Work via daguerreotype, wet plate collodion, and other 19th century analog photographic methods.
Photo Palace Bus is a 35ft traveling darkroom, which brings photography to people. A studio, located in San Diego, is also available for sittings and classes.
I know this topic is covered
here and there and everywhere: in school and online, in workshops and lectures,
on street corner posters and graffiti under freeway overpasses… However, one way or another this topic seems
to either elude a lot of photographers entirely or perhaps they ignore it
knowingly. Either way, after continually
seeing tight headshots done with lenses possessing an obviously incorrect focal
length, my personal OCD has reached a boiling point and I decided to finally do
this little post complete with a demonstration.
First off – let’s talk about what I mean by ‘correct’ and
‘incorrect’ so nobody accuses me of being an old-fashioned-purist-photo-nazi. Let me be the first to acknowledge that in
this topsy-turvy world of postmodernist art in which we live in many
traditional barriers are often broken for the sake of creative concept. I completely understand that some camera
operators may purposefully chose a lens that distorts facial features in order
to communicate more clearly some bizarre concept they conjured up. Maybe they want to create a series of
portraits that make an unsuspecting viewer feel as a fly that is about to land
on sitter’s forehead… Perhaps the visual
effect is to relate one’s closeness to the sitter and thus communicate the
unbearable suffocation of an individual due to overpopulation… Or what if the elongated nose is meant to
show how many individuals stick that body part in other people’s business? Surely any of those scenarios would be fine
and entirely understandable provided a clear explanation. What I refer to as being ‘incorrect’ are instances
where eager image-makers hold portrait sessions for monetary reimbursement from
their sitters and create Pinocchio-style head and shoulder likenesses by dozens
at a time. The gullible masses are often
uneducated as far as technical merits of photography and, even when they see
that ‘something isn’t right here’, are more often than not too polite to bring
up the topic directly. But I would wager
10:1 that most of the good folks that come in to have their portrait made would
rather have it done with a lens possessing a proper focal length for the given
camera format. After all and
understandably so – they just want to look their best and not be
caricaturized. With that said, let’s
dive into the nitty-gritty of portraiture and lens selection.
The rise of grotesquely distorted portraits in my little
universe of large format photography can be most likely attributed to the
following. A lot of people are getting
into the field on a limited budget and are influenced by seeing beautiful
images done with 19th century Petzval lenses. This is especially true for those who work in
wet plate collodion medium – after all Petzvals are some of the fastest
commonly available large format lenses and they also have a very specific bokeh
that is favored by many, including yours truly.
However, the price tag on longer Petzvals goes up exponentially and so a
lot of people get a lens they can afford and tout that it ‘covers my plate at
portrait distance’. Hearing this almost
always means that the lens they have is too short for making portraits, but,
yes, if they rack out the bellows to focus about 3ft away it will indeed cover their
plate… I don’t know what the remedy is
for those who can’t afford a proper focal length lens – maybe just sticking
with a modern lens for now until a vintage one can be afforded is the best
course of action. After all f4.5 or 5.6
is not THAT much slower than f3.6 or 4 and the sitter will only have to endure
a doubling of exposure time in return for a much more flattering portrait. Either way, just because your lens will
‘cover at portrait distance’ does not make it a lens suitable for
portraits. To top it off in the world of
wet plate there seems to be a great tendency to create ‘passport photos’ – head
and shoulders portraits, which showcase distortion in all it’s ugly glory.
feel a small, admittedly simple visual explanation of why portrait distortion
happens when using a lens that’s too short for a given image format would be
helpful. Described verbally it occurs simply because a
lens with a shorter focal length, in order to create a head and shoulders
portrait, will require a camera to be placed closer to the person than one with
a longer focal length. Hence whatever
facial feature happens to be closest to the lens will take up more real estate
on the film plane then those featured that biologically occur farther
away. The one unfortunate body part that
most often bares the brunt of this inevitability is the nose. In the drawing below you can see how the
distance from lens to the nose vs. eyebrow changes with various focal lengths –
the shorter the lens the greater the difference in those distances and the
bigger the nose will appear in the photo.
of thumb – a portrait lens for tight headshots is a lens that is about twice
the focal length of a ‘normal’ lens for any given format (longer is perfectly
OK as well). A ‘normal’ focal length for any given format is
equal to the length of that format’s diagonal.
