I’m about five years into my journey as a photographer and still just beginning to discover the joy of bending and breaking rules.
The conventional and basic truism when it comes to portrait photography is longer is better — that focal lengths from 85 to 135 mm (or equivalents) are ideal for up-close portraits because of the natural compression with those lengths. Much wider on a head-and-shoulders shot, and you’ll wind up with unflattering distortion.
Let’s get a little technical about that: It’s not actually the focal length that causes distortion. Is the distance to your subject. Hold something small up to your nose. A pen will do. I’ll wait. You look very dignified, by the way.
See how stretched out it seems? The closer it is, the more elongated it looks.
Imagine the same effect on a human face. Whatever’s closest to your lens — usually, your subject’s nose — is going to look stretched out. There’s a little of that going on with the LCHSchnoz.com above. And to fill a frame at wide angle, you’ve got to get up close.
Work the same logic backward: Getting farther away — like you would with a longer lens — flattens out your subject’s features. Conventional wisdom says about 10 feet is ideal.
But who wants to be conventional?
Well, sure, I do, lots of the time - - we learn what’s tried and true because it works. But I happened to get my hands on a new Sigma 35 mm Art lens for my Sony a7iii and a7Riii cameras. And Heather was game.
I’ve got very little experience shooting portraits at 35 mm. It’s kind of a weird length … in that it’s so normal. That’s why it’s so popular for walkaround, street photography. It’s just wide enough to be unflattering if used thoughtlessly — but not wide enough to make the world look out of whack. Most of the time, if your subject looks funky, the viewer’s going to think it’s because he or she just looks funky.
Many people use 35 mm for full-body shots, or for environmental portraits. But in a closer portrait, it creates a sense of intimacy, which is intriguing. And for me, the trick is often this: Play up what’s unusual. If the lens is going to draw out whats approaching it, don’t avoid it — embrace it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a more conventional use of 35 mm — to back up a bit for a full-body (or most-body) shot.
There are few, maybe no wrong answers in photography. Only opportunities to learn.