Most people learn photography with long, telephoto lenses. These lenses provide plenty of compositional flexibility and are wonderful training wheels for most beginners.
However, as you advance in your photography skills, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to explore other types of lenses.
If you’re looking to expand your photographic work, experimenting with wide-angle lenses is a good place to start. In this post, we’re going to cover when, why, and how you can use wide-angle lenses to enhance your photographic work.
What Is A Wide Angle Lens?
These lenses are defined by their short focal length. The focal length is the distance between the point of convergence and the center of the camera’s sensor.
The short focal length results in a wider angle of view and the ability to capture more of a scene. Wide-angle lenses are identified by their small mm (millimeter) range. The smaller the length, the wider the lenses view.
Classifying Focal Lengths
To comprehend the concept of wide-angle lenses, it’s necessary to understand other focal lengths as well. As a point of reference, the size of a camera’s frame is often used.
The baseline comparison for all other camera sensors and focal lengths is a full-frame sensor. Full-frame sensors measure 24x36mm and became standard during the early days of film photography.
Below are the common focal length ranges used by full-frame sensors: fish-eye, mirror, and ultra-wide angle.
Lenses with a focal length between 24mm to 35mm are considered moderate wide-angle lenses. Wide-angle lenses offer a field of view between 54 and 73 degrees. This is by no means a fixed range rather an estimate.
Their versatility makes them suitable for use in landscape and street photography as well.
They are often called reportage lenses due to their use in popular documentary situations.
Ultra-wide angles have a focal length of less than 24mm and take the standard wide-angle field of view to the next level. These lenses offer a field of view of up to 122 degrees wide.
The widest lens on the spectrum is the fisheye lens. The fisheye lens offers a field of view over 180 degrees. This extreme nature of fisheye lense causes severe distortion at the edge of the frame.
When using a fisheye lens, straight lines will become curved as they near the edge of the frame.
These images typically have dark perimeters due to the image circle produced by the lens not covering the entirety of the sensor.
Those not experienced using a fisheye lens often capture their feet in the image as they’re learning how to use them.
What Are Wide Angle Lenses Commonly Used For?
Deeper Depth of Field
Focal length plays a key role in determining the depth of field, and wide-angle lenses are the kings of producing a large depth of field. The larger angle of view that wide-angle lenses offer is the primary reasons for the increased sense of depth.
This wider view allows for more background to be visible in a scene, enhancing the depth of field for each aperture value.
When using a wide-angle lens, you’ll have a crisper background that will alter the context of the area around the subject. When the foreground and background are more in focus, they tend to compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.
One great use of this is to create forced perspective shots, a classic form being someone appearing to hold up a building such as the Tower of Pisa. The wide-angle lens ensures that both the subject and the distant object will be equally sharp in the image.
The minimum focus distance of a photographic lens is intrinsic, so the objects closest to the camera will be out of focus as a result; beyond this, the image becomes sharp.
The area between this point and the out-of-focus zone where things become blurry again is known as the plane of focus. There aren’t distinct borders to these distances; the transition between them is gradual and seamless.
Wide-angle lenses are landscape photographers’ weapon of choice to capture grand landscapes. Unlike standard lenses, wide-angle lenses provide broad perspectives perfect for photographing magnificent sceneries in their entirety.
It’s also useful in providing a more comprehensive view of smaller spaces. For instance, a wide-angle lens can make a small room appear larger. It also offers a photographer more angles to play with despite the limited space to move around.
Use Distortions Creatively
One of the fundamental effects of wide-angle lenses is barrel distortion. As a result, wide-angle lenses produce more distortion than narrow lenses.
Barrel distortion makes lines within your frame appear curved, becoming more pronounced as you move towards the edge of the frame.
Although photographers often correct barrel distortion using image-processing software, some photographers keep it to add an artistic effect.
For example, you can use distortion as a creative tool in portrait images. Distortions can make portraits look comedic or surreal, depending on the lighting and mood in your setting.
You can also create surreal landscape images with a wide-angle lens. This is especially true if you use ultra-wide or fish-eye lenses.
How To Use A Wide Angle Lens
Beware Of Distracting Elements
Avoiding competing visual elements within your images is one of the greatest challenges of using wide-angle lenses.
Using a wide-angle lens means that you’ll have more details included within your frame. Although this can be a good thing, you need to be careful not to let excessive details distract your viewer from your main subject.
With wide-angle lenses, you must have a clear focal point within your composition. This will prevent your viewers from wandering loosely around the frame, uncertain where to focus their attention.
You’ll also want to take notice of varying degrees of brightness within your frame. Remember that your audience’s attention will go to the brightest element in your image first. So, it’s critical to make sure this occurs on or around your focal point.
Always choose your subject first and then find different angles that can help highlight your subject.
Find compositions that accentuate your focal point and eliminate all elements that don’t serve that purpose. As with most things in photography, less is usually more when using wide-angle lenses.
