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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

This look, with its emphasis on the quality of the out-of-focus portion of the image (or the bokeh, as it’s called), had always been popular with a small group of street shooters, but for the most part, photojournalists were still doing their environmental portrait work with as much foreground-to-background sharpness as possible.

Eyes Wide Open. My appreciation of this style of shooting was about to change, thanks to an assignment I received to create a series of photographs with a new 24mm ƒ/1.4 that Nikon was about to release in a few months. One of the main things they wanted me to illustrate was the lens’ excellent bokeh at the wide apertures, and they requested I shoot several portraits to illustrate this quality.

As I started working with this lens, a couple of big differences from my old film-shooting techniques became clear. First, the focusing accuracy of today’s cameras is so much better than the film era that the back-focus issues that haunted me when I used my 28mm ƒ/1.4 on my F100 film bodies were gone. The borrowed D3S and D700 I used for this job were uncannily accurate when locking onto a subject at ƒ/1.4.

But even at that, when you’re focusing on an eyeball at ƒ/1.4 in a dim environment, you can use some help. And here’s where a digital SLR’s Live View feature comes into its own.

As I was shooting my portraits in a variety of available darkness situations, I always could go into Live View and magnify the image to confirm that my point of focus was indeed on the eyes (usually where you want it). When you consider that your usable depth of field at this aperture could be an inch or so, focusing accuracy is key.

This is a huge boon for us DSLR users and a technique that I strongly suggest you explore when working at wide apertures.

But what I really loved was the way the subject would pop from the environment, yet you had a great sense of the background, softened by the lovely quality of the bokeh. Suddenly, I had a look to my portraits that I had been admiring in the work of many of the talented young photojournalists who are working for the wire services and newspapers.

Ditching DX?
I won’t kid you, I fell hard for this lens. I’ve been DX since the dawn of digital, preferring the smaller bodies and smaller lenses because they’re easier to pack and carry when traveling in a world where it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to haul your gear onboard a plane (and for my spine to then haul it for 12 hours a day).

But combine the greater apparent depth of field the smaller sensor provides with the fact that there are no 16mm ƒ/1.4 prime lenses for us DXers, and you can see that my new environmental shooting style isn’t readily available to me with my current gear.

Well, not entirely. True, there’s a total dearth of fast DX wide primes, but with lenses like the Sigma 30mm ƒ/1.4 and the 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor, I can at least work with fast normal lenses for environmental portraits. True, I can’t get that sweeping background that you see in the picture accompanying article, but I can start to play with bokeh in my environmental portraits.

But how are you going to keep them down on the DX farm after they’ve seen the FX world at ƒ/1.4? Is it worth ditching a whole system and style of shooting to incorporate this new technique? Can my spine and my bank account afford this brave new world?

That remains to be seen—and will be the subject of an upcoming column!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.

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