Cinematic Portraits Project

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a portraiture project, I loosely call Cinematic Moments.  Coming from a filmmaking background; I’ve always explored storytelling, and over the past few years, as I’ve explored photography as a creative medium, storytelling has definitely creeped it’s way in.

A few years ago, when I was first starting photography (mainly to become a better filmmaker, by picking up photographic composition and framing), I took a photography class, in order to hone my skills and get a gut check on the technical process of shooting stills.  At the end of the 10 week course, our teacher asked us to do one big final project, in any area of photography.  She knew that I came from a motion picture background, so she encouraged me to incorporate some form of narrative storytelling.  So I decided to do a short film in still photography, limiting the frames to 6 pictures.

The project was challenging, but I found the experience to be so enriching and satisfying.  After that project, I went back into more of my video work, only shooting pictures occasionally for fun, and taking on a commercial project here and there. 

But since recently starting to shoot with Fujifilm cameras, and being able to carry these amazing mirrorless cameras everywhere, I decided I wanted to take my photography more on a project level.  So I took some of the concepts of this class project, and kicked off the Cinematic Moments Project.

Phase 1
The end goal of this project, was to present short stories through sequential stills, but I wanted to first cast actors and models.  But since this was not a traditional casting process, and since there were no lines, and all the acting and movement would be in stills form, I decided that the casting process would be the first phase of this project, in the form of solo portrait shoots, exploring scenes, rather than a full narrative.  The idea was to pull a handful of actors and models, from these solo shoot, that  could then incorporate into a full narrative story project.

I started with actors and models, both from my own circle, as well as open casting calls.  Living in New York City, I thankfully got a ton of submissions,  and then reached out to the actors I wanted to work with.  Many were very receptive to the project, as it opened up a side of acting they wanted to explore further.  Telling story through movement and expression.  It was almost similar to dance.  

Generally we would start off, thinking of a character similar to their own personality and look, and then another character that was a complete opposite in either look or personality.  It helped me understand the range of the actors ability to express without dialog from one direction to the other.  I also liked the idea of transforming actors into diverse characters, especially if they were quite different than what they usually were used to playing.

We would then pick a location or locations, and from there, all the logistics came together.  From hair and makeup, to wardrobe.  Probably the two most challenging pieces to any fine art photography project!  Thankfully I’ve gotten a lot of help from some very talented designers, stylists, and makeup artists.

Once all of the details are put together, we go out and shoot.  We try and do one to two setups per shoot day.  Generally, the shoots last anywhere from 2-4 hours, and are generally on location somewhere.  Its especially challenging and fun when fighting with the weather, however I’ve been able to capture some amazing moments, that would have normally been a disaster, but ended up being happy accidents.  

I currently own two camera systems.  A full frame Canon EOS system, and an APS-C Fujifilm X system.  Even though I’ve been a Canon shooter for about 10 years, I’ve almost completely migrated over to Fujifilm as my main camera system, only bringing the Canon out when I need a specific “full frame” look.  My Fujifilm X system consists of a Fujifilm X-T2 and a Fujifilm X-Pro2 body, that I carry wth me on portrait shoots.  I generally shoot two to three different focal lengths when on a portrait or editorial shoot, and I generally don’t shoot zooms, since I trained on primes and most comfortable with fixed lenses.  I currently own a Fuji XF Series 16mm f1.4, 23mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4, Mitakon 35mm f0.95, XF 56mm f1.2 and XF 90mm f2 lenses.  Since shooting, on the Fujifilm systems, my relationship to photography has completely transformed.  I shoot more than I ever have, and there’s just a magical characteristic to the Fuji’s I can’t quite explain.  It’s allowed me to explore not only fine art and editorial portrait photography but extended my creativity into an area of photography I’ve always loved.  Street Photography.
On the Canon setup I have a Canon EOS 6D, with the legendary Canon EF 85mm f1.2 L II lens for those moments where I need swirly bokeh, and extreme shallow depth of field (or low light performance) and I’ve just started shooting more on the 35mm full frame focal length, and have been renting either the Canon 35mm f1.4 L II or the Sigma 35mm f1.4 ART Lens.  I’m hoping to own one of the two eventually as I’ve enjoyed wider focal length bokeh on the Canon but for the most part, all my shoots are predominantly on Fujifilm X cameras.  
I recently picked up a Fujifilm X100F, as a walk around, street shooter, and daily picture diary, and was blown away by the quality and character this camera exhibited.  I actually brought it on a portrait shoot a couple of weeks ago, instead of my 23mm f1.4 lens, to see how it faired.  Needless to say, the X100F did not disappoint!

