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Video: 35mm One Lens Challenge, Pt. 2

This is part two of our One Lens Challenge. If you missed part one, you can catch it here. For this challenge, I’m taking out my trusty 35mm f/1.4 lens with an EF to RF adapter on a Canon EOS R camera body for a walk, this time around the streets of Orange, using nothing but this lens, natural light, and whatever backdrops we can find to create compelling compositions in our images.

As I mentioned last time, the 35mm prime is one of my favorite lenses. You can choose any one lens, but I’ll discuss a number of different techniques that work particularly well with this specific focal length. The main point, however, is to limit yourself to one lens. By limiting your gear, you also limit a number of distractions and open up your creativity. As photographers, we often bring more gear than we need (because we have it). Unfortunately, we end up ignoring the great stuff that’s right in front of us because we’re thinking about how to use all of our gear. Limiting our gear should allow us to focus on the natural existing light, how to shape that light, how to choose better angles, and how to compose everything.

Getting through this challenge is a lot easier if you can find yourself a lovely subject who will do much of the compositional heavy lifting. We were lucky enough to have Alisa join us (whom you can find here on Instagram: @alyssa__natalia) on this challenge. Okay. Let’s get started.

Location #1: Walkway/Ramp Alongside Building

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We only made it 50 feet when I found the first spot. Here’s what caught my eye for this particular location. First, the sun is hitting the wall and essentially turning it into a large light source. I would need a flash and a giant scrim to replicate this lighting. Instead, we can simply use something that already exists. We just need to know what to look for and work these natural reflectors with subject positioning. On that note, we can move our subject back and forth along the walkway until we catch just the right amount of light reflecting off the wall and falling on our subject. Finally, the background itself is somewhat interesting as we have a nicely toned wall, and I’m shooting on a wide angle 35mm, which means I’m going to get a bit of depth and distortion. This should pull the lines on the wall right into my subject. All of this is already built into the scene.

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Final photo (right) edited with Visual Flow presets and retouched in Photoshop.

All I really need to do is set my exposure (1/500, f/2, ISO) and capture my images. I set the aperture at f/2 in order to leave a bit of depth in the shot while maintaining adequate sharpness. This location provides an easy and simple way of essentially adding flash to your shots without actually having to carry a flash with you.

Location #2: The Arches

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Light from the wall we used earlier (left) can still be used in this second nearby location

For the next spot, I noticed some arches nearby with tons of interesting opportunities. One of the coolest things about this spot is that we can still use the giant reflector of a wall that we used in the previous location. When considering my composition, I take into account the characteristics of the lens I’m using. Since I have the 35mm lens, I’m going to take advantage of the wide angle and use lines in the wall to draw the focus to my subject and also conceal part of the frame.

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Final photo (right) edited with Visual Flow presets and retouched in Photoshop.

I’m using a wide aperture (f/1.4) because I really want the depth to show through and I want to conceal the door in the background. With the natural vignette of the lens, it also creates a nice little graduation and color tone. Also, look at the way that the cheekbones light up and how we get a beautiful shadow right across Alyssa’s face that defines the jawline, the nose, and everything exceptionally well. I also love using a little bit of brick to almost cover the face a little bit. What you’re going to do is lock your focus and then work right up to the wall to add nice depth to the image.

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In the image above, notice how I’m cropping below the hip at the thigh, which serves as a tapering point where the body narrows. It’s more flattering this way. If we crop where the body widens out, it will look like it keeps widening throughout the frame and can make your subjects look larger than they are.

Location #3: The Ground

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One often overlooked spot is right beneath you, on the ground. Anytime you see a cool pattern or texture on the ground, you can use it! This is a really simple technique to use so long as your subject is willing to lie on the ground. If your subject is in a wedding dress, then maybe avoid this spot.

Once your subject is down, stand directly over them. The 35mm is the perfect focal length for this type of a shot because we can get enough of the texture and background in the frame without going too close to your subject’s face. Speaking of faces, Alyssa’s face is actually completely lit by the sky, and the beautiful thing about this is the sky gives us fantastic catchlights. I’m using Alyssa’s hands to frame her face.

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I adjusted my aperture to f/4 with a shutter speed of 1/250 and my ISO set to 400. All that was left was to direct Alyssa into various poses/expressions and capture the shots.

Location #4: The Staircase

Let me tell you why I dig staircases. One of the reasons I love staircases is they give us a posing object, which we can use to play off of and get a variety of poses. Staircases also add visual interest in the background with a repetitive pattern and leading lines. Finally, staircases typically run alongside a wall (or two) that we can use for negative fill light or a bounce light, depending on the color of the walls.

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A walk-up shot (left) vs. a more intentionally composed portrait (right)

In the image above, you can see that the light dropping into the staircase has created a type of butterfly light that’s actually directly lighting Alyssa’s face. Because the walls are dark, however, we get a bit of negative fill that adds some contouring and shadows onto Alyssa’s cheeks.

I decided here to use the 35mm focal length to exaggerate the perspective in this shot. When you compare it to a typical walk-up shot (which you should avoid), you can see the dynamics that perspective adds to an image (see the images above). The walk-up shot looks okay, but by lowering our perspective to allow the width of this lens to play into framing the shot, and by placing Alyssa’s face over the brighter area of the background, we can create a dynamic & visually compelling portrait.

[Related Reading: 5 Primary Light Patterns and Their Purpose]

Location #5: “GOBO” Wall

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We made it another 50 feet from the staircase when I noticed a GOBO-styled reflection on the wall. What’s happening is the sun is bouncing off of a nearby building and casting reflections all over the place. When shooting in a scene like this, it’s important to make sure the light is falling on your subject’s face, which should be the brightest spot in the frame.

Once your subject is positioned, dial in your exposure. I recommend you not expose too bright for this type of shot. Instead, we’re aiming for a more dramatic image. Imagine we’re using flash here and bring the shutter speed up to somewhere around 1/500, and close down the aperture to about f/4 to keep the image nice and sharp. Finally, adjust your ISO. In this type of scene, I always check my histogram and my highlight alert to make sure that nothing is blown out or clipped.

When we’re working with hard light, we really want to angle the face perfectly to get nice lines and detail on the face. Hard light is a beautiful thing, but you have to be a little more careful with your angles. I suggest you move around once your subject is set up and capture images from a variety of angles, including wide, medium, and tight shots. Doing so will help you change up the compositions and also tell a more complete story.


We hope you enjoyed this article/video and plan to follow through with the second round of our minimalist challenge. As we mentioned in part one, the purpose here is to get back to the basics and stop psyching yourself out on shoots with gear you don’t necessarily (always) need. Instead, slow down, take a look around, and utilize what you have around you. If you’d like some more tips on how to get creative using basic gear, check out our Creative Photography 101 Workshop, in which we used an iPhone to capture all of the featured images. This workshop is available on its own or as part of a Premium subscription.

Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!