You've read/seen/heard it before: “The all new [enter your favourite lens brand here] 16–35 zoom with super-clear coating will allow you to capture sweeping panoramic vistas.” It seems like every time a lens manufacturer announces a new wide-angle lens, the only people who should rejoice are landscape photographers. Similarly, when new telephoto lenses are announced, the manufacturer’s marketing hyperbole speaks almost exclusively to making great photographs of people (or animals) with that newest must-have lens—because who doesn’t want to be in on that?
This leads to lens stereotyping, and before long, we’re made to think that “portrait” equals 85mm or higher and that “landscape” implies 35mm or lower.
There is no such thing as a portrait lens or a landscape lens; there’s just the right lens for the right job or the right look you’re after. If you asked me what my favourite portrait lens is, I’d have a hard time choosing between my wide-angle 16–35mm and my 85mm f/1.8.
There’s no denying that the typical 85mm f/1.2, f/1.4, or f/1.8 lens yields great portraits. The beautiful background blur of these wide apertures makes it easier to focus just on the eyes and the main features of the subject, leaving less interesting parts of the composition in a blur. Getting my first 85mm f/1.8 lens was one of the best investments in photographic hardware I ever made, as it allowed me to shoot in a way that no other camera or lens I owned could.
Nikon D700 | 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2.0 – Nikon D700 | 16–35mm f/4 VR @ f/6.3 | 17mm
A typical 85mm f/2.0 portrait (L) and the environmental version (R), taken at 17mm, f/6.3.
But one thing often lacking in these telephoto images with their wide-open apertures is context, or that a bit of information about the person’s environment. Enter the concept of environmental portraiture via the wide-angle lens.
Wide-angle portraiture might seem more difficult at first since you can’t hide behind the convenient and beautiful bokeh of your f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens or the interesting features of your subject’s face alone. To examine some of the things you need to pay attention to when shooting wide-angle portraits:
1) Make the background interesting and informative.
Because wide-angle lenses take in so much of the environment, you have to pay close attention to your background. Rotating five degrees to the left or to the right with a 200mm telephoto lens will get you a completely new background, but will hardly change anything on a wide-angle lens. So make sure that the background really informs about the person you’re photographing or that there’s some interesting stuff happening in the background. In the images above, the wide-angle setting immediately suggests a nomadic lifestyle. There’s a hint of snow-capped mountains in the upper right corner, suggesting high altitude.
2) Underplay the background using your aperture.
Wide-angle lenses have a much higher depth of field. Unless you’re working with the really expensive prime lenses like the 24mm f/1.4 (and even then, you have to be really close to your subject for the background to become blurry), try to make your background less distracting if it's not inherently interesting.
Nikon D700 | 16–35mm f/4 VR @ f/10 | 24mm
Top: I accidentally chose an aperture that was too high (f/10) in this image. The aim of the background was to inform about the rural setting, but not to overwhelm, as it does now. There’s too much sharp detail drawing the viewer’s eye in all directions.
Bottom: I noted my mistake afterward, so I blurred the background in post-production. This simulated open-aperture version works better, though; the mind is intelligent enough to recognize the rural environment, yet the shallow depth of field lets the viewer focus on the woman.
3) Move in close.
Nikon D700 | 16–35mm f/4 VR @ f/4 | 22mm
If you’re shy, it’s harder to inconspicuously make portraits with a wide-angle lens as you have to be up close to have elements fill the frame. But this doesn’t mean your images have to look as if the subjects are aware of the camera. If you wait some time, they’ll get used to your presence (or they’ll ask you to leave).
One advantage of really long lenses such as the 200mm is that it’s easy to inconspicuously make what I call “distance portraits” (which is not the way to approach portraiture). While a 200mm can tempt you to try this paparazzi approach, a wide-angle lens requires you to get in close, so there’s no hiding that you’re a photographer. In this image, I was probably about three feet from the subject’s own feet!
