28mm vs 35mm in Group Shots
Two's company, three's a crowd. But that's no reason to limit one's self to just a duet, when a trio is better... because... well, it just is! So naturally, it came to pass that ambition or rather wishful thinking spurred me to volunteer yet another hapless soul to kill some time with us. I mean, why not? It's not as if the UPS guy has dropped off anything newsworthy for so long. At least by adding a new recruit to my Motley crew of usual suspects, I can offer an impression of variety to this dog and pony blog.
I just wished the weather would have cooperated more for this photowalk. But as fate would have it, the mercury dropped below 50°F (or roughly less than 10°C). By Hong Kong's standard, that is uncharacteristically cold - especially since we're not dressed for the dip. As a result, this made staying outside for long periods of time rather unpleasant. So for the most part, we ended up seeking shelter from one cafe to another cafe. Well... so much for ambition and this photowalk.
But I was being ambitious on this photowalk. I genuinely had a reason, unlike most weeks when what I had to say came as an afterthought shoved onto my sample images, like a mismatched square peg through a circle. However, when one purposely asks for three participants to assist on a photowalk, there had better be a reason. And on this occasion, I had one. I wanted to see which focal length is optimal for documenting more than two people - in other words, a group.
The moment you increase your headcount to three or more people, the process of documentation is markedly changed in scope. But that comes as no surprise, when you take into consideration the significance of social geometry (as noted by the German sociologist, George Simmel). With triadic relationships, the documentary interaction between three people will generally be more demanding to negotiate than dyadic relationships between two people.
So with a dyad, the documentary perspective is generally limited to one of three possibilities. To illustrate the point, let us assume that "A" and "B" are both subjects to be photographed. In the composition, A and B could either be presented equally [=] or unequally, with one captured in the dominant role [>] while the other in the supporting or recessive role. As a result, the following permutation is possible:
A = B
A > B
B > A
But with a triad, the permutation of possibility becomes more complicated. To illustrate the point, let us include subject "C" into the discussion. As a result, the following permutation is possible:
A = B = C
A > B = C, A = B > C, A > B > C, A > C > B
B > A = C, B = C > A, B > A > C, B > C > A
C > A = B, C = A > B, C > A > B, C > B > A
In going through the exercise of understanding the social geometry of documenting three people, what soon becomes apparent is the difference in possible compositional outcome between photographing three or more people, two people, or even a single person by extraction.
With one person, the typical composition will usually be some kind of portrait - whether close up or environmental. Because of that, there will be no need to document interaction, which makes the process of composition more straight forward. With two people, the composition will need to take into account the interaction between both subjects - whether static or dynamic. From a technical perspective, this will impact the choice of focal length and focusing distance, since two people require more space in framing. But given the aspect ratio of most film and digital sensors, the frame is generally accommodating enough, without requiring significantly more consideration in composition.
However, with three people, the frame will all-of-a-sudden become too crowded for a straight forward composition. In order to properly document the interaction between the three subjects, greater care is needed in composition. What this means is the choice of focal length and focusing distance becomes a material concern. This is because a wider angle of coverage or more distance is required to open up more space in-frame to accommodate sufficient coverage for three people.
Increasing focusing distance is generally not the preferred option outside of a controlled shooting environment, given the increased probability of photobombing. Thus, the option of using a wide angle lens is generally the preferred alternative. With that being the case, the knee-jerk response towards photographing groups tend to gravitate towards the use of super wide angle lenses. From the perspective of most Leica photographer, that means any focal length equal or wider than 21mm. But at those angles of coverage, one is forced to deal with increased distortion, which leaves much of the frame unusable at the edges and corner - unless unplanned incidents of gross disfigurement are deemed acceptable in documentation.
Invariably, the complication resulting from distortion narrows down the discussion of optimal focal length for group documentation to either 28mm or 35mm. In my opinion, both angles of coverage are similarly capable for the task, without being too wide or in need of increased focusing distance. However, there are still practical differences from either approach, resulting in observable advantages and disadvantages.
Because the 28mm focal length is comparatively wider, it will experience greater complications from distortion. Observably, variation of subject placement on different focal planes will exaggerate the scale of optical perspective. As such, a subject on a closer focal plane will appear significantly larger than a subject on a further focal plane, even if both subjects are the same size. Moreover, this exaggeration is even more pronounced, at closer focusing distance. Still, the distortion experienced at 28mm is still manageable in practice, and not entirely unacceptable in most cases of oversight in composition.
With that said, the 28mm focal length is comparatively more forgiving in documentation. At the same closer focusing distance, 28mm enables a wider angle of view than 35mm. Because of that, the 28mm focal length opens up more space in-frame to accommodate increased coverage for group documentation. It is for this reason I prefer the 28mm focal length.
However, my bias for the 28mm focal length does not mean I cannot appreciate the 35mm focal length too. For group documentation, there is observably less distortion at 35mm compared to the 28mm focal length. And when documenting beyond closer focusing distance, the angle of view does not open up as much space in-frame to create an impression of distance. So when compared to the 28mm focal length, 35mm seems strangely intimate in group documentation.
Having said that, the 35mm focal length in group documentation does require greater care in composition, compared to the 28mm focal length, given a reduction of breathing space in-frame. This makes the 35mm focal length comparatively less forgiving in group documentation. But as a benefit, the comparatively tighter angle of view makes the documentation appear more precise, with the subjects closer up. For this reason, I can understand why the 35mm focal length in group photography can be more appealing for many.
So which focal length is better for group photography? In the end, it really depends on which disadvantages you can accept, and which advantageous you seek. Personally, I prefer any option that can simplify the image taking process. This is why my fall back focal length is 28mm. Besides, I can mitigate the issue of perspective by putting my subjects all on the same focal plane. As for greater precision, I can always crop in post for a tighter angle of view. It's not like I can do the reverse and increase the angle of view from 35mm to the 28mm equivalent.
Still, I must admit the 35mm does look better. Even so, I shot at 28mm twice as often than at 35mm. So perhaps from that anecdotal observation, 28m is better in informal use, while 35mm is better in formal use. Although, if one has the luxury of time to compose in a controlled shooting environment without the uncertainty of being photobombed, any tighter focal length shot from a further distance is better. But in the real world, it's either 28mm or 35mm that's the best.
All images have been optimized tonally in Lightroom. Some images have been leveled and cropped for composition. Color, contrast, clarity, and saturation have not been edited.
Special thanks to Judit again, and Lydia.