[Opinion] 4X5 portrait in digital photography

4X5 portrait is a whole new league in BW photography. It is absolutely different from the 35mm portrait and shows distinctive images from ordinary portraits we know with 2 factors

  • Wide-angle view portraits with a massively blurred background (subject isolation)
  • Selective focus on the subjects which are not at the same distance (subject sharpness)

Portrait in 35mm photography is, in general, using telephoto lenses to avoid distortion from the facial contour and isolate the main subject from the background clearly. There is even a term, ‘portrait lens’ which indicates 85mm to 105mm focal length lenses. It is very true that medium telephoto is the most useful portrait lens, but it is overused lenses in other words. One reason too difficult to be outstanding in portraits is most of us use the same portrait lens for portraits.


85mm f1.4 the master lens of the portrait

Since Carl Zeiss released the first 85mm f1.4 lens, Planar HFT in 1973, it becomes a must-have item for portrait photographers. Canon excelled the legend with their own legendary 85mm f1.2 Aspherical in 1976, Nikon followed behind with 85mm f1.4 in 1982, and so on. But no matter what brand lens used, one thing is the same, their angle of view as the medium telephoto lenses. You might imagine now, those images looked remarkably the same because they have the same perspective.

When I encountered 4X5 portrait, I was fascinated immediately with its unique perspective, wide-angle view combined with decent blur in the background. It isolates the main subject from distracting details while delivering good clues of what & where the background is with a wider view. More precisely I was fascinated the ability to show surrounding of the main subject, e.g. where the model situated & what props to talk about him or her, something around the room, workplace or streets.

Environmental portrait

Overall, wide-angle portrait adds storyline to the main subject, while medium-telephoto portrait emphasizes the model itself. Of course, this description is simple, clear cut of the more complicated real world. Vice versa is always possible and can be seen but in essence, it goes as it is.

It is the matter of personal preference, in the end, what kind of portrait photo you like, some love portraits focused on the subject itself in tight compression of background and some love environmental portraits including surroundings to do storytelling about him or her.


How about 28mm or 24mm lens?

28mm or 24mm lens with the full-frame camera is capable to produce an environmental portrait without doubt, but it does not separate background as 4X5 can do. Usually, the 28mm or 24mm photo shows busy contents as the main subject and background are similarly focused in. The best option in here is f1.4 wide open shot of 28mm or 24mm which separates the background within its optical capability. But it is still far behind from 4X5’s massive blurring.

We should not jump to the conclusion, the more blur is the better. It is not at all like that because the background blur should be readable (recognizable) to add story in the photo.

More importantly, crisp and sharp rendering the main subject is essential to separate background. Too much blur or too small in-focus area makes the photo de-focused overall. It shows no clue but the distracting mass of blur. Therefore blur should be controlled to achieve the separation from the main subject while not losing details to recognize the message. How to? It is the TILT of 4X5 or any other large format camera which extends focused area on the main subject as if the lens stop down deeply, and keep background blur as if the lens wide open.


to be continued






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