Using Wide-Angle Lenses

Wide-angle lenses are those lenses who focal length is smaller than the normal lenses for a particular film/sensor size. Commonly used by landscape photographers, wide-angle lenses are now very common and all the cameras that come with kit-lenses now have focal lengths extending well into wide-angle territory. These lenses have their own strengths and when used properly, these can add the missing dimension in photographs.

Opera House

(Opera House – Odessa, Ukraine. Nikon D200 with Nikkor 18-35 mm lens)

On a full frame/35mm film camera, I consider all the lenses below 35mm as wide-angle. Lens manufacturers have added lenses with really really low focal lengths to their basket of lenses. These are called ultra-wides. Yet another variety of these wide-angle lenses with extremely wide angles and huge amount of distortion are available. These are called fish-eye lenses.

For a full-frame camera a lens with a focal length of 24mm or 28mm or anything near about it ideal. On a camera with APC-S sized sensor, focal length of around 18mm is very well suited for wide angle photography. Unlike what camera and lens companies say, these are the focal lengths that really work well in most wide-angle shots. Ultra-wides have limited use and fish-eye are definitely not my kind of lenses.

Advantages with wide angle lenses –

  • Low focal length reduces the chances of camera shake, so very low shutter speeds can be comfortably used.
  • Wide angle lenses are generally bright and let in good amount of light. Even in low priced zoom lenses, the wide angle range has larger apertures (lower f-stop numbers) than on the tele side.
  • They are not as large or heavy as telephotos.
  • Using a wide-angle forces the photographer to get close to the subject.
  • The lenses have good depth of field and even at moderate apertures, everything appears to be in focus. Small focusing errors are usually not noticeable.
  • The fact that the camera has to be close to a subject to fill the frame leads to a change in perspective and exaggerates the relative distances between different objects. Is it a surprise that real-estate agents love the photographs of their properties taken on wide-angle lenses?

Stairs

(Nikon Df with 25mm lens, f/8, 1/40 sec at ISO 100)

Though it may seem easy, using wide-angles requires an entirely different way of visualization and composition than other lenses. These lenses are powerful but depending on the way photographs are composed, the impact may be strong or get completely diluted.

Common mistakes with wide angle lenses-

These are the two mistakes that most wide angle lens users make, which turn their photographs weak. Try to avoid these and you would have crossed the first barrier to creating masterpieces with wide-angles.

  • Wide-angle lenses are not for getting everything in. The more elements you take into your picture, the lesser impact each of these elements has.
  • Wide-angle lenses are also very poor for portraits. Going close to your subjects face with a wide-angle lens is a surefire way to churn out ugly portraits in most cases. Sure portraits can be done with wide-angles too but in general avoid close-up pictures of your near and dear ones.

Leaves

(Nikon D200 with Nikkor 18-35mm lens, f/8, 1/20 sec, ISO – 400)

Getting the most out of your wide-angles:

Here are some tips to get the most out of your wide-angles. These are not to get everything into the frame. Wide angles are most useful in placing the viewer within the scene. They add drama and character to photographs.

Feeling of depth

These lenses exaggerate the distances. Make use of this aspect. Have elements in your image which are are different distances from the camera. This imparts a feeling of depth to otherwise mundane photographs. Use wide angle lenses to go close and then capture the image to get that 3D effect. Use a small aperture to get everything from the closest point to the farthest in focus. This is a fact you should keep in mind if you are planning to buy a new wide-angle lens. Look for the one that has good close focusing abilities. Going close to the subject is the first trick to make your photograph impactful. (Composition Rules – Part II)

Understand the distortion

It can be your enemy or your friend. Do not tilt the lens slightly for any of your wide-angle photos. The small amount of distortion looks ugly. If you are forced to tilt the lens for whatever reason, correct it in post-processing (Prevent buildings from falling). However do feel free to experiment with extremes of distortion. Use converging lines. These can add drama to the photographs.

Foreground is important

When it comes to wide-angle lenses, foreground is an important element in the composition. Use foreground to your advantage. Compose in a manner that it contributes something substantial to the image. Include various compositional rules if you have to like leading lines, curves or even subtle forms that empower your subject. (Composition Rules – Part I)

Use different angles

Shoot low or from a high point. Further change the dimensions of your subjects in line with your idea. Shoot from a low angle to add an overpowering feeling. Include shapes within shapes or make use of naturally existing frames.

Understand the peripheries

Avoid placing your main subject at any of the corners or extreme peripheries of the frame. The stretching may look unnatural and unsightly. Avoid it as far as possible. This is especially true for humans. They tend to appear stout when placed near the peripheries.

Planks

(Nikon D200 with Nikkor 18-35mm lens, f/8, 1/90 sec at 100 ISO)

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