The focal length of the lens you use when taking a photograph is the responsible of giving you A CERTAIN PERSPECTIVE, which governs how the near objects are registered in your camera sensor in relation with the far ones. Wide angles make far objects look smaller than they are in reality, while teles ‘compress’ the scene, making them look nearer than they are. Let us take a look about how to apply these rules to your environmental portraits taking one of my file as an example.
The inclusion of the other children, the boat and the nets tell me more than if I included only the face of my subject (the child on the left). It tells me he lives in a fisherman village. Sometimes an interesting face or a definite expression is able to carry all the weight of the picture, but that is not always the case. In these cases the portrait you are taking, will be more expressive if you include some of the environment of your subject.
You nearly need a magnifying glass to find Malawi in a World Map. It is small, long and narrow, and if you do not notice that there is a blue stain in the middle-East part of Africa called ‘Lake Malawi’, it is difficult that you may find out that there is a country with the same name.
Not so long ago it was part of a region called Rhodesia, and today it is a beautiful holidays location, a must-stop for all the tourists who are travelling across the southern part of the Black Continent a typical holiday location where South Africans go.
This environmental portrait was taken in Cape Mclear, a small fishing village located in the shore of Lake Malawi. Although there are some small guest houses and camps for tourists, the local fisherman ambient is still intact and the flavor of Africa can still be tasted… at least at the moment I took this picture. The number of tourists is still not big and you still have to travel to the village in a crammed pick-up full of locals. It is not the most comfortable way of travelling, but it reminds you that you are in Africa outside the main tourist routes.
Every morning at sunrise you can see dozens of small boats (hollowed out hand-made tree trunks) going to fish to the Lake. Most male population of Cape Mclear get some hundreds of meters in the Lake with nets and fishing lines to get the capture of the day while women and boys and girls stay in town repairing nets and doing other works.
When I shot this picture the day was cloudy and the light was overcast, which produced a very soft light with soft shadows, wonderful for any portrait. This soft but directional light produces shadow-less but rounded faces, with a wide tonal range that looks great in a photograph.
Soft but directional light of cloudy days produces shadow-less but rounded faces, with a wide tonal range that looks great in any portrait.
This picture was taken in the afternoon when I was walking on the shore, when I found this group of three children on the boat. I asked permit to photograph them and they agreed without saying many words, so I changed the lens on my camera; I cannot be sure, but I believe this picture has been taken with a Nikkor 24mm AF-D.
I had studied the scene from the distance before asking permit and when I got near them I began to think about what I wanted to show in this portrait. I wanted to include what they were doing (that is why this kind of picture is called an environmental portrait) so the nets and a bit of the boat should appear in the final composition. A wide-angle seemed to be the choice, but which one?
The deformation is more noticeable if you’re portraying persons as human brain recognizes human body relations and is able to recognize even the minimum deviation. If you’re shooting landscapes you have more room to play.
To choose the lens you have to balance two aspects:
The wider the lens (the smaller the focal length), the more of the environment you will be able to include around your subject.
The wider the lens, the bigger the wide angle deformation (not to be confused with wide angle distortion) you will get. Every wide angle moves every object away from the lens in an amount proportional to the distance it is located from the camera. Distant objects are taken away more than nearer ones, which produces a deformation compared with the scene we see with our eyes. With a wide angle we get a perspective se simply cannot see with our eyes, but we pay the price of deforming the scene... a small price to pay.
This deformation is more noticeable if you’re portraying persons as human brain recognizes human body relations and is able to recognize even the minimum deviation. If you’re shooting landscapes you have more room to play.
The typical options are the 35mm, the 24mm and sometimes the 20mm. The 35mm is usually the best option for this kind of portraits as it is wide enough to include the environment around the subject and does not produce much deformation. In my case it was not wide enough, so had to go for the 24mm, which is the farthest I would go in any portrait under normal circumstances. With a 20mm distortion is simply too big; it is rarely the best option, but remember that in photography there are no absolutes!
TECHNICAL DATA OF THE PUBLISHED IMAGE
SHUTTER SPEED: 1/60
My subjects were very static, so did not have to use a high shutter speed, investing those points of light in depth of field. I liked the children on the left to be in focus, but also the nets in the foreground were important for me as they talk about what the children were doing. 1/30 could also have worked, but with this speed some movement of the children could have been registered.
I was using a wide angle lens which gave me plenty of depth of field. On the other hand, my subjects were very near the camera, which reduced it. I could have used an ISO 400 film, but the colors would have been very poor and the image would have had more grain. f8 and 1/60 seemed to be a good balance point.
ISO: 50 - Fuji Velvia 50
This image would have gained nothing with noise... so used ISO 50 film. The saturated colors of a Velvia 50 were unsurpassable.
MODE: A - Aperture Priority
The easiest way to work: set your aperture and look if the speed works for you.
LENS USED: Nikon 24mm AF 2.8
Using a wide angle lens and including parts of the body of one of the children allowed me to convey a sense to the viewer that 'he is inside' the picture and also allowed me to increase the sense of depth in the composition.
I had plenty of time to think about how I was going to shoot this image. Even before I got in contact with the children, I was thinking how I was going to photograph them and set the parameters (shutter speed, aperture) even before I talked with them. The best results in photography come when you have time to think your picture. Fast photography is, most of the times, a lotto.
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To be continued on Four tips to improve the Composition of your Environmental Portraits on this same series.