The Process
For the sake of adding a cinematic look, I generally like to shoot about an hour or two before sunset, or early in the morning, right after sunrise if we’re shooting outside.  I shoot natural light for the most part, and those time periods are the easiest to shape and move light in my favor.  If I happen to bring an assistant, I can sometimes push towards late afternoon, so I can have someone hold modifiers, to shield some of the bright direct sunlight.  
For interior shots, it depends on what kind of light I’m trying to capture and what story I’m trying to tell.  I’ve learned that light is such a storytelling tool, and have really tried to get better at that aspect of photography.  
In the evening, I’ll try and find a moderately lit area to shoot with a bit higher ISO that is still lit with street lights and try and keep my pictures exposed properly or as much as I can.  Sometimes I’ll carry a speedlight and softbox with me, or a small light panel with gels, to add atmospheric continuous light.  I plan on exploring more with artificial light, this year, especially now that Fujifilm is starting to get mature lighting gear such as Godox/Flashpoint, Nissin and Cactus. 

When I get together with a model or actor for a shoot session, we generally meet somewhere near the location, and have had prior conversations on how the shoot will go.  We’ll start “workshopping” different scenes, and emotional states surrounding a subtle narrative we’ll explore.  Capturing moments, both in expression but also capturing the surroundings, to add story.  For more staged shoots, I might bring a makeup artist, or stylist or both, and we’ll craft the character even more visually.

As far as camera gear, I tend to keep it simple, since we’re usually shooting at un-secure locations in and around the city.  I usually have an XF 35mm f1.4 on my X-T2 with a battery grip, which is perfect for capturing a subject and the scene in which they’re in.  I’ll also carry an X-Pro2 with a XF 56mm f1.2 lens.  The 56 is by far my favorite lens of the Fujifilm XF lenses.  I consider it almost the perfect lens.  I can shoot wide open for the most part and not have to think about the usual challenges I have with shooting wide open on my Canon 6D with the 85mm f1.2.  It’s just tack sharp through and through and gives just the perfect amount of bokeh and subject separation.  
I recently picked up a manual focus only lens, called the Mitakon Speedmaster 35mm f0.95 Prime lens.  Because of it’s fast aperture, it produces shallow depth of field comparable to full frame systems.  It’s been sitting permanently on my X-Pro2 since I started shooting with it last month, and so now the 56mm f1.2 sits on my X-T2, which I think is a better fit anyways.  
I was hesitant to use a manual focus only lens but because of all the focus assist tools built into the Fuji system, I’m able to achieve tack sharp photos!
As far as camera settings, I tend to shoot in aperture priority mode.  I’ll set my ISO to auto and white balance to auto, unless I’m in an environment which requires me to tend to those settings more specifically. Then I’ll just adjust aperture and exposure compensation when necessary.  The Fujifilm X system has really helped me explore techniques and settings like this, since all of the adjustments are right there, on top of the camera.  Something you would not normally see on a DSLR.
I also shoot in high or low burst mode, when capturing a lot of movement by my subject, so that I can capture every subtle moment while maintaining framing and composition.  
I like working with the Fujifilm on-camera Film Simulations, and although I might not stick with the look in the end of post processing, I like to customize a look, based around Fuji’s Classic Chrome or the monochromatic Acros settings and use that to help me convey a dramatic shot, visually, right out of the camera.  Something that is unique to Fuji and ultimately what won me over to this system.

Once I finish up a shoot, I tend to take a week on retouching and photo editing, using predominantly Adobe Lightroom or Lightroom Mobile with a little help with VSCO.  I’ve also been exploring tools like Capture One and Iridient X-Transformer which seem to process Fujifilm RAW files a little better.

Next Steps and Phase 2
Now that it’s been a year or so, since I started the casting process, I’ve been lucky to have met and started regularly working with; a really amazing team of creatives!  My goal now is to expand the project, incorporating more characters on camera and into full fledged narratives told in sequential order.

