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A Beginner's Introduction to Wide Angle Photography

This post is part of a series called Lenses.
Introducing the Wonderful World of 50mm Prime Lenses
The Complete Guide to Renting a Lens Online

Today we're going to take a step back and view the art of photography through a much wider perspective, which is a terribly pun-filled way to say that this article will examine the basic concept of wide angle photography. We'll take a look at what wide angle photography is, why you should try it, some considerations to keep in mind and finally a few lenses to get you started.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in September of 2010.


What Is a Wide Angle Lens?

wide angle photography

Just to make sure this article is understandable to absolute beginners, a brief definition of our terms is necessary.

A "wide angle" lens is any lens with a short focal length. Focal length is the distance, in millimeters, from the optical center of your lens to the film or sensor when your lens is focused at infinity.

Whoa, that's a little intense, right? Practically speaking, the important thing to remember is this: the shorter the focal length of the lens, the wider the field of view, and the more you'll be able to fit in your frame. Some common wide-angle focal lengths for 35mm SLR cameras, from very wide to moderately wide, are 14mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm.

For a more detailed introduction, here's a great lesson on focal length and field of view from David Bode's course, What Every Photographer Should Know About Lenses.


Why Not a Telephoto Lens?

wide angle photography

When new photographers purchase their first digital SLR and eventually set off in search of a few good lenses to buy, they tend to have only one thing in mind: zoom.

A "good lens" is one that allows you to take a close-up shot of a fly on a horse's ear from thirty yards. All that other stuff is just second rate, right?

My answer is a resounding "no!" Don't get me wrong, telephoto zoom lenses are absolutely fantastic and I hope every photographer has a chance to own at least one good one. They're just not the only, or even the first, thing you should consider in your quest to expand your lens arsenal.

In a recent article I raved about the wonders of using my 50mm 1.4, a lens that is by no means ideal for capturing your kid's little league game from the top of the bleachers. However, there are in fact several situations where it is hard to beat for both convenience and quality.

This same logic applies to a good wide angle lens. While it definitely won't be appropriate for all shooting scenarios, it is an incredibly essential piece of equipment that can produce uniquely stunning photographs.


More Than Landscapes

wide angle photography

Often, the first type of shot that comes to mind when you think about a wide angle lens is a landscape. After all, what wider subject could you possibly hope for than a mountain range or a vast windswept field?

There's definitely a reason for considering these shots first: wide angle lenses are unrivaled in capturing the beauty of an immense landscape. Your eyes are capable of taking in nearly 180 degrees of a scene at once and when you've got a beautiful view, you typically want a lens that can capture as much or more than what you're seeing.

wide angle photography

However, taking in the sites isn't the only thing that wide angle lenses are good at. For instance, when you're indoors, walls tend to prevent you from backing up far enough to get everything you want in the frame. A wide angle lens will enable you to really take in the full room and capture the essence of the scene before you.

However, photographing with a zoom lens does tend to limit what you can take in. If you've ever walked around with one of these you know that there are tons of shooting scenarios when you simply can't get the shot you want. Details, for example, are difficult to isolate and highlight.


Distortion

One of the most important things to keep in mind when shooting with a wide angle lens is that you'll quite often come up with a result that surprises you in its awkwardness.

Because wide angle lenses take in such a wide field of view, they tend to distort the apparent physical relationships between objects. This result is most noticeable when you look at lines that should be relatively straight but are instead bent.

wide angle photography

For this reason, you have to monitor your results closely, especially when you're taking pictures of people. Keep in mind though that the distortion doesn't have to be an unwanted side affect. Countless photographers use wide angle distortion as an important element of the image. As long as you're aware of the distortion and how it affects a given lens, you can use it to stylistically create images that you simply couldn't capture by any other means.


Depth of Field

Understanding depth of field is key to mastering wide angle photography. Wide angle lenses provide the appearance of a much deeper amount of focus (more depth of field) in the scene than telephoto zoom lenses. This is nice because it means that most of your wide angle image appears in focus!

wide angle photography

However, according to Alex Don, "if you enlarge a portion of [the zoomed out image] this apparent depth of field will disappear." Similarly, Cambridge In Colour points out that what's really changing drastically with the focal length is the distribution of the depth of field, and that "a wide angle lens provides a more gradually fading depth of field behind the focal plane than in front." Because longer focal lengths flatten your perspective, they appear to have a shallower depth of field.

Anyway, the best step you can take toward understanding the technical side of wide angle depth of field is to experiment. Take the same photo with multiple lenses at multiple aperture settings and compare so you can get a feel for how to produce the effect that you want. All the technical articles in the world can't compare to actually getting your hands on a camera and picking up some experiential knowledge.


Wide Angle Lens Prices

wide angle photography

As with all types of lenses, wide angle lenses are all over the map in price. A Canon 14mm f/2.8L II USM will run you upwards of $2,000 and a Nikkor 14mm will typically be at least $1,200. Alternatively, you can grab a Sigma 14mm for only $700 and a similar Tamron for $800.

Contrast this with the lower end lenses which are obviously much more affordable. A Canon 35mm f/2 is pretty easy to find under $300 and a Nikkor equivalent at f/1.8 is widely available for under $200.

These are all primes but you can definitely pick up some affordable multi-purpose zoom lenses that start at around 17mm and go up to anywhere from 85-200mm.

Start With a 35mm Lens

My recommendation is to start with a 35mm wide angle lens. This lens provides a moderately-wide and useful angle of view, usually has less distortion, and is generally very affordable. 35mm lens designs have been around for a long time, and they're basically perfect. Major manufacturers and third-party lens makers offer new versions, and there are plenty on the used market.

A 35mm f/2 lens is both a great place to start your lens collection and a great investment. This is the kind of lens that you can buy once, use all the time, and never need to replace. The 35mm is also a diminutive lens you can just leave on your camera all the time for all kinds of photographing, from walkabouts and landscapes to capturing family gatherings.

For crop frame cameras, you'll need a shorter focal length to get the equivalent field of view. For APS sensor cameras, get a 20mm to 23mm lens. For micro 4/3, a 17mm lens is perfect.


Conclusion

To sum up, big fancy zoom lenses are both wildly impressive and highly practical in certain situations, but as a photographer you should always be ready and able to capture the bigger picture, and you'll need a wide angle lens to do it.

Though wide angle lenses are most often thought of in relation to landscapes, they actually have a wide variety of applications in all kinds of settings.

Finally, always be aware of the level of distortion as well as both the apparent and literal range of the depth of field in your wide angle photos. With practice you'll be able to use these variables positively to create the shot you want.

Leave a comment below and show us your favorite wide angle shots. Be sure to include the type of lens you used and whether or not you would recommend it to others.

To see more examples of wide-angle photography, check out the wide-angle images on Envato Market.

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