Narrative Portraiture: Foundations of Portraiture
Illustration by John Hersey

Choosing lenses


From:

Narrative Portraiture: Foundations of Portraiture

with Chris Orwig

Video: Choosing lenses

In the previous movie, we talked about camera bodies. The camera bodies are interesting because what we'll do is typically have a camera body for two, three, or maybe four years and then we'll upgrade. In comparison, lenses we will have for many years 10, 20, maybe even 30 years. So when it comes to making that little extra investment, lenses are worth it. In regards to portraiture, we have some different options and the lens that we use or the lenses that we choose really depends upon the story that we want to tell.

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Watch the Online Video Course Narrative Portraiture: Foundations of Portraiture
1h 44m Beginner May 27, 2011

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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores the use of elements such as location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection.

In this first installment, Chris lays the groundwork for the series. The course begins with a discussion of portraiture and the characteristics that make an effective, story-filled portrait. Chris then explains the importance of establishing a connection with a subject and identifying those details that will help tell his or her story. Next, he explores elements such as location, natural lighting, and composition. The course concludes with an exploration of gear: the creative options that various lenses and cameras provide, and techniques for shooting efficiently and unobtrusively.

Topics include:
  • The elements of narrative portraiture
  • Choosing locations and working with natural light
  • Connecting with your subject to better tell a story
  • Composition strategies
  • Choosing lenses and selecting gear for a shoot
  • Camera-handling tips
Subject:
Photography
Author:
Chris Orwig

Choosing lenses

In the previous movie, we talked about camera bodies. The camera bodies are interesting because what we'll do is typically have a camera body for two, three, or maybe four years and then we'll upgrade. In comparison, lenses we will have for many years 10, 20, maybe even 30 years. So when it comes to making that little extra investment, lenses are worth it. In regards to portraiture, we have some different options and the lens that we use or the lenses that we choose really depends upon the story that we want to tell.

So what I want to do here is just talk about some of these different options and then at the end of this movie, give you a few recommendations. Well, for starters in this group here on the left, I have some wide-angle lenses. I have a fisheye, a 16 to 35 mm lens, and a 35mm lens. Those wider lenses are great when you want to tell kind of a larger story. Maybe it's the artist in our studio and you want the whole studio in the frame and it's her in that context. Well, really you want some kind of a wide-angle lens to tell that type of story.

The next in this group in here, we have some lenses, say like a 50 mm or an 85 or 100 or 135. Well, what those lenses allow us to do is to get a little bit more close to our subject, maybe to create that shot where it's right on the person and we capture the intensity of who they are. Now some of these lenses are really important for portraiture. Some people often refer to the 85 mm lens here as one of the perfect portrait lenses because this allows us to get close to the subject, create a really distinct and flattering look, but it's not too over the top.

You know another look or perspective that I like is the 50 mm lens, which is on the camera body, and I like that one because I think it's an honest and authentic perspective. Many people call the 50 mm focal length as the normal focal length and typically when you say something's normal, it dissuades people from using it. Well, I don't want normal! I want drama, I want excitement, I want wide-angle that brings everything in! Well, what I've found is that normal perspective requires that I work. I look through the lens, I see the scene as my eye sees it, and I ask myself okay, how can I work with this, how can I make the ordinary extraordinary? It keeps me grounded, it keeps me moving and again I really like that focal length.

So part of our decision about focal length, as you can see, depends upon the story that we want to tell and also our own personality. How do we like to shoot? Well, then over here on my far right, we have the 70-200 and the 300 mm focal length lens. Now the 70-200 telephoto lens is again one of the great portrait lenses. That lens is used a lot in fashion work, in creating portraits. What this allows you to do is to get really close to a subject and I remember as I was learning about lenses, I asked a friend about the 70-200 and he said "Man, you know what, that lens is unbelievable.

You can just put someone in a parking lot that's uninteresting, use that lens, create an interesting photograph." And what they were getting at is that a lens allows you to use this shallow depth of field, so that your subject is in focus and the background becomes out of focus, the background becomes maybe more of a pattern or just something there and it creates a really distinct and flattering look. And that's what those telephoto focal lengths do, the 300 in particular again, and allow you to create this really just wonderful, beautiful and interesting look.

Now one thing that I haven't talked about with all of these lenses is depth of field. That's something really to consider. So for example, remember I talked about that 85 mm lens, that it's an F1.2. F1.2 allows me to create a shot which is really close to the subject, maybe cropped in here three-quarter shot, where their eye is in focus and nothing else is. Their eyebrow's out, their hair is out of focus, their ears are out of focus. The background is way out of focus. Now what that does when creating a portrait is something fascinating.

Our viewer is drawn into the eyes and when we look at a photograph, we're drawn to areas of sharpness, areas of brightness, and we can do that. We can really bring them into those bright sparkling eyes to create a distinct look and tell a unique story. Finally, as you think about your lenses, do this. Perhaps you are going to pick up some camera gear. Well, get what you can afford and don't worry about it and then start saving, and as you save remember that lenses are items that you want to incrementally add to your overall bag.

You want to buy one lens at a time and use it, get to know it, get to know its limitations and how it can help you. And I think by doing that, what it can do for you is help you focus on your subject. So you're not fumbling with your lens so much, but rather you really know and understand that lens, so you can kind of get beyond it, work with it, and create powerful photographs.

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