for indoor action shots & capturing casual family moments like the images below, which are two of my favorites. Notice the strong photo-journalistic aspects of these images, yet the corners don’t stretch quite the way they do with the 16-35mm lenses. Subjects appear fairly close to the way they do in real life, but backgrounds/interiors/foregrounds appear just a little larger/wider than they do in real life. In both images, I am extremely close to my subjects. In fact, maybe a little too close for camera comfort in the second image….let’s just say, it wouldn’t be the first time the end of my lens met the top of a toddler’s head. Not particularly proud of that, but hey, you do what you’ve gotta do to get a good shot, right?
Well, I hope that has helped you all a bit to get an idea of how I use lens length. I learned most of this information from books about photography that I checked out of my local library. I’d strongly encourage you to do the same thing if you would like to further your knowledge of this subject.. Feel free to ask questions here, and I’ll do my best to answer them as thoroughly as possible. The next tutorial I do will probably be on composition, so stay tuned!
Until then, happy shooting! – PB