What lens?

My current love, as you all know, is the 85mm lens. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L lens, to be precise, on my full-frame Canon 1Dx camera.

I love this lens for many reasons. One is that f/1.2 is great when I want to shoot in a classroom without using a flash or going to very high ISO values. As a bonus, I get great separation between foreground and background.

As in these three very recent shots of students:

This lens is the perfect length for half body shots like this; and it is long enough to get blurry backgrounds even at f/5.6. Witness this, at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto (see here for the whole story):

If I move farther back, it is usable for full body shots too, of course:

Because it is a prime, it gives me the consistency I love: f/6.3 is f/6.3, and 1/100th sec is 1/100th sec. (With a zoom, on the other hand, you have to get used to motion blur effect and blurred background effect being different at every zoom setting.)

With this lens, I need to remember to move back and forth, and to leave enough space. But the point is that you can do that easily enough.

If you use a crop camera, a 50m lens would give you a comparable effect.

OK, and as a final shot, a screen shot from Sun News TV that aired two days ago, with the two Topfree Rights women and me taking photos of them:


Bring it close.

To shoot a true macro picture, you need a macro lens (Nikon calls this a “micro” lens). This is a lens that allows you to focus close-up. Like this from yesterday’s shoot, a shot for the make-up artists to detail their work:

When you click and see it full size, you will see how ridiculously sharp this is: “DNA-level”, as I like to call it.

So why and when do I take a shot like that?

I do macro shots:

  • When I want to have some fun. Macro can be done in your kitchen all year round: when you make small objects large, they take on an entirely different life of their own.
  • When needed to document things—like the make-up job above.
  • When shooting small objects, like jewellery.
  • To get detail of an object, detail I cannot
  • When I think I may want to get close, even if I may not need to, I still like to use the macro lens so I have the option.

Shooting macro means you are close… and this in turn means that your depth of field is extremely restricted. You will probably need to shoot at f/8, f/11, f/16 or worse. You may even have to take multiple shots with varying focus distances and put them together electronically. A very close shot at f/2.8 has a depth of field (“where it is sharp”) of fractions of millimeters.

One mantra one often hears is that a tripod is necessary. Yes, it is recommended, and sometimes it is necessary, but with good shooting technique, you can often do without it too. Like in the shot above. 100mm lens on a Canon 7D camera; set to manual at f/11, 400 ISO, 1/125th sec.

Finally, the light. I used a bounced flash and I ensured that only the flash shows (by using “fast shutter, low ISO, high F-number”). Using only flash ensures that you see no motion blur: a flash happens in about 1/100th second (or even faster at lower power settings), so it’s like using a fast shutter speed.


Primes and why

I love my 85mm f/1.2 lens, as readers know. My students know it, too. Here’s one of them, from Wednesday’s “The Small Photography Business” class:

The 85mm is a prime (i.e. fixed, “non zoom”) lens. And 85mm is a great focal length for fashion pictures, portraits, and so on. And extremely fast: f/1.2 is a great wide open aperture value. Of course that does not mean I always have to use it at f/1.2. When you stop a lens down, it gets better, and when I stop this lens down, it is very good indeed.

The reason I like to use a prime is multi-faceted.

  • I can shoot at faster shutter speeds or lower ISO values then with a cheaper lens. The pictures here were taken at 800 ISO, f/2.2, and 1/160th second in an evening classroom. Who needs a flash?
  • I get wonderful blurry backgrounds, so I can live with less than ideal backgrounds, as in the photo above, I just blur them out.
  • Primes are usually clearer and sharper than zooms, which are always to some extent a compromise.

But an oft-overlooked reason, and for me often the main reason, to use primes is that they give you a consistent shoot. You see, each time you zoom in or zoom out, a number of things change:

  1. Depth of field (how much is sharp in front of, and behind, where you focus).
  2. Minimum acceptable shutter speed if handholding the camera (think 1/f, where f is the focal length).
  3. Depth/perspective. Wide angle pictures look different from telephoto pictures. Long lenses compress perspective; wide lenses can exaggerate it.
  4. In a broader sense, the entire compositional look of your photos. A prime means you get to really understand the ins and outs of your shoot’s creative feel, rather than every picture being a new adventure. And it means that a shoot will have a certain feel, rather than being all over the place.

Here’s one last photo from last night, of another one of my talented students:

Your assignment, if you want one: do an entire shoot, or even shoot an entire week, with one prime lens. Be very careful with focus if you are shooting wide open: depth of field is extremely limited.


About what you do not see

Sometimes, what you do not see in a picture is as important as what you do see.  Like in this picture:

There are four reasons I may want to blur the background: It would be distracting. And it is not really part of  the story. And implying is sometimes best. And I might not want it in the image for “facebook/SFW-reasons”.

So I shot this at 800 ISO, 1/160th second, f/1.8, using my 85mm f/1.2 lens.  Yes, f/1.8, and the gives me extremely shallow depth of field, and an extremely blurred background.

Wonderful, but it necessitates me using a very steady hand. After I focus (on the eyes) neither I nor the model must change our distance even by a few millimeters.

Here’s one more, for good measure:

Now, the lens. My 85mm lens on a full frame camera is equivalent roughly to a 50mm lens on your crop camera. And the 50mm f/1.8 lens incredibly affordable and great. So.. if you do not have one, get one. And if you do, use it!



Amateur Aesthetic

Today, another example of the “Amateur Aesthetic” or “Snapshot Aesthetic”made popular by such contemporary photographers as Terry Richardson, after Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, two of my favourites.

Here’s mine, a high-key model shot:

We call it amateur, or snapshot, because you use a flash straight on, and aim at the subject, and have the subject stand in front of a white backdrop, camera aware. Like Uncle Fred does. This gives you the drop shadow. It also, however, gives you very flattening light, and models like this: it hides any facial features. Overexposing a little, or rather, exposing brightly, makes it even better in that regard.

Unlike your Uncle Fred, my models and I think carefully about composition, light, and expression and pose. The direct flash means you need to aim the subject’s face down a little, else light comes “from below”, which is never flattering.

So nothing is left to accident, in spite of the amateur look.

For this shot, I used 1/160th sec, 400 ISO, f/5.6 and an on-camera 600EX flash. The flash compensation, like in the examples of a few days ago, was set to +2 stops, and I used TTL flash metering for flexibility.

Your assignment for today: shoot a portrait like this. I am about to teach a TTL flash course, and my student will do this as well. In addition to “proper” flash, you need to know techniques like this as just another tool in your toolbox.