It’s been an amazing journey exploring storytelling, through people and still photography.  I love working with people so this project has been an enriching fit, and also satisfies my filmmaking urges.  
In filmmaking a lot of factors (and people) are dependent to the success of the project.  With photography, it’s much easier to achieve your vision in a cost effective way and I’m able to realize my ideas much faster.

Canon 85mm f1.2 L vs Fujifilm XF 56mm f1.2

I took a break this past year from Canon, sold off all my gear and made a complete switch to Fujifilm.  I bought the Fujifilm X-T2 and the X-pro2 as well as their 16mm f1.4, 23mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4, 56mm f1.2 and 90mm f2 lenses.  I’ve been quite happy with their system and it’s opened up a whole new avenue for me, in photography, allowing me to shoot everyday and carry their cameras with me, all the time.  I absolutely love my Fuji system, and will never go without them.  However I do miss the robustness of the Canon system and the skin tones and color, when using Canon L series glass.  So I decided to re-add Canon back into my camera setup, in the form, of the Canon 6D, 85mm f1.2 L and the 50mm f1.2 L.  

I thought it might be fun to do a comparison of the two portrait lenses, between the two systems.  The Canon 85mm f1.2 and the Fuji XF 56mm f1.2, the 2 most incredible portrait lenses out there.

It’s important to note, that I decided to post the the photos, completely unedited, to give you a sense of what the pictures look like right off the camera with no color correction of any kind, exported out of Lightroom.  I know that other RAW editors, handle RAW differently than Lightroom, but because the vast majority of users, use Lightroom, I thought it would be appropriate to see how Lightroom interprets, both RAW formats.  You can easily match color between examples, but for this exercise were going to keep them as is.

Something you will notice right away between the Fuji and the Canon is their RAW color interpretations.  Canon tends to have a warmer hue, while the Fuji tends to be a bit cooler.

For this test, I used the Canon 6D body and the Fujifilm X-T2 Body.

I’d also like to note, that this is in no way a scientific comparison article.  This is more of a casual side by side comparison, when taking the same or similarly framed, pictures, with the two different cameras, and to see the differences between them.  That’s all.  This is not in any way which camera is better, as I own both and love both of them, for their strengths and weaknesses, which we can talk more about at the end of this article.

Canon 85mm L @ f1.2

Canon 85mm @f1.8

Fujifilm XF 56mm @f1.8

In this first example (shown above), normally with this framing, and how close I am to the subject, I would most of the time, shoot between f1.8 and f2 aperture settings. So I compared two shots, in that aperture range.  But I also wanted to see how sharp the image looks and gooey the bokeh might look like for the Canon in full frame, wide open.  So I added that in as well.  As you can see both cameras hold up really well.  If color matched, I think they would look even closer.  The only thing I see the Canon has ahead of Fuji is a slight creamier bokeh, which is expected from a full frame with nice glass, compared to the cropped sensor of the Fuji.  However it’s very slight.  I also feel that the Fuji is slightly sharper in this example, but this most likely has to do with the difference in sensor size and how that impacts equivalent focal lengths, and what that looks like.  We’ll talk more about that further in this post.

Canon 85mm L @ f1.2

Fujifilm XF 56mm @f1.2

In this example, I decided to try shooting wide open with both cameras as I was far enough away from the subject, and felt I could get as much of the subject in focus, as I could.  Just from an aesthetic stand point, you can see the bokeh is a lot softer and creamier with the Canon.  This is again the inherent advantage between a full frame sensor and a cropped sensor.  But with that said, the Fujifilm aesthetically holds up extraordinarily well, and has nice bokeh, especially for a cropped sensor, with great subject separation.
Another thing I noticed is that the Canon had a little bit softer edges on the top.  Again, if I stopped down a bit for a composition like this I would probably get a sharper result, but it’s interesting to compare.  The Fuji wide open seemed fairly sharp edge to edge. 

Canon 85mm L @f1.2

Fujifilm XF56mm @f1.2

Shot these two wide open.  Fairly equal sharpness.

Canon 85mm L @f1.2

Fujifilm XF 56mm @f1.2

Again…wide open on both.