Any lens shorter than that is a wide angle, any lens longer than that is
telephoto. For half body portraits one
could safely use a lens with a focal length about 1.5x the focal length of a
‘normal’ lens. Below is a small chart of
camera formats with their ‘normal’ and ‘portrait’ lens focal lengths.
Theory is great, but a practical test should help to
solidify this concept visually. For my
test I used a traditional ‘quarter plate’ format – 3.25x4.25in. For that format the normal focal length is a
widely available 135mm (5.5in approximately).
For my model I employed my lovely and always cooperative girlfriend,
whose facial features are very proportional and therefore will be easy to
demonstrate my point upon. I did not
concentrate too much on lighting and posing and instead emulated the ubiquitous
‘passport photo’ cropping that dominates wet plate portraiture for some
unbeknown to me reason. I have also done
my best as always to create the best possible wet plate image, but this was not
a test of how clean I can make a plate, so don’t fixate on a few artifacts that
average prices for vintage lenses do allow most people to find an affordable
6in Petzval (normal focal length for 4x5in), but when it comes to 10-12in ones
it’s a bit harder to swing. Moreover
there is an abundance of Magic Lantern projection Petzvlas out there and those
tend to be the cheapest. Their focal
length is often just 4-5in (sometimes even 3in or 3.5 as in the case of smaller
Lanterns) and they barely cover quarter plate most of the time, but people buy
them up, mount them on a camera, rack out the bellows to focus on a head and
shoulders composition and become giddy when they discover that their 4x5 or 5x7
plate is covered.
the demonstration below I used: wide angle 90mm Nikkor lens, normal 135mm Laak
Rathenow, slight telephoto 180mm Rodenstock and to finish it off with a strong
telephoto a really nice 19th century Darlot Petzval that has a focal
length of about 268mm or just about our ‘ideal’ – twice the ‘normal’
135mm. I used all the lenses at the
aperture of f5.6.
Wide angle vs. a lens with 2x 'normal' focal length
Normal focal length vs. 2x normal length
Slight telephoto vs. 2x normal length
As you can see the difference is most noticeable with wide and normal lengths, but if you really look carefully it is also there in the last pairing. If you were to do an even tighter crop in your frame than this you would see a greater difference.
I do not expect my humble post to drastically change the
landscape of modern portrait photography, but I had to get this whole thing off
my mind and chest and now I feel better.
I hope my readers will find some food for thought and some of them may
be convinced by the demo to start saving up for an appropriate focal length
lens to use in their portrait sessions.
I rarely work on a single
series of images, so I decided to push myself creatively to do just
that. Living in a city of over a million people and being drawn to
nature I couldn't help but to select a theme which is somehow connected
to those facts.
"Preapocalyptic River" is a series of 23 Ambrotypes documenting
the San Diego River, or what is left of it. I chose to focus on the
mouth portion of it - the last 5 or so miles before it empties into the vast Pacific Ocean. That portion has over time been completely overran by civilization and nearly forgotten by the local residents. Hundreds of thousands of people zoom above it on highway overpasses and surface street bridges. They are unaware that below them a fragile and beautiful environment is struggling to sustain existence and provide a habitat to a multitude of creatures.
To document the state of the river now I chose glass support to reflect
the fragility of nature. For many of these images I had to go well off
the beaten path, though some of them were captured right from the
bridges that dominate the landscape above it. I used only 19th century
lenses to echo the times when this river ran free and unencumbered.
All plates seen below with a black border are 4x5in and those without
the border are 3.25x4.25in. I am open to exhibiting these plates or to a
sale of the entire series.