Monday, 29 November 2010

Project 7: Focal length and character

Essentially quite a technical project, the purpose here is to explore the effect of focal length in portrait photography.  Realising that some of the outcomes, at wide angles, would be to distort the features, and recognising that maintaining the same pose whilst I moved the camera, changed lenses etc was going to be tedious for the sitter, I decided to handle this project as a self-portrait.  I have three lenses, two of which are zooms, so there was plenty of potential for experimentation.  I used an 18-20mm wide angle lens at 12, 16 and 20mm; a 50mm prime lens; and an 18-200mm zoom at 18, 24, 35, 50, 80 and 105mm (after which I would have been struggling to get enough distance from camera to subject and it would have been an unlikely focal length for portraiture since I am not using a full-frame DSLR and the 105mm is already at c150mm in 35mm equivalent terms.
The ten results are below.
12mm Wide 

16mm Wide

18mm Zoom

20mm Wide

24mm Zoom

35mm Zoom

50mm Zoom

50mm Prime

80mm Zoom

105mm Zoom

The series successfully illustrates the level of distortion to facial features, especially the nose, at the wider focal lengths.  Even at the 24mm (36mm equivalent), there is an unnatural look to the face (honestly!).  Of course, it is not uncommon to see portraits in the magazines using quite wide angles e.g. one thinks of Rankin’s portraits of the Queen, and one of Tony Blair, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times magazine.  Question – why? Could be just a ‘fun’ approach; the Queen looks happy enough and there is some jollity about her picture.  But then again, the Tony Blair one, in black and white, high contrast, promotes a sense of menace, perhaps – or is more ‘poking fun’ than ‘having fun’.  From 35mm (52mm equivalent) onwards, the images have a more natural look to them, though it might be said that the 105mm version begins to look a little ‘flat’.  Another important point to make about the very wide angle lens – at 12mm the lens was almost in my face.
My conclusion from this project, which concurs with the comments in the notes, is that 50mm-80mm (75mm-120mm equivalent) range seems most effective for portraiture.  I am especially keen on the results from my small 50mm F1.8 prime lens, and it has been my lens of choice for a number of the projects already.

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