Canon 85mm L @f1.2

Fujifilm XF 56mm @f1.2

So in this example above, again, looking at the different inherent sensor size differences, the Canon has a bit shallower depth of field, because of it’s full frame sensor.  On the Canon, at the same distance from the subject, as when I shot with the Fuji, you see that there’s a bit of soft focus on the top portion of the frame.  This definitely is a characteristic of the lens when shooting wide open.  A much narrower depth of field, then with the Fuji lens.  Because of that, the Fuji comes in sharper, especially in portrait oriented pictures, when shooting wide open.  I would most likely have stopped down, to 1.8 or so, to gain back some shorpness in the frame, but again interesting to see how the lenses react in these environments.

Canon 85mm L @f1.2

Fujifilm XF 56mm @f1.2

On this last example, I feel they are fairly comparable.  Again with a slight shallower depth of field on the Canon.


The purpose of this test mainly was to see how well, the Fujifilm system compared, to a more expensive and widely used system like the Canon DSLR.  When you compare the 85mm f1.2 L lens which is twice the price of the Fujifilm XF 56mm f1.2, I think this test proves that the margin in quality is quite small.  And I think this shows how well made, and optically well crafted, the Fujifilm X lenses stack up to the other systems, especially comparing higher end lenses.  
In comparing color from RAW files, I would say that the Canon has a slight edge to this comparison.  Specifically in skin tones, which is widely talked about.  I’ve used quite a bit of Canon lenses, and I have to say that the L series, definitely renders color in a very pleasing way and this 85 is no exception.  
It’s also known that Lightroom has had its problems processing or initially reading RAW Fuji files.  Perhaps we may see this change, if using other RAW converters like, Capture One, but in the case of Lightroom as our test platform, Canon wins.  However, the Fujifilm system is no slouch when it comes to color, and when using JPEG files with Film Simulations, this is where the Canon falls behind, when using SOOC or “straight out he of camera” files.
This particular category was something I was most curious about between these two lenses.  I read so many opinions about how sharp or how soft the 85mm L lens can be, and I knew from my experience with Fuji, when I switched, that I felt noticeably sharper images.  I would say I still feel that way.  But that’s not to say I didn’t achieve extremely sharp images on the Canon equal to the Fuji.  I would just say I achieved more consistently sharper images, on the Fuji system, when wide open.  But this is partly to do with the full frame sensor being bigger and with a narrower depth of field, so it just requires to keep an eye on where that focus area is and also stopping down when needed to achieve the sharper image.  
Also keep in mind that an f1.2 lens on a cropped sensor, is technically equivalent to an f1.8 on a full frame sensor which explains why a full frame camera can achieve shallower depth of field when shooting wide open, but at the expense of a narrower depth of field, meaning less focus in the frame.  But if you look at my first example, where I stop down both lenses, we start seeing comparable sharpness.  I think in general when you work with full frame, you have to keep an eye on your technique at keeping sharpness and focus when shooting wider apertures, where it might not be as pronounced an issue when working in crop sensor mode.  With that said, I would say, inherently, both lenses are extremely sharp and I would almost put them at a tie.
I would say in this category they are definitely at a tie.  Both focus relatively slow, especially in low light, but when they do lock in, they lock into focus very well.  Accuracy is also about the same in both as far as I could tell.

So there you have it.  A very casual study on two very high-quality portrait lenses within two popular camera systems, I currently use.  As you may have gathered, the 56mm f1.2 lens is quite the opponent to the 85mm L lens in all the categories.  At about roughly half the cost of the 85, the 56mm has plenty of shallow depth of field, fairly nice and gooey bokeh, consistent sharpness at f1.2, and solid color rendition, compared to other mirrorless systems.  
I love both lenses and both camera systems.  But if you wanted to look at the best price performance combo, it’s clear that the 56mm is a great win for the Fujifilm users and for those that were looking past the fence on the other side, to see how much more they are getting with a Canon L lens, they are getting, much shallower depth of field, better color rendition, especially in the skintones, slightly better bokeh and premium solid build on the lens, including weather sealing.  

I hope this article is helpful for those on the fence, trying to switch to Fuji, or for those trying to figure out, how to keep their Canon.  As you can see, there are options, and no choice is bad.  They are both phenomenal camera systems.

- Peter

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