Wide-Angle Portraits: Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM Lens Fits The Bill

I really like extreme lenses. Extremely wide, extremely fast, and extremely long lenses will all allow you to create unique images that stand out from the crowd. When I heard about the Sigma 8-16mm lens I wanted to get my hands on one and start shooting, so I asked my editor if I could borrow one from Sigma for testing. He wanted to know what I was going to do with it, so naturally I told him: take portraits. You might, as he did, find this a little odd—taking portraits with a wide-angle lens, and a very wide lens at that. After all, don’t photographers usually use long lenses for portraits?


Courtesy of Sigma Corporation of America

Why are photographers taught to use long lenses for portraits? There are four basic tenets behind this reasoning: narrow angle of view, shallow depth of field, flattering perspective, and a comfortable working distance between you and your subject. However, flip these “rules” on their head and you’ll see why I like working with wides: wide angle of view, great potential depth of field, unique perspective, and, oddly enough, working right in your subject’s face. In short, I use the special nature of a wide lens to give my portraits a new and unique look.

Bill Henderson owns a company called Croxphire located close to my studio. It’s an interactive gaming company where people can rent time and play games with others using their big screen and multiple controllers. I figured this would be a perfect concept for a wide-angle portrait, so I decided to put Bill “in” the game. I exposed for the screen, added a lamp on the left for some warmth, and used a flash with softbox to light him and the controller. I kept his face in the path of the light from the projector and used the flash to light his hands, face, and the controller. I dialed the flash way down to match the light on the screen so his face would still look like part of the game, suggesting the whole “interactive” theme. Nikon D300, manual exposure, ISO 200, 11.5mm, 1⁄10 sec at f/7.1.
All Photos © Steve Bedell

High school senior photography is one of my biggest markets. And these days if you take senior photos that look the same as their parents’ photos did, you’re going to be waiting a long time for that phone to ring. Seniors are used to watching music videos and they want exciting, contemporary looks to their photos, not just a simple headshot on a canvas background. They also want the picture to say more about them than just a “straight” headshot portrait, and that’s where having greater depth-of-field potential comes into play.

This is what the setup looks like, with tripod at camera position.

In a typical portrait, we want to eliminate much of the background. The longer the lens used, the narrower angle of view, the less background to compete with your subject. Conversely, using wide lenses is great when the background is an integral part of the image and you want to use it to tell a story. Newspaper and magazine photographers use wide lenses because many times they need to tell a story in one photo. Including the subject and environment in the image is often a successful way of doing this.

In fact, I’ve been doing wide-angle portraits for high school seniors for years, and they are very popular. The subjects don’t know what it is about them, they just know they look cool. And I’ll often use Photoshop effects and Kubota Actions to add even more punch to them.

This image of model Nicole Ochoa was taken on an overcast day in downtown Dover, New Hampshire, where my studio is located. I like the design elements of the vertical fence and windows so I got down low, aimed up, and put Nicole slightly off-center, lining her up against the bricks so she’d stand out. Aiming up gives a sweeping feeling to the image and her legs look longer since I’m closer to them than the rest of her. Image enhanced in Photoshop. Nikon D300, manual exposure, ISO 200, 8mm, 1⁄125 sec at f/5.6.

All of this brings us to the Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM lens. First, it’s meant for smaller, APS-C-type sensors, not full-frame cameras, so that equates to about a 12-24mm lens on a full-frame camera. HSM is Sigma speak for Hyper-Sonic Motor, their fast and quiet high-speed autofocus system. Wide-angle lenses usually require a whole bunch of elements, and this one is no exception, having 15 elements in 11 groups. This lens looks a little different than other current wide angles in that it is narrow, long, and has a big fat bump of glass on the end, so you can kiss using filters goodbye. It incorporates the latest in glass and construction technology and, from my subjective testing, seems very sharp with great contrast.

One of the main reasons to use a wide-angle lens for portraits is to include a subject in the surroundings, so look for interesting surroundings! This was taken in an old mill building that has been converted to office space. I was looking for a big window to light Nicole Ochoa and an interesting background. The window that lights her is out of the frame to the right, not the one you see. I liked the design elements of the ceiling, rug line, and the arch and windows in back that add depth. Image enhanced in Photoshop. Nikon D300, manual exposure, ISO 400, 8mm, 1⁄125 sec at f/4.5.

Since it’s got that big bump on the end of it, you can’t just throw a lens cap on it, so you need to put the supplied metal ring over the petal lens shade and then put on the pinch lens cap. That big convex eyeball at the end of the lens protrudes at 8mm and moves further back to hide as the focal length increases. I don’t know why the lens doesn’t have the “EX” label that Sigma puts on their pro lenses, but the construction is similar to other EX lenses with a beautiful satiny black finish. I found the lens a pleasure to use in the field.

I can tell you that there is plenty of snap to the images, the autofocus works really well for such a wide lens, and it is a total ball to use for portraits and events. Wedding photographers will love this lens. The lens has an MSRP of $1100 and mounts to all the usual suspects. Check the Sigma website, www.sigmaphoto.com, for compatibility with your camera.

Above: I found this location and wanted to show my model plus the rocks, water, and greenery. I placed Sofia Kouninis in an area where I had light coming in from the sky and shooting in under the tree. There is a little “trickery” involved in this photo, however. Her head is off to the side but it does not appear distorted and we still have those nice lines leading in. How did I do that? Easy. I took the photo with her centered (above) and then cropped it with her to the side for a pleasing composition (below), plus I got rid of some hot spots on the right that I didn’t like. Nikon D300, AP metering +0, ISO 400, 15mm, 1⁄250 sec at f/5.3.

© Joe Farace

Finally, here’s an important tip for shooting portraits with a wide-angle lens: unless you want the heads to look like footballs, keep the heads close to center and in the same plane as the camera. With a lens this wide anything off-center will have that distinctive apparent wide-angle lens distortion. Also, you’re usually going to have lots of stuff in that wide-angle view, so it pays to slow down or even use a tripod to make sure you’re looking at everything in the frame before clicking.

Unlike traditional portraits done with long lenses and a narrow angle of view, wide lenses give you a completely different look, as in this one where I’ve included the water, rocks, trees, and even sky to create a totally different mood. Model: Sofia Kouninis. Nikon D300, AP metering +0, ISO 400, 8mm, 1⁄500 sec at f/5.

Technical Specifications
Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM
Lens Construction: 15 elements, 11 groups
Angle Of View: 114.5-75.7
Number Of Diaphragm Blades: Seven
Minimum Aperture: f/22
Minimum Focusing Distance: 9.4”/24cm
Maximum Magnifications: 1:7.8
Dimensions: 3x4.2”/75x105.7mm
Weight: 19.6 oz/555g
Corresponding AF Mounts: Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax

For more information, contact Sigma Corporation of America at: www.sigmaphoto.com.

Steve Bedell has been a portrait photographer for over 25 years. To subscribe to EPhoto, a free e-mail newsletter with tips for photographers, contact Bedell via e-mail at: sb@stevebedell.com. Also ask about his lighting DVDs.