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How to Create Stunning Wide-Angle Portraits (Using an Off-Camera Flash)

how to create stunning wide-angle portraits

Wide-angle portrait photography is unique, it’s fun, and it can make for some outstanding photos. But how can you capture great wide-angle results? What’s the secret to powerful portraits like the one below?

wide-angle portrait of girl in the dirt

In this article, I’ll provide plenty of guidance, taking you through the ins and outs of wide-angle portraiture. By the time you’ve finished, you’ll be able to shoot like a pro.

Also, before starting, I’d like to let you in on a little secret:

Creating photos like these? It’s not actually that difficult. You just have to pay careful attention to your camera settings, your technique, and your lighting.

Let’s dive right in!

portrait of a man smoking a cigarette

1. Use a (relatively) wide-angle lens

Lens choice is critically important in portraiture. Most portrait photographers reach for their 85mm or 105mm lens when heading out because these focal lengths give a nice, realistic look to the subjects.

However, I find myself drawn to portraits that have a surreal look to them and that include extra context to help tell the story. Also, wide-angle lenses require you to shoot close to your subject, which also draws your viewer into the scene.

So the first step is to leave your 85mm or 105mm lens in your camera bag and grab a wide-angle lens instead. Most of the portraits you see here were created at 24mm on a full-frame camera (use a 16mm for the same view if your camera has a cropped sensor). For me, this focal length is the perfect blend of reality and distortion.

In fact, if you go wider than 24mm, elements closer to the lens, such as arms and hands, look big or elongated. Also, wider focal lengths require a much bigger background, which isn’t always desirable or convenient.

man crouching by ships

2. Choose a compelling subject

In wide-angle portrait photography, your subject is paramount. The Indonesian dockworker above was an amazing subject; I spent 20 minutes photographing the guy and had a difficult time choosing the best image.

On the other hand, you could spend all day photographing me on the same dock, in front of the same ships, and have nothing but terrible images at the end of the day.

The point? Make sure your subject is genuinely interesting.

I look for people who have experienced life. The ideal subject has some sort of interesting quality, something that makes them stand out from the rest, though my subjects do have an everyday person quality about them. Finding subjects can be challenging, especially if you live in the suburbs (like I do). I am a travel photographer and usually find my subjects in rural areas overseas, but there are great subjects everywhere – you just need to look!

Clothing is critically important. If your 90-year old rural villager is wearing a hat that says, “I Love New York,” then you will probably want to politely ask them to take it off, or at least turn it around for the picture. Don’t let out-of-context clothing ruin or weaken your shot!
4 Smiley Guy

3. Choose a complementary background

Your image is only as strong as its weakest part – which is often the background. This is because, as photographer Jim Zuckerman puts it, “The world is a compositional mess.” So unless you deliberately choose a beautiful background, you’re going to be stuck with, well, a mess.

There are two important qualities you want to focus on:

First, at the very least, your background must be non-distracting. Before snapping a wide-angle portrait, carefully scan the scene and make sure nothing draws the eye. Beginners, and even intermediate photographers, can overlook obvious distractions in the background, such as trees that look like they are growing out of the subject’s head, patchy spots of bright light, colorful objects, straight lines, and geometric shapes. You don’t want anything that competes with your subject for attention, so make sure to simplify your composition until you get what you’re after.

The background in the image below isn’t at all distracting; the man is standing in front of a shipping container, which won’t win any awards for beauty, but gets the job done. Plus, it’s a good picture because of the strength of the subject.

dockworker smoking wide-angle portrait

Second, whenever possible, include a background that complements your subject by providing context. I’ve shot many images with simple, non-distracting backgrounds. But my favorite pictures include a background that tells a story about the subject.

It’s the reason I love shooting in places like rural China and Indonesia. The countries have many ancient villages that provide opportunities for amazing backgrounds, like the path in the photo below:

cheerful man in a hat

A quick piece of advice: I like to keep all evidence of modernity out of the background. I don’t like plastic stuff in my pictures, and I don’t include modern-looking buildings or cars. Instead, I prefer rural areas with weather-beaten buildings. If you’re like me, and you want to create more rustic, pure wide-angle portraits, then I’d recommend you do the same.