4) Watch out for distortion.
Nikon D700 | 16–35mm f/4 VR @ f/5.6 | 22mm
The hand of this taxi driver looks almost as big as his head because when he was reaching out to give me my change, and not only was his hand close to the lens (see point number 5 below), but it was also in one of the corners of the frame. It doesn’t matter, though, as it helps to lead the viewer's eye. By definition, wide-angle lenses project a wider view of a scene onto a flat, rectangular surface. This means that, especially towards the sides of your frame, elements that are close to the lens (such as your subject’s limbs) can be distorted. This is often an unwanted result; to avoid it, frame your subject more to the center or take a few steps back. At other times, this distortion can effectively help to convey the story.
5) Use leading lines and exaggerated perspective.
Nikon D90 | Nikon 10–24mm f/3.5 – f/4.5 DX @ f/8 | 10mm
Three powerful diagonal leading lines disappear in the three corners of the frame of this image made in a bemo (small bus) in Blitar, Java. The face and the steering wheel, the only two round elements, are placed diagonally in opposition to each other, each occupying one of the “rule of thirds” intersection points. Wide-angle lenses let you play with composition like this.
Nikon D90 | Nikon 10–24mm f/3.5 – f/4.5 DX @ f/11 | 10mm
At the Rambut Siwi temple in Bali, I was immediately taken by the temple guardian and the symmetry of the stairs and moved in with my wide-angle lens to exaggerate the perspective so that the objects in the scene seemed further apart than they were in reality. This also means that angles of lines are exaggerated. You can use this to your advantage by using these lines as compositional elements in your frame.
Nikon D90 | Nikon 10–24 mm f/3.5 – f/4.5 DX @ f/5.6 | 12mm
At this Indian butchery, I wanted to include the apocalyptic foreground as well as the butcher. I used a wide-angle lens to make the butcher relatively small in the final image. To make sure he was well-seen, I used a flash. The result is a much more dynamic picture where your eye is drawn from the carcasses in the right corner of the foreground to the butcher in the background left corner.
Your subject doesn't always need to be in the foreground. But, if he isn’t, he’ll wind up rather small in the overall image because of the exaggeration of distance discussed in the previous point. If you can’t emphasize your subject by his physical size in your composition, you’ll have to find another way of drawing attention to him. As the eye is always drawn to the lightest part of an image first, putting your subject in a beam of natural light can be a good idea. No beam in your scene? Create your own using a flash.
6) Try a little role reversal.
Nikon D200 | Nikon AF-S DX VR Zoom 18–200mm f/3.5 – 5/5.6 @ 52mm | f/10
Using a “typical” landscape lens for portraiture is one side of the story. Similarly, you could experiment with using a telephoto lens where you’d typically only think of a wider angle. I’m mainly a portrait photographer, but in this image, I was drawn to the juxtaposition—literally and figuratively—of the contemporary glass building and the old mosque. However, all my ultra-wide-angle attempts to frame this scene with both buildings side by side looked uninspired and included too much irrelevant clutter.
It’s only when I switched to a slightly longer lens and captured the reflection of the old building in the new that everything fell into place. The result is a much more powerful image that conveys my idea in a cleaner, simpler, and more effective way.
So, next time you go out shooting, allow your lenses and subjects to play a little game of role reversal. The results might just have you swapping that portrait lens for your 16-35mm.
Want more like this? Piet's an Adobe Certified Expert and well, they don't hand that distinction out to just anyone. His latest eBook, "Light It Up: Techniques for Dramatic Off-Camera Lighting" is a comprehensive guide to all things lighting. It's our go-to guide when we need to create something that isn't naturally happening in the studio, on the street, or in the great outdoors.
Piet Van den Eynde is a Belgian freelance photographer, author, and trainer specializing in Adobe Lightroom. When he's not teaching or writing, he travels the world on his bicycle photographing the people he meets along the way. See more of Piet's work on his website.