I've planning to start doing some basic photography tutorial posts, talking about the things I know about and using my photos to demonstrate simple concepts. This post is about using different focal lengths when photographing people. I'm talking about lenses on a crop sensor dslr, so they are equivalent to about 44mm, 80mm, and 130mm on a full frame, but with more distortion.
Same Distance, Different Focal Length
The three photos above are taken at three different focal lengths with the camera (on a tripod) and subject in exactly the same place. In this case I'm using three different prime lenses, but the effect is the same as standing in the same place and zooming in and out on the subject. The camera is about seven feet from the subject. Notice how the subject (Michelle) looks undistorted in all the photos, but that the framing changes significantly to include less. Compare that to the sequence below.
Same Framing, Different Focal Length
You can see that at 28mm Michelle looks distorted - the centre of the picture is enlarged making her nose look bigger, and her ears disappear behind her cheeks generally making her face look chubbier. At 50mm there's much less distortion and from here we have a more flattering portrait. At 85mm things look pretty similar - there is no distortion and it's a good portrait length. The picture is very slightly flatter, and this would be more apparent with a background.
If you find your photos of people (or yourself) look like the first picture above - try standing further back. It might seem obvious, but the closer you get, the more distorted your subject's face will seem. Try doing a comparison like the one I've shown above using your own camera - try to frame your subject in the same way, but use different focal lengths - then compare the results so you know what you're going to get. There might be times where you want a wide angle look. Here's an example of a wider angle used for effect:
The wider angle includes more of the background and gives much more of a context to the portrait - as well as slightly distorting the subject to give him a peering, reserved look. Actually this was taken by my brother who is not a photographer, so he just went up and framed the subject in the middle, and the poor chap is looking a bit skeptical about having the camera stuck so close to his face. But I think the effect is excellent and it looks entirely intentional. So this just goes to show, you don't have to stick with any perceived rules about how to do portraits.
This photo of Elena is a similar attempt to put the subject in context, but with a slightly longer focal length of 50mm. This means the subject is undistorted and looks good, but the framing still gives context to what she's doing - it has a story to it.
In this example the subject is completely isolated and the photo becomes all about her face and expression. I haven't really talked about depth of field, and that will be a subject for another post, but the longer the focal length, the tighter it is possible to make the depth of field (assuming all else, such as aperture, is equal). This is shot at f/2.0, as are all the other examples of Michelle.
I'm still working out how best to do this kind of tutorial, so if you have any feedback it would be very useful if you comment below.