There are a number of reasons you’d want to use a lens with an angle-of-view (AOV) of about 28 to 20-degrees, which depending on format you’re shooting to can be an 85-105mm (full-frame 35), 55- 70m (APS-C), etc. For starters, a lens with an AOV of 28 to 20-degrees allows you to frame a tight head-and-shoulders composition from a comfortable distance from your subject. You’re not in their face, yet there’s still a comfortable safety zone between you and the person you’re photographing. When the term ‘portrait lens’ comes up in conversation, this is what they’re talking about.
This AOV range, which is about half the AOV of a normal lens, adds just the right measure of compression to compliment the physiology of the human face. A protruding nose seemingly recedes to a more visually-pleasing appearance, and the spatial distances between the tip of the nose and far tips of the ears, and all of the facial elements in between, fall comfortably into place as a unit.
At this working distance the subject’s eyes also become an important part of the dynamics of the portrait, not to mention one that can be read into in any number of ways. Another advantage of shooting with a ‘portrait’ lens is that it enables you to isolate your subject from his or her environment, be it an office, a studio, on the street, or out in a warehouse. So why would you want to shoot portraits with a wider-angle lens?
What wide angle lenses introduce a sense of place to a portrait, i.e., the subject’s work space, their home, or perhaps a place they simply feel comfortable being in or around. Wide angle lenses tell the story of the person – who they are, what they do, where they’ve been, or perhaps, where they’re going. If the eyes are the window to the soul, wide angle lenses can often fill in the blanks, or maybe even raise a few additional questions about the person staring back at the lens.
Shooting portraits using wide angle lenses requires a bit of extra thought before pressing the shutter button. Wide angle lenses can easily distort the dynamics of whatever you’re photographing, people included, and more-so if you’re using a ‘less expensive’ lens.
Perhaps the number one rule of wide angle portraiture is never, never, ever place your subjects head towards the corners of the frame unless your goal is to make your subject look as if he or she is the result of several generations of inbreeding.
When shooting portraits with wide angle lenses, it’s also important to keep a careful distance from your subject in order to avoid having his or her face go Bozo on you. The last thing you want is a stretched nose or bulbous cheeks. If you come in too close you can easily distort your subject’s features. Conversely, if you place your subject too far from the lens you can easily lose the dynamics of the portrait by having them fade into the surroundings. Just as a landscape must have a center of attention, so too a strong portrait.
The keys to successful wide-angle portraiture boil down to keeping your subject centered in the frame with the camera aimed directly at your subject – tilting the camera up or down is an invitation to distortion. Lastly, mind the distance between your subject and the camera to avoid ‘Bozo’ distortions, and always, always, always keep an eye on everything going on in the background to eliminate the need of having to spend post-production Photoshop time cleaning up avoidable distractions.