Observe Through The Viewfinder
The viewfinder helps you avoid including distracting elements in your composition, which, as mentioned, is easy to do with a wide-angle lens.
Finding compositions with your viewfinder will help you see subtle changes in perspective, angle, and distance. This way, you can easily find compositions that best capture your desired scene.
Zoom in With Your Feet
We’ve already established that distracting elements are more difficult to avoid with short, wide-angle lenses than long, telephoto lenses.
Some common examples of distracting elements are bright spots of light, tree branches emerging from a subjects head or horizons that are level with the subject’s eyes.
One of the best ways to manage this issue is by changing your position relative to your subject. Often, with wide lenses, merely zooming in and out won’t be enough to eliminate distractions.
Another reason zooming in with your feet is important with wide-angle lenses is the relative size of elements.
Lenses with a short focal length tend to make elements in your foreground appear larger while making objects in your background seem smaller. Failure to move closer to your subject can make your subject small and insignificant within your frame.
When using wide lenses, start by getting close to your subject, then gradually move around it while observing the contents within your frame.
Take a moment to ask yourself is there anything distracting in the background. Also, consider the size of your primary subject relative to other elements in the composition.
Bracket Your Images
A camera’s dynamic range tends to be smaller than that of human eyes. Dynamic range is the distance between the darkest and brightest tones present within a single frame.
A limited dynamic range means that you cannot simultaneously capture very bright and very dark objects with proper exposure.
For example, imagine you’re on a beach shooting the sunset. You compose your image so that you have sun-star in your background and some coastal rocks in your foreground.
It can be difficult to capture a correctly exposed sun-stars without underexposing the rocks in your foreground. Similarly, it can be hard to photograph correctly exposed rocks, without overexposing your sun-star. Because of the broad field of view of wide-angle lenses, it’s difficult to capture an image without varying levels of brightness.
To get around this issue, you can take multiple exposures of a scene and then blend them during post-processing. This is called HDR photography.
HDR photography is a technique that uses software to merge multiple shots at different exposures. It allows you to capture a scene with a high dynamic range with a single composite image.
When taking images of wide sceneries, consider the breadth of the contrast range in the frame. If the dynamic range within the scene is too high, consider using HDR to help you get the results you want.
Play with Depth Of Field
One way to highlight your subject is by using varying degrees of sharpness.
Sharp details draw the human eye, while blurred details tend to be dismissed as a sort of visual padding or ‘background noise’.
The narrow depth of field of a telephoto lens makes this process easy, by separating the background and subject cleanly.
Without this easy spatial separation, you’ll find it necessary to compose your images with greater care.
To help influence the depth of field in your image, you can do one of two things.
First is to get closer to your subject. Start by getting closer to your subject so that the subject of the image will be in sharper detail than the background. This is the only way to achieve this particular effect if you are using a short focal length and a crop sensor. A great way to test this is by using your camera’s smartphone.
Second, you can use wider apertures. The size of your aperture will determine the depth of field in the images you produce, no matter what kind of lens you’re using. Lenses with larger maximum apertures tend to cost more.
Because of its deep depth-of-field, it could be difficult to convey a sense of depth in images using wide-angle lenses.
Wide-angle lenses keep most of the elements within an image in sharp focus, making it difficult for viewers to distinguish the relative distance between objects.
One way you can make your images feel more three-dimensional is by layering the objects within your frame.
Layering will divide your picture into different planes: the foreground, middle ground, and background. Having a clear division between these planes is one of the most effective ways to create a sense of depth in images.
You’ll often see this technique used in landscape photography. Images of scenic landscapes typically consist of an interesting foreground element, such as wildflowers or rocks, and a sweeping background such as a colorful sky.
To create layers in your photos, begin by finding visual elements you can use in your foreground. Depending on what you’re photographing, this could be anything from a person, an object, or wildlife.
You can use your chosen foreground element as your main focal point. Or it can be a visual element that helps direct your viewers to your focal point.
Use an Editing Software
Distortion is no reason not to use wide-angle-lenses.
Most post-processing software can easily correct distortion. You can use software like PTLens that is specially designed to fix distortion or use a more versatile software like Photoshop and Lightroom.
These types of software make the use of wide-angle lenses possible in landscape and architecture with little to no distortion.
Use Small Apertures To Avoid Vignette
Vignetting is the darkening or reduced brightness levels at the edges of an image compared to the rest of the image. This occurs because light rays at the edges of a frame must travel farther than those at the center, causing them to be weaker.
Although this effect occurs in all types of lenses, the effect is stronger in wide-angle lenses.
One simple way to reduce the amount of vignetting caused by a lens is by using smaller apertures. Smaller apertures restrict the amount of light entering the camera and also reduce the distance the light at the edges needs to travel to reach the sensor.
Avoid using the widest apertures on a wide-angle lens because this is where vignetting is at it’s strongest. Vignetting will be different for each camera and lens combination. Test your camera and lens to determine at which apertures your images have the most and least vignetting.
