Portraits with a wide angle lens 1

Artist Sharon Suhovy painting on location–The time of the day, 6:37 pm, made very directional light possible. I made sure Sharon’s face was lit by the setting sun bouncing off Lake Evans. This helps draw even more attention to her since her face is now the lightest part of the picture.


The Rule of Thirds is often cited in composition.

In fact I hear it discussed ad nauseam in painting, drawing and photography.

I mention it once to my students and I quickly move on.

It’s the rebel in me, the part that questions authority.

I just don’t like that word “Rule” when it comes to art, that’s why.

If it works, that’s all that matters.

Those Art History classes in college left me scarred.

Those classes where the professor would analyze and explain away the great masterpieces and why he thought the artist did what they did. Great bedtime stories by the way.

I’m fairly certain the artist Grant Wood didn’t break out his ruler and measure precisely where he positioned the pitchfork between the elderly couple in American Gothic.

It’s not smack in the middle but about a third of the way from left to right.

#1 Establishing the scene–This first picture is usable if it’s cropped so that the tree that appears behind Sharon’s head doesn’t become obvious. But there are other distractions. See the white water bottle on the left behind the easel? What about the people on the right of the frame on the ground?

The Canvas

Artists who draw and paint, especially those who paint landscapes, have a distinct advantage over photographers.

They can move, hide or just emphasize what they like.

Not so with photographers. You get what you see in your viewfinder when you push the shutter.

Your problems are compounded when you don’t understand depth-of-field and your choice of lenses.

Sure, you can always take distractions out in post production with Photoshop, but I don’t enjoy spending time drawing selections or masking.

I’m a photographer. I’d rather be out there shooting, and not slaving in front of a computer.

#2 Changing viewpoint–I brought a step stool with me so I can get higher to shoot down, making the ground the background, but that introduces a different problem. There is now a huge empty space in the middle. Water bottles are no longer a distraction though.

My Models

I enlisted the help of 2 local artists for one of my lessons on shooting an environmental portrait.

An environmental portrait shows a person and what they do as an activity or a profession.

The need to show props and what they do require the use of a wide angle lens. Anything shorter than a 50 mm focal length is considered a wide angle. In this case I used my 17-35 mm zoom set at 17.

There is a 1.6 x magnification factor on my Canon 40D, so it’s more like a 27 mm.

Local artists Sharon Suhovy and Pat Corbin Chao met me for the 1st time at Fairmount Park on a recent evening.

I explained to Sharon over the phone how she was about to be the center of attention to 15 of my students.

“It would be nice if you could paint a scene while you’re there so that your canvas won’t be a total blank. It would look much more authentic even though I am totally setting this up”

My backup if I couldn’t score a real artist?

Borrow an easel, paint brushes, a palette and become the model.

The things I’m willing to do.

When all was in place, I introduced Pat and Sharon to my students.

Then I asked them to photograph Pat and Sharon separately  using a slightly wide angle lens, anything shorter than 35 mm.

Usually I do a demonstration first, then I cut them loose to shoot.

This time, I had them shoot first.

During my demonstration, I use my Canon 40D shooting tethered to my Macbook Pro which sits on a cart that I wheel around.

#3 Filling that void after changing my viewpoint–Next, I asked Sharon to stand in that void I created when shooting downwards. But there’s a problem now. By doing so, I can see the white pail and the hat. So I should be removing those items from the scene. Since I didn’t when I took the picture, I can only hope to crop them out. The bigger problem I have now is, that Sharon by stepping into that void, is now smaller in my picture. Compare this image with the one I chose for my best effort.

Designing your picture

Bear in mind, when shooting with a wide angle, the lens takes in much more of the scene so right off the bat, if you’re taking a picture of a person, they’ll be smaller.

Be very protective of your canvas. Choose wisely what you include in that viewfinder. Scan the edges of your picture for distractions.

There are times when that is easier said than done especially if it’s people in a public place.

Those folks have just as much right as you do to be there.

What gives you the right to ask them to move out of your picture?

So ask nicely? But don’t insist. The world does not revolve around you.

The bigger you make your subject the more engaging it will be.

Despite my best efforts, I do get students who won’t do what I ask.

They are too proud to shoot the same thing as their classmates, even if it’s just for practice.

Shooting the same thing as your classmates during class shouldn’t bother your artistic sensibilities.

If it does, you don’t have to turn those images in. You can always find your own subjects for the assignment.

Next: Portraits with a wide angle lens 2: Artist Pat Corbin Chao as my model

2 thoughts on “Portraits with a wide angle lens 1”

  1. Thanks DeeAnn. I am always fortunate to find willing subjects from my little “network”. Sharon Suhovy and Pat Corbin Chao are local artists whom I never met but were great sports. It made things easier for my students. Having students take pictures of each other sometimes doesn’t always work out well since the one who turns out to be the model usually misses out on the instruction.

  2. Rule of thirds, I think, is also described as’Leading Lines’
    Your final photo is perfect example.
    Her canvas leads to her face, back to painting into widening circle including lake & tree.

    Your comment on students not wanting to get same pic as others also cracks me up. Pretty much what happens at trying to get something different at set up events (news release, ribbon cuttings, etc).
    Good job Peter, that class looks fun.
    And what a great artist/subject.

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