Nothing is quite like photographing people – for me at least. It’s such a pivotal experience on many levels. Of course it’s about finding a way to capture the essence of a person – or his or her soul, as has often been stated. But it’s also about connecting, and about the personal exchanges happening between the photographer and the individual(s) being photographed. There is the human aspect of photographing people as well as the creative aspect of the process. When the two really bond the experience can even be elevated to a spiritual level. That’s when the interaction levitates beyond the human and physical realm, when the exchange transcends into an illimitable relationship. Finally there is also something very personal and self-reflective about photographing other people. You learn about yourself in the mirror image of the other person, you widen your social skills, you discover new facets of human existence, you expand your universe and not the least you break through some of your inhibitions every time you confront another fellow human being with your camera. Anyone who has photographed on the street knows how intimidating it can be to approach a total stranger. It’s very challenging and daunting. Among other emotional strains you have to face your own fear of being turned down. But when you do break that initial inhibition the result is always an exhilarated blissfulness.
There is more to it, though. The human exchange is not only a personal incentive; it becomes a very visual part of the final image. It’s almost as if it gets ingrained in the expression of the photograph. The exchange between the photographer and the photographed will indisputably make an immense visual footprint on the emotional content of the image. That is of course if there is a human exchange in the first place. For that very reason a valuable part of photographs of people will be missed out if they are captured with a longer lens – simply because the exchange will be missing. Then it becomes more about light, forms, moment and the photographers sole vision at the moment of capture. Which of course there is nothing wrong with; it just becomes a totally different kind of image. But if we want to capture that feeling of exchange between the photographer and the person being photographed, we as photographers need to get close. That’s where the wide angle lens helps, because it forces us to get close.
This is one reason to use a wide angle lens to photograph people. Another is the wider angle itself. It places the person in its surroundings; you get a connection between the person and his or her environment, which adds depth – literally and figuratively – to the visual content. With a telephoto lens the background get squeezed out of the frame because of its narrower viewing angle. In addition; often whatever is visible of the background will be blurred because of smaller depth of field caused by photographing with a telephoto lens. This can of course be a benefit when you want to isolate the person you are photographing, but will on the other hand not reveal anything of her or his environment. It simplifies the visual language, which again can be a quality you want to utilize. But when the environment is important the wide angle lens is the right choice. A third benefit of using a wide angle lens is its manner of isolating the subject. When you move in close with a wide angle lens the person you are photographing will become the bigger visual element within the frame, while the background and whatever is in the background will become much smaller and thus relatively more insignificant. This turns the focus of the viewer to the person in front and thus isolating him or her in a more symbolic way.
When using a wide angle lens to photograph people there are a couple of things to look out for, particularly the closer you get and the wider angle you use. The wide angle lens will distort the subject in various ways. For the same reason it isolates a person against the background it will emphasize elements sticking out towards the lens. So if you photograph a person head on and very close, the nose will be much closer to the front lens than the rest of the person. The person being photographed will most likely not be very happy with the result, because the nose becomes a gigantic monolith while the rest of the face gets distorted the other way around to a narrow, stretched out head towards the background. To avoid this you will either have to back up a little of find another angle to photograph the face from. Make the person turn the face a little bit to either sides will remedy the distorted nose. Some other facial parts will still be victims of distortion of course, but that might not be visually disturbing of even very noticeable for an untrained eye. This is by the way why a telephoto lens of 80-135 millimetre (for a 35 millimetre frame) is regarded as a perfect portrait lens, since it renders the proportion of the face in the most natural way. But then of course you defy the purpose of wanting to use a wide angle lens.
Another feature to be aware of when photographing with a wide angle lens is the distortion that happens towards the edges of a frame. This is due to the projection of a three-dimensional object onto a flat image sensor and as such not a flaw of the lens itself. But it will distort a face quite obvious when it’s place towards the edge of the frame. Again the wider the lens the more distorted the subject will become. You can place a lot of different objects close to the edge without the viewer noticing the distortion, but we have a small tolerance for any abnormal alteration of human faces. It’s still possible to place human beings out towards the edges of the frame, but you have to play with angles and distances and simply move around the person and take a lot of photos to make sure the distortion doesn’t become a liability. This said, though, I have photographed people close up with a 16 millimetre lens, shot portraits of them and placed them towards the edge and been able to do so without much noticeable distortion. You just have to play and experiment.
Have you ever photographed people with a wide angle lens? I challenge you to give it a try. It will be fun – and challenging. And, yes, you will feel intimidated, but still, give it a try. If you haven’t photographed people with a wide angle lens before, I assure you that you will return with quite some different pictures than you usually do.