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Thread: Portrait perspective issues investigated

  1. #1

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    Portrait perspective issues investigated

    Greetings, everyone. I have just registered, having come upon the site in the past week. Although I am not able to be actively photographing at present, I have for decades and look forward to dusting off my camera and D2 eventually.

    The following is, I think self-explanatory, and I hope some may find it useful.

    In the course of recently thinking through a return, after years, to making some large-format (4x5) portraits, but without the present ability to run film tests with the camera, I began looking up focal length, distance, and proportion information. The reason for my pursuit, was that I have but one lens for my 4x5, a 210mm, which is roughly equivalent to a 63mm on a 35 and a 110mm on my 645 medium-format camera. For a portrait of a single subject in these smaller formats, I would nearly always choose a lens at least 40-60% longer, unless photographing full standing figure in tight quarters. Since the planned portraits will often be ½- and ¾-length seated poses, I needed to get a better idea of how close I should consider getting to keep distortion within rather strict bounds, and how much cropping of the negative might be necessary at the distances required.
    By distortion I mean the visible change in relative size of parts of the face or body as the camera moves closer to the subject. Since the 1960s especially, we have become used to constant distortion from TV news cameras and journalists up-close with very wide angle lenses. Most people today are barely even aware of it, though in my youth it was startling to most.
    A web search for "portrait focal length comparison" provides numerous examples of facial distortion -- series of portraits of a subject showing frames with consistent head size taken with short to long focal length lenses (i.e., from extremely close to distant), and some others involving the figure, but I wanted a better measure of proportion for hands, knees, an extended foot, for the range of poses I had in mind. The portraits I intend are conceived with Classical painting and late-19th-, early 20th-Century studio photographic portraiture in mind. Ken Rockwell’s interesting dictum of a 15-foot minimum is not an option for me; I have neither the space nor the inclination to crop my 4x5 negative that severely, in addition to which, the degree of facial “flattening” and broadening at this distance may not suit all subjects well.
    Not finding what I wanted, I set up a simple test. I cut two pieces of stiff card stock in half and folded each piece, producing four identically sized, self-standing cards. Then, I sat in a chair and roughly measured the following distances along an imaginary axis parallel to the floor, straight out in front of me: from the middle of my ear to the tip of my nose; from my nose to a comfortably extended hand, as on a chair arm or table; from my nose to my shoe tip on my crossing (upper) leg. The distances in inches are about 5.5, 15, and 30. I then placed the four cards those distances apart along the edge of a long table. Then, measuring from the nose card, I marked off 2-, 3-, 6-, and 9-foot distances and photographed the cards from each distance with a borrowed digital SLR. (See attachment for the ear and nose cards at 2 feet.)
    Now, please note that my measurements were all approximate; that’s all they needed to be. Nonetheless, as the attached chart shows, the results are useful in helping to quantify the effects of perspective. I measured the relative sizes of the cards in the several images by using Photoshop’s ruler tool on the height, then derived the ratio of heights of the nose to the ear card, the hand to the nose card, and the toe to the nose card, at each distance.
    The attached table shows the Photoshop ruler distances and, below in each row, their ratio (rounded off). Thus, for example, from about 2 feet away, the nose card is 1.25 times taller than the ear card—in practical terms, the front of the nose appears 25% larger than its actual size relationship to the ear, and somewhat larger in relationship to the eyes and facial planes, while the frontal planes of the face will also be disproportionately wider than receding ones. From 3 feet, the card is still about 14%larger than the ear, but from 6 feet, only 6%. However, from 6 feet, the hand card is still about 25% taller than the nose card, and even at 9 feet, the toe card is nearly 50% taller than the nose card; thus, my crossed leg would be noticeably disproportionate. Naturally, these all assume a frontal view; the ratios tend to diminish as the face and body turn towards profile, especially at 6 feet and more.
    For my purposes, the results suggest that I may be able to photograph 6 feet from my subject’s face if I keep hands and elbows within a one-foot or so radius from the body and avoid straight-on poses that include knees. I will have to crop the negative but not extremely. At 8 feet, the drawing of the figure will improve and allow a bit more freedom. Using radical.org’s angle-of-view calculator, I see that at 8 feet, a vertically oriented film back will take in 5 feet, a bit more height than a typical full-length seated portrait.
    Naturally, the gesture of the pose and other compositional—including tonal—factors may also affect the appearance of relative size, the perception of prominence. However, the exercise has been helpful in providing a more informed starting point.
    Attached Files Attached Files

  2. #2

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    The 210mm on your 4x5 should work great for portraits. That's the easy part. It's everything else that makes it challengingl

  3. #3

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    There is an easier way.

    A photo naturally "looks normal" when the angle of view the camera saw, matches the angle of view that the viewer sees the print at. (Cropping is the equivalent of using smaller film stock behind the same lens; it changes the angle of view.)

    So, set up your camera in the house looking at the wall that you want to put the print on. The lens (when focussed properly on the wall) should be the same distance from the wall that your face would be when normally viewing the print.

    Now look through the camera and use 4 post it notes to define the corners of what the camera can see on the wall. With that lens, that is the size the print should look normal.

