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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Portraits, Wide And Fast

A new lens’ distinct look and capabilities make one think differently about travel portraits

Environmental portraits like this are the bread and butter for any photographer traveling to a unique place. In this kind of low-light situation, modern camera technology and new lenses make it possible to get a captivating image.

As a travel photographer, the environmental portrait has always been one of my go-to techniques. It’s a wonderful opportunity to give your viewer, in one frame, a sense of both what the place and the people look like. That is, after all, the primary mission of travel photography.

Typically, I reach for a wide angle to a normal focal length to pull off these shots. In most interior situations, especially in the developing world, the wide angle is almost always the optic of choice because of the cramped quarters. Usually, I’ll place my subject in the foreground on one side of the frame and use the other side to give a sense of the background. If I shoot verticals, the subject is in the foreground at the bottom of the frame, the background surrounding.

The foreground person is always my point of focus, but the great apparent depth of field of the wider glass, even at a moderate aperture, does a good job of keeping the environment in the background in relatively sharp focus as well. Since I use the smaller DX-sized cameras, even ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6 gives me near front-to-back sharpness in the frame.

It’s a look that has served me well, even in my film days, but a recent assignment kind of rocked my world when it came to my notions of what an environmental portrait also could look like.

Back To The FX Future. The assignment came from Nikon’s Japanese advertising agency, and it was to create some samples with two new wide-angle lenses. One of them was a very fast prime lens, a 24mm ƒ/1.4.

In my film days, I owned the legendary 28mm ƒ/1.4 Nikkor, and this was a lens that I pulled out on rare occasion, and mostly when I was going into really dark situations: candlelit processions, dimly lit churches, dark pubs. I’d crank the lens open and try to do my usual overall views of these places, and end up being profoundly frustrated by the lack of depth of field at ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/2. For that reason, I started leaving the lens behind and learning to make due with an ƒ/2.8 zoom and tabletop tripod or some other way to brace myself to handle the low light.

Fast-forward a few years, and the changes in photographic fashions and “looks” that happen over time, and I begin to notice a whole different way my colleagues are using wide-angle lenses.

Younger photojournalists, like The New York Times’ Todd Heisler in his excellent series of audio slideshows about New York characters called “One in 8 Million,” are using fast wide-angles wide open in portrait situations, making photographs that were as much about the out-of-focus portion of the image as the sharp part, giving the photos a much more “artsy” look.


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