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Mastering Wide Angle Photography

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Read Time: 8 mins

Loved by landscape and architectural photographers, wide angle lenses have a unique perspective that hold the potential for creative composition. The look of wide angle lenses just can’t be duplicated. When used properly, this perspective can put a viewer smack dab in the middle of the photograph. Today, we’re taking a look at the techniques that will create amazing wide angle photographs.

Choosing a Wide Angle Lens

Searching for wide angle lenses will yield many results, perhaps as many as any classification of lens. There are a variety of lenses out there that can help you achieve the wide angle perspective.

Crop factor cameras will need a slightly wider lens than full frame counterparts to get the most of the wide angle effect. These cameras have a "crop factor" that effectively makes every lens a slightly longer in focal length. Chances are that your camera is a crop factor one, so a wide angle focal length like 18mm is hardly even wide.

For crop factor cameras, I would recommend looking for lenses labeled as "ultra-wide". There is certainly no specific focal range officially labeled as ultra wide, but a lens that starts at 10mm or 12mm would certainly fit the bill.

Wide angle lens choices such as the Tokina 11-16mm (for crop factor lenses, available for Canon, Nikon and Sony) are numerous.

From my experience, the third party manufacturers make very good wide angle lenses. Many photographers will hesitate to purchase lenses from a company other than their camera manufacturer, but I’ve found that Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina do a nice job with their wide angle lenses.

If you’re looking for an entry level wide angle lens, I’d especially recommend checking out Tokina’s lenses. They are built rock solid and their 11-16mm f/2.8 lens is frequently rated as the best wide angle lens for crop factor cameras. A less expensive option is Tokina’s 12-24mm f/4, also for crop factor cameras.

Budget an amount proportionate to your wide angle usage. For instance, I shoot mostly portraits and documentary type coverage. Wide angle is a great addition to me, but hardly a staple of what I do. I opted to pick up a used Tamron 19-35mm lens for my full frame Canon cameras. This lens is hardly the sharpest or widest, but coming in at less than $100 used, it was an easy choice.

Wide Angle Techniques

If you want great wide angle shots, you have to approach it with a different mindset. There are certain considerations to account for that change the photo making process.

Throughout the techniques, there is one mantra to take with you as you go wide: everything in the photograph has a purpose. Wide angle lenses capture a lot of subject matter, and everything in it should be essential to the photograph we are attempting to create.

Just as a poet chooses each word meticulously, we should compose wide angle photos with a clear purpose for everything we choose to include.

Let’s take a look at three recipes that will give us great photographic results.

In The Middle

If there is one major guideline for success with wide angle photography, here it is: put your viewer right in the heart of the action. This is a tip that Ken Rockwell (love him or hate him) shares regularly on his website. Rockwell says that wide angle lenses are for "getting yourself, and therefore the viewer, right smack into the middle of something." This concept has helped me get the best wide angle photos.

This photo of the Eiffel Tower used the Canon 10-22mm ultra wide angle lens to put the viewer right in the midst of the scene. Photo by Gary Denham.

Using a wide angle lens isn’t about cramming everything you can into the photo. If you’re doing that, the composition will likely be a mashup of many unrelated elements. Instead, we use wide angle lenses to venture into the midst of a scene and share our experience.

It is this type of approach that wide angle lenses are tailored for. These compositions can help a viewer relate to the scene by giving the feeling that they are in the same position we were when making the photograph. That formula is always a success for making impactful images.

Leading Lines

Occasionally, you may find yourself in a situation where leading lines are present. You may not even recognize them at first. You might even have to shift around in order to create them. When we talk about leading lines, we are looking for the horizontals that will lead a viewer’s eye throughout the photo. It may start somewhere in the foreground and continue until the camera cannot even see it.

This photo appears to use a wide angle perspective along with excellent usage of leading lines to lead the viewer’s eye through the photo. Photo by Sam Frederick.

These leading lines are a fantastic thing to capture with a wide angle lens. I think that the leading lines help the viewer relate the near part of the photo with the background of the photo. Tying two parts of a photo together is an effect that wide angle lenses can apply so much more effectively than any other lens.

Foreground Elements

Recently, I spent a day exploring local waterfalls. Environments like these are perfect for use of a wide angle lens. When I made my first few photos, I found myself making the mistake of having the waterfall far away and just cramming it all in using the wide angle lens. We’ve already learned that "cramming" is certainly not the purpose of wide angle lenses.

I used foreground elements of this photo to complement the waterfall in the background.

In this situation, I shifted my composition to put some rocks in the foreground of my photo. These acted as "foreground elements" - objects in the front of the scene that helped the viewer understand the scene as a whole. Before I included the foreground rocks in my photo, it was dominated by the flat water in front of the waterfall, a much less interesting composition.

Wide Angle Issues

Although we’ve looked at how unique wide angle lenses can be, the perspective brings with it some inherent issues. A key part of my approach to photography involves controlling the depth of field in my photographs.

If you aren’t familiar, the term "depth of field" refers to the depth of area of the photo that is sharp and in focus. Many portraits and other photo situations rely on this shallow depth of field to draw the viewer’s focus to a portion of a photo.

With wide angle photography, the depth of field is usually very large. This means that a large amount of the photo is in focus or nearly in focus, making it difficult to apply shallow depth of field techniques and compositions.

If you are looking for a portrait lens to photograph people, in general, a wide angle is probably not your first choice. Sure, it may come in handy for a creative perspective, but wide angle lenses do not provide flattering perspectives.

The look of a wide angle lens will make the subject’s nose and other facial features appear disproportionately large, and that’s a quick ticket to an unhappy model.

This photograph shows the characteristic barrel distortion that is in wide angle lenses. Notice the bulging in the center of the photograph. Photo by TMAB2003.

Finally, distortion is especially prevalent among wide angle lenses. Distortion is an effect many lenses experience, but is especially prevalent in wide angle lenses.

Two types of distortion exist: barrel distortion and pincushion distortion. In barrel distortion, the photo seems to bulge, giving the photo a bloated look. Pincushion distortion is the opposite effect, appearing compressed by contrast. Wide angle lenses will generally experience some degree of barrel distortion and varies from one lens to the next.

Fisheye Photography

Many people are familiar with an extreme wide angle perspective known as fisheye. If you aren’t familiar with the term "fisheye", you will likely recognize the effect as soon as you see it.

If you aren’t familiar with the term "fisheye", you will probably know it by recognizing the effect of photos such as this one. Photo by Dennis Wong

Dedicated fisheye lenses are available from many manufacturers. These lenses are labeled as fisheye and generally are very wide in focal length, such as Nikon’s 10.5mm and 16mm fisheye lenses. Canon has just recently introduced the world’s first zoom fisheye, an 8-15mm f/4 lens.

If you are looking for a lower cost option, this is another great time to turn to third party offerings such as Sigma’s 8mm fisheye or the manual focus Rokinon 8mm lens.

In addition to dedicated fisheye lenses, add-ons Fisheye attachments are a popular and low cost way to try out the unique perspective, but lack the sharpness of dedicated fisheye lenses.

Fisheye photography can be a lot of fun, but is best practiced as a niche. If you’re looking to expand your lens lineup, it can be tempting to add a fisheye lens but I would caution you to choose lenses with greater versatility first.

Wrapping Up

Wide angle perspectives can be eye-catching and really put the viewer in the midst of the scene. If you shoot mostly telephoto or medium lenses, spending time going wide can be an experience that alters your perspective. Follow the techniques we’ve discussed for the best results, and remember to always put the viewer in the middle of the action.

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