Conventional wisdom tells us that Ultra-wide lenses should not be used for portraits.
Why? Well simple; they distort! When I say distort, I don’t mean a subtle vignette effect I mean a real radial distortion.
Don’t get me wrong, you won’t get something that looks like a fisheye distortion, but clearly you will have a lesser effect of that.
There are basically two types of radial distortion you can expect:
1. Barrel Distortion (See Example Below)
2. Pincushion Distortion (See Example Below)
Barrel distortion creates an effect that brings the center “closer” to the viewer.
Pincushion creates an effect that “pushes” the center away from the viewer.
Instead of trying to fix the distortion, why not embrace it! I’m going to give you a number of examples that really leverage the distortion characteristics of ultra-wide lenses to their benefit. I’m also going to include a select lighting diagram for a couple of the examples to give you a perspective of the technique.
Two things stand out when I look at Example 1. First it’s the perspective. Ultra-wide portrait work is dependent upon perspective to make the image work. Second is the model’s pose. I would consider this far from a “beauty” shot however if you help the model pose to combine the ultra-wide distortion and the perspective you can call out attributes such as her long legs.
Also the fashion aspect of this comes in from the use of the wonderful thigh-high boots. What a fantastic way to highlight the boots in drawing them right into the viewer. The low perspective, distortion from the ultra-wide, and model’s pose all bring the boots to the center of attention.
The leading lines of her legs draw your eyes up to her torso and ultimately to her beautiful face. As editorial a pose this might be, the elements of fashion and art are still present and work well. The finish is just to help blend the look into the environment.
This second example is more traditional fashion but still using the ultra-wide lens.
Notice the extremely low perspective once again. Through the distortion of the lens the illusion of a much larger scale draws you into the picture. This is an example where the distortion clearly benefits the environment.
This is one of my favorite examples of fashion using ultra-wide angle photography because it leverages elements of the environment to create more interest.
My philosophy is to create an extreme amount of visual interest to make the viewer pay attention. Once you captured the viewer’s attention and draw them in, then it’s our job to highlight make sure that the rest is taken care of. If it’s fashion, making sure the outfit is demonstrated appropriately.
When you first look at this picture your eyes are drawn to the model’s beautiful wedding dress and then naturally move up her figure to her lovely face.
This next example shows how the perspective plus the ultra-wide lens can work again for fashion and give an artistic flair as well.
This period feeling picture is featuring the model and wardrobe with her flapper style. Because of the low perspective your eyes are drawn to the closest part of the picture which is the model’s legs. As in Example 2, your eyes move up the model to her wardrobe, to the environment which is a vintage elevator.
The intent is to once again draw the viewer’s eye to what you want them to look at. Lines lead the eye and what better lines to follow than a beautiful model’s legs!
Another added benefit of this type of technique is that you make the model look really long and tall. This model is probably 5’3″ but the illusion of height is fantastic with the ultra-wide.
An added note is that the composition of this picture highlights the model of course, but also the great characteristics of the elevator such as the wonderful vintage floor indicator over the entry.
Next we have an example that is one of my favorites. Definitely editorial/fashion in nature, the “feeling” is what I was going for in this capture.
The model’s almost huddled pose and the gritty urban environment create an atmosphere of loneliness, desperation, and resignation.
The ability to use the ultra-wide lens enhances the drama in the sheer effect of distortion and perspective.
Your eyes being drawn to the decayed sidewalk in the foreground and then leading up to the model and her wonderful pose and expression creates the story.
The final touch to this picture is the high contrast, desaturated finish I applied. This enhances the drama and makes the picture take on an almost surreal appearance. The high contrast also creates the contrasting sky elements from the white to the blue which adds more visual interest.
Lastly and probably my favorite ultra-wide portrait is this fashion/editorial swimsuit work. This has all the elements I discussed above but with some real flare…literally!
Challenges for this shot were definitely due to the lighting situation and balancing the sun. I had to use a studio mono-light at 3/4 power to balance the light. The angle and the position has to be correct in order to not over balance the sun or insert light onto the subject making it look artificial.
As before, the low perspective is critical for these shots and the desire to get the sun in the frame made us have to be very wary of timing and the sun’s location. Everything worked perfectly and with the lighting set-up in place I was able to capture my vision!
Visually we’re led to her foot and leg as it is in the foreground. Working up her perfect leg we get to the wonderful swimsuit and beautiful face and the icing on the cake is the amazing sun flare coming out of her left hand!
In summary, with the proper technique, ultra-wide portraits will create a tremendous amount of visual interest and really guide the viewer to where the photographer wants their eyes to go.