As a portrait photographer, I always search for connection with my subjects. In those moments I can really understand something about them, get a glimpse of who they really are. Even when I shoot fashion or conceptual stories my goal is always to create a believable, engaging character. I know the viewer will never be attracted to something artificial, to an expression that is just a mask. I give my subjects freedom, so that they can feel they can trust me, and as we start shooting and talking, the connection happens. And when I see that spark of thought, that feeling in my subject’s eyes, I know the viewer will see it too.
I like shooting with a wide aperture, starting with f/4 and going wider. It imposes some challenges of course: getting my focus right becomes more difficult, but I like the softness and the sense of space – a separation of the subject from the background – created by wide aperture. My strategy is to get the eye of the subject that is closer to the camera in focus. That way I don’t lose the connection that is so essential to me. When I work with professional models, who are trained to move fast and change position after each click of the shutter, I don’t have much time to refocus manually, so I rely on the camera’s autofocus. I simply make the focus point as small as possible and place it on the eye. With each subsequent shot I only adjust that point slightly, which allows me to shoot quite fast. A wider zone of focus doesn’t work with shallow depth of field; it’s too easy to end up with the focus on your subject’s nose, and lose that eye contact.
I had the chance to try out this new portrait lens produced by Fujifilm for their medium format system. With an 80mm focal length, which is an equivalent of 63mm on a 35mm sensor, portraiture is a natural subject – although fashion, beauty, still life and lifestyle images will also look fantastic with this glass. The lens is very nicely built; its beautiful glass looks superb. Medium format cameras are known for their certain look – that extra depth in their images. That special relationship between subject and background, the softness of the blurred edges we often find so important for impactful portraits. So the combination of a medium format sensor and an incredibly wide aperture creates that beloved medium format look. To be honest, I’ve never seen such a smooth bokeh on a digital camera. It’s quite unbelievable, because it looks more like a painting than a photograph. Or it would look like one if it wasn’t for its impeccable sharpness in the area of focus. Even at its widest this lens is very sharp, when you get your focus right! In my images here, I focus on the eyes from an about 2.5 to 3 meter distance shooting with my aperture set to F2, and pretty much the entire face and neck end up being in focus. And the surrounding areas turn out looking very painterly – with beautiful, gradual transitions of colour and tone into the blurred background. It’s really rare to see lenses that do such a great job blending elements that are not in focus. With these images, I aim to create a reference to the 17th and 18th century’s royal portrait paintings and that’s why I chose this backdrop in combination with a shallow depth of field. And the result I achieved with the 80mm lens exceeds my expectations.
I find 80mm on a medium format camera to be a very convenient focal length. As I’ve said earlier, it’s great for portraits, but it’s not too long of a focal length to step back and do full body shots too – even if you are in a relatively small indoor space. I love working with negative space in my images, and I know I would be using this Fujifilm lens for both the close-up and the wide shots. Thanks to its focal length being close to ‘normal’ (63mm vs 50mm in 35mm equivalent), it reflects pretty much the actual relationship between the size of a subject and its background, with a very small contraction of space. I personally prefer more space and depth in my work. I tend to shoot less with long lenses, so the 63mm equivalent focal length seems like a perfect balance of beautiful bokeh and a sense of space.
Finally, this lens is surprisingly light and compact considering the wide F1.7 aperture, which requires a big element of glass. After shooting with it for about 4 hours my arms aren’t even nearly as tired as they usually get after shooting with my 110mm telephoto. Plus it takes up much less space in my camera case. When I shoot on location, I often choose to pick one lens and stick to it. The 80mm F1.7 lens is a great companion for a people photographer and a perfect tool for creating a more artistic, elevated look.