    If you crop then the print size needs to be reduced accordingly to maintain a normal look. Mask off the ground glass to the cropped size and move the post it notes accordingly, don't move the camera. If you want a bigger print, than what your post it notes define, and want it to look normal, then you need a different focal length lens.

    The specific focal length doesn't matter, as-long-as the viewing and taking angles are the same the print should look normal.
    You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. ~ Mark Twain

  4. #4

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    Actually I need to amend my post above, the camera should theoretically be focused the same as you would be shooting.

    My destruction above would be about right for a headshot, maybe head and shoulder; a portrait where the lens to subject matches the lens to wall distance I described.

    If the subjects will be say, twice that distance from the camera for the portrait, then the camera should be properly focussed for that subject. The lens to wall distance for the exercise though would remain the same.
    You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. ~ Mark Twain

  5. #5
    joseph
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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    Quote Originally Posted by Ulophot View Post
    ... By distortion I mean the visible change in relative size of parts of the face or body as the camera moves closer to the subject. Since the 1960s especially, we have become used to constant distortion from TV news cameras and journalists up-close with very wide angle lenses. Most people today are barely even aware of it, though in my youth it was startling to most. ...
    I think you're describing 'perspective', though it is not unusual to see it described as 'distortion' when applied to wide angle lenses used close to the subject.

    For what it's worth, I think it's possible to use shorter focal lengths on large format than their infinity equivalents in smaller formats, because of the extra draw needed when focused closer.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ulophot View Post
    For a portrait of a single subject in these smaller formats, I would nearly always choose a lens at least 40-60% longer, unless photographing full standing figure in tight quarters.
    Sometimes moving to a new format with a new lens forces you to work within your new limitations. Regarding how much you might need to crop, well that's probably a question best answered by your negative, but I would doubt if it will be as much as you think.

  6. #6

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    jb7, yes, perspective is more correct; apparent distortion would be a better term.

    Mark, I have read about this, but have difficulty applying it in practice. My prints will be about 10x 12.5 inches; printing regularly on 16x 20 is not really feasible in my darkroom.
    Therefore, whether I photograph my subject from about 6 feet, including from about the lower knee up to offer moderate headroom with my 210, or from about 8 or 9 feet, to include the feet, my print size will stay about the same, and I suspect the comfortable viewing distance for most will not exceed 18-24 inches, since the head will be considerably smaller than a head-and-shoulders composition. I don't know how that works out with regard to normal perspective appearance; my experience simply tells me that if, as I indicated, the foot is relatively 40-50% larger than the face in a "classical" composition such as described, it will tend to look disproportionate.
    Philip U.

    Sine scientia ars nihil est. (Without science/knowledge, art is nothing.)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156933346@N07/

  7. #7

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    10 feet is good.. 10-12 feet

  8. #8

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    I think the OP is thinking WAY TOO HARD! Get a camera, use the lens you have, see if you like the results you are getting; if not, change your approach. That is all there is to it. No one can predict with numbers what you will find that you personally prefer the best.

    The old theoretical portrait lens was film length + film width. Is there anyone using an 18" lens for 8x10 portraits? Karsh didn't--he seems to have done fine with a 14" Ektar. The studio I worked for in high school used a 210mm lens for 4x5. No one complained that it was a half-inch short. Neither of these combinations result's in anything near even a ten-foot distance.

    None of the lenses used by most LF photographers begin to approach the proportions of the normal-for-portraits 90mm lens on 35mm, either--that would be a 27" lens on 8x10, or about 350mm for 4x5! Shooting LF is much different from 35mm. With 8x10 portraits you are approaching what would be macro ratios in 35mm, but at greater distances, still with the very large extensions of macro photography*, resulting in a lens of effectively longer focal length. The way to understand how this works is to dig in and do it.

    *(an 8x10 head+ shot might be shot at 1:2, with a 14" lens being used at 21" from the film, where the same shot on 35mm is done with a negligible focus extension, at a very different reproduction ratio.)
    Last edited by mdarnton; 8-Apr-2015 at 08:53.
    Thanks, but I'd rather just watch:
    Large format: http://flickr.com/michaeldarnton
    Mostly 35mm: http://flickr.com/mdarnton
    You want digital, color, etc?: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stradofear

  9. #9

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    Quote Originally Posted by mdarnton View Post
    Is there anyone using an 18" lens for 8x10 portraits?


    *Raises hand*

  10. #10

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    Re: Portrait perspective issues investigated

    Morning Ulophot,

    The disparity between the geometry of the shot and the geometry of the print view, is what introduces the bulging or flattening look/perspective to any photo. The rules of the universe don't care about the limits of our darkrooms or cameras or how big our studios are.

    If the eye is in the right place (has the same view the camera did) the print will look normal regardless of what the head vs foot measurements are.

    If the foot looks too large when viewing the print I'm going to guess that the viewing distance to the print is simply too long, get your nose closer or print bigger and see if it looks more normal. If that works then to fix the problem you may need to move the subject further from the camera and crop or ...
    You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. ~ Mark Twain

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