A simple rule of thumb to reduce vignetting is to reduce your aperture by 2-3 stops. This should remove most of the vignetting in your image.
How to Use a Wide Angle Lens in Landscape Photography
Use a Reference Point
Using a wide-angle lens is a great choice when it comes to photographing sweeping landscapes. However, it doesn’t come without a challenge.
As mentioned, short focal lengths tend to make distant objects appear smaller than they are. As such, it’s often difficult to accurately convey the immensity of landscapes when using these lenses.
For instance, a wide-angle lens can make vast mountain ranges appear small and insignificant in a photo. This issue is also common when photographing other landscape sceneries such as waterfalls and canyons.
One way to fix this is by including a reference item in your composition. This could be anything from human-made structures, to wildlife, to people.
Your viewers will instinctively know how big these reference items are, and will use them as a benchmark for understanding the magnitude of the landscape you’re trying to capture.
Emphasize The Sky With Wide Angle Photography
Subjects experience different forms of distortion depending on the placement of your wide-angle-lens.
Distortion is often perceived as an imperfection in the image that needs to be minimized. It can also be a source of creative inspiration and used to improve your image without removing it.
One of the best ways you can take advantage of wide-angle distortion is by using it to emphasize the sky in your images. This is especially a great idea if the sky has vivid colors or interesting shapes. To emphasize the sky, lower your camera and tilt it slightly upwards. This will stretch objects near the edges of the frame, including the sky.
Keep in mind, however, not to let your sky overpower your subject. When the sky is saturated with bright colors, making it prominent in your image can draw attention away from your focal point.
Use Vertical Format
The default format for most photographers is horizontal. This is especially true when taking wide-angle shots. While it works for most landscape compositions, you’ll be limiting yourself if it’s all you use
Which format you choose will determine how your viewer’s eye travel throughout your image and the order in which they see its elements. This tendency is what should determine what format you use, your vision, not standard practice.
For example, the horizontal format is best when your subject is spread throughout the frame. But, taller subjects, such as trees and buildings, will often benefit from using a vertical format.
If you’re unsure which format to use, take a photo in both orientations and see how it works. Once you’ve experimented enough, you can settle on your final decision.
When properly leveraged, reflections can elevate your wide-angle pictures. Whether you’re capturing the reflection of a building in a puddle or a mountain on a lake, reflections can bring unique characteristics to your overall composition.
You can use reflections to place your background to your foreground, which can be striking and surreal to viewers. Reflections can also serve to bring symmetry and balance to your composition.
If you want to photograph perfect reflections, shooting at dawn and early mornings tend to be the best. The warming of the air after sunrise will tend to create wind which can ruin smooth reflections.
Puddles may also be a preferable subject as opposed to large bodies of water. The size of small puddles tends to render them still, making them ideal for photographing perfect reflections.
How To Use A Wide Angle Lens In Architecture
Taking photos of architecture is another great way to use wide-angle lenses. The number of surfaces, angles, lines, and how they interact can create a dramatic feel when using a wide-angle lens.
Wide-angle lenses are also essential in cases where you’re photographing a large building and want to capture it in its entirety.
Here are some tips for photographing architecture with wide-angle lenses.
1. Make Sure Your Camera is Leveled
There are two built-in camera tools you can use to level your image: the digital level and the grid overlay.
The digital level will appear on your viewfinder as a horizontal line. Once the line is perfectly horizontal, the camera is level.
You can also use the grid overlay feature that most DSLRs have. I recommend the rule of thirds grid. This grid will have two horizontal and two vertical lines.
Align your horizon with one of the horizontal grid lines, and your camera will be level.
You can find both of these features on the cameras menu or info selection screen.
If you don’t want to use a digital tool to level your image, you can use a physical level. A Physical level attaches to the hot shoe of your camera. Physical levels function similar to traditional landscape or construction levels; when the bubbles reach the center of the holder, the camera is level.
Regardless of what tool you use, be sure that your horizon is level before you start shooting. Once you level the horizon, the rest of the scene will also be level.
Also, make sure to mount your camera on a tripod. Keeping your camera level is nearly impossible without a tripod.
2. Don’t Cut Off Vertical Lines
Vertical lines are essential to the quality of your architecture image. When composing your image do not cut off objects with vertical lines such as tall buildings or trees.
In architecture photography, much of the buildings you photograph will go up and over the horizon. You must capture the full length of these vertical lines to create appealing architecture photography.
Here are a few tips to ensure that you do not cut off vertical lines in your architecture photography.
- Tilt the camera
- Increase the angle of view
- Increase the subject distance
- Raise your viewpoint
- Use specialized gear
Tilt Your Camera
One way to ensure that you don’t cut off the top of your buildings is to tilt your camera upward. Tilting your camera upward allows you to capture the entire building. Images that do not have cutoff buildings are more enticing to viewers. Especially those that display the whole building with the sky in the background.
Keep in mind that if you tilt your camera, the wide-angle lens distortion will become more