4. Shoot in the right lighting conditions

Great wide-angle portrait photography requires great light.

Try shooting either early or late in the day (when the sun is low in the sky) or in overcast conditions. I actually prefer a soft, overcast day (though I still shoot relatively early or late).

5. Put your subjects at ease

I don’t hire models, so some subjects work well and others less well. What you want to avoid is a picture of your subject standing flat-footed, straight up and down, and holding a fake smile.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to start your session by gaining their interest and confidence. If you have some images you’ve shot and processed, show them to your subject to give them an idea of what you are looking for (and hopefully pique their interest).

Plus, showing past photos will help communicate immediately that you are not looking for your subject to just stand and smile. It should also show that your posing expectations are basic.

woman with a cat posing on a chair

6. Work the scene for the best compositions

Once you’ve found the perfect subject, don’t just take one photo and pack up. Instead, take quite a few (assuming your subject has the patience). And as you take your shots, make sure to work the scene.

I like to get quite close to my subjects. For me, the eyes are a critically important part of the picture and must be very sharp. I focus on the closest eye, though I re-focus frequently as I move around the subject.

I generally ask the subject to look directly at the camera and not to smile, although not always. I then start moving slightly left or right. I ask them to keep their head still and just follow the camera with their eyes. I usually shoot from slightly below eye level, and I have them stand or sit at an angle to the camera. If the subject is standing, I ask them to put their weight on the back foot.

I like to include the subject’s hands in my compositions. With a wide-angle lens, hands in the foreground will look large, so try to strike a balance (make sure the hands are prominent but not too large). Simply position the hands closer to or farther away from the lens.

girl laughing wide-angle portrait

7. Make sure you have the right equipment and settings

For the best results, you’ll need a camera, a lens, and a single off-camera flash. Your camera should be equipped with an internal or external flash trigger to control your off-camera flash.

Here is how I set things up:

  1. Start by leaving your flash or trigger initially turned off.
  2. Set your camera to Manual mode.
  3. If the session is outdoors, dial in some basic settings – I usually aim for an aperture of f/7.1, a shutter speed of around 1/160s, and an ISO of 100. You can adjust your f-stop and shutter speed, but keep in mind that you cannot shoot faster than your camera’s maximum flash sync speed.
  4. Make the necessary adjustments to slightly underexpose the background by 1/3 to 2/3 stops. I usually start by adjusting shutter speed, but go no slower than 1/60s and no faster than 1/160s. If necessary, adjust the aperture to f/5.6 (at the absolute widest). Then, and only then, should you start bumping up the ISO.
  5. If you are indoors, begin with a higher ISO as a first step, and then make your adjustments to shutter speed and f-stop in the same manner.
woman standing next to building

8. Carefully position your flash for the best results

For 90% of my portraits, I use a single off-camera flash diffused with an umbrella or softbox. I recommend you do the same (while natural light can work, it generally won’t be as sculpted or as dramatic).

The most important rule with flash is “Don’t ruin your shot,” which is usually done by putting too much flash on your subject. Instead, you want to get a decent balance of natural and artificial light, so that the flash is undetectable to the untrained eye but lights your subject brighter than the underexposed background.

Now, turn on your flash and trigger. Here are some starting points:

  • Set your flash to Manual mode.
  • I typically position the flash at a 45-degree angle to the subject, about 2-3 feet (slightly less than a meter) away, higher than their head, angled downward.
  • I usually start with 1/16 flash power when outdoors. Then I adjust from there until the subject stands out from the background but does not look like they’ve been blasted with flash.

Wide-angle portrait photography: conclusion

As you hopefully gathered from this article, capturing wide-angle portraits isn’t hard, and it can look incredible.

So grab your camera, your lens, and your flash, and get out shooting. Remember the tips from this article. And have fun!

Now over to you:

Do you have any tips or tricks for wide-angle portrait photography? What are your favorite lighting setups? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Ken Koskela
Ken Koskela

is a Chicago-based travel photographer who captures subjects in excellent light, whether a dead tree forest in Namibia, or a villager in rural China. Ken combines his love of photography with over 20 years of travel experience to more than 75 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. You can check out more of his work www.KenKoskela.com and sign up for his free monthly photography e-magazine Inspirational Photography.

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