Here’s How to Make Great Portraits with a Wide-Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens may be an unexpected lens choice for a portrait photographer, but when done right, the results can be stunning! (Photographs by LORETTA LEWIS PHOTOGRAPHY)

Walk into any camera shop, ask a salesperson to show you the “best portrait lens” for a full-frame DSLR, and they’ll most likely hand you an 85mm lens. (On 1.5X sensor or “crop-sensor” cameras, this translates to an approximately 55mm lens.) The 85mm and its equivalent are stunning lenses, it’s true. Without much effort, you can achieve gorgeous bokeh, beautiful background compression, and exquisite detail – all with little to no distortion, even with a close-up subject.

But what if all you have handy is a wide-angle lens? Or what if you’re shooting in a tight space, or trying to include the environment in your portrait? Here’s how to use a wide-angle lens to create gorgeous portraits.

Here's How to Make Great Portraits with a Wide-Angle Lens
Photographed by Loretta Lewis at 24mm, f/4

Use a Wide-Angle Lens to Tell a Story

Because wide-angle lenses showcase so much of the surrounding environment, they’re great for storytelling. A wider lens shows off the space your subject is in like no other, and it’s excellent for creating an in-focus image even at wider apertures.

Pro Tip: Get close!

If you want to get noticeable bokeh on a wide-angle frame, you’ll need to shoot really close-up. Even at, for example, f/1.6, a wide shot won’t give you that fuzzy bokeh vibe unless your subject is super-close to your lens.

Here's How to Make Great Portraits with a Wide-Angle Lens
Photographed by Loretta Lewis at 24mm, f/4

Create a Natural Vignette

Most wide-angle lenses introduce some level of vignetting into the image. Use this to your advantage by placing your subject in a beautiful spot of light, then enjoying the deeper shadows that surround them. Enhance this muted outer-edge by shooting with a wide-open aperture.

Pro Tip: Eliminate Unwanted Vignetting

“To remove vignetting in Lightroom, all you need to do is head into the Develop module and, under the Lens Corrections panel, select the Enable Profile Corrections box. Once this box is checked, it will remove the vignette [according to the profile of the camera and] lens you used. These profiles are built into Lightroom.”

First Man Photography

Here's How to Make Great Portraits with a Wide-Angle Lens
Both images photographed by Loretta Lewis at 24mm, f/4

Yes, You Can Shoot Vertically With a Wide-Angle Lens

Conventional wisdom tells photographers never to create vertical images with a wide-angle lens. This is often good advice, as most stories occur on a horizontal plane – e.g., stuff is happening next to your subject, not above them on the ceiling or below them on the floor. But a wide-angle lens is unbeatable when it comes to:

  • incorporating negative space
  • showcasing more of a vertical subject and/or environment

Pro Tip: Watch Out for Bigfoot!

The wider the lens, the more distorted your image will be. At a focal length like 24mm on a full-frame sensor camera, you’ll primarily see distortion around the outer edge of the frame. On super-wide lenses, however, you will see distortion impacting even the center of the frame – especially as you get closer to your subject. Pay attention to these distortions, or you’ll inadvertently make your client’s feet look huge or his forehead excessively tall!

Here's How to Make Great Portraits with a Wide-Angle Lens
Photographed by Loretta Lewis at 24mm, f/4

Emphasize Your Subject

With a wide-angle lens, it’s easy to bring architectural elements into your frame to draw attention to your primary subject. In the image above, Loretta brings our focus to the couple snuggling in their room by composing the photograph through an open doorway. A longer lens likely would have excluded the door frame; still a great image, but a totally different vibe.

Pro Tip: Shoot (Some) for Social Media

Photographs that can easily be cropped square are ideal for Instagram and other social media. Since our phones are vertically oriented, and most social media engagement happens on a smartphone, square or vertical images offer the most bang for your buck. Horizontal photos shrink to fit the available width, making them appear smaller. Photos like the one above are perfect for square social media crops!

Here's How to Make Great Portraits with a Wide-Angle Lens
Photographed by Loretta Lewis at 24mm, f/4

A Wide-Angle Lens Allows Room for Movement

When you’re in close quarters with subjects who are moving, a wide-angle lens delivers your best shot at catching the action while also putting the viewer right in the thick of things. Whereas you’d have to stand back quite a distance to photograph a pillow fight with a 50mm or 55mm lens, this 24mm frame gets you up-close and personal without losing a moment.

Pro Tip: Get In On the Action

Photograph action from too far away, and a wide-angle lens will diffuse the fun. The whole purpose of a wide-angle lens is to offer maximum story with minimum space restrictions, so don’t hold back!

Here's How to Make Great Portraits with a Wide-Angle Lens
Photographed by Loretta Lewis at 40mm, f/4

Find Your Focus

The center of the frame will always be the sharpest part of any wide-angle images. Be cautious placing critical elements at the edges of your composition; you risk distortion and lens blur. Shooting with a smaller aperture (such as 5.6 or higher) can help retain crispness throughout your photo, as can wide-angle lenses that incorporate aspherical glass, such as Canon’s EF 24mm f/1.4 II USM.

How do YOU use your wide-angle lenses?

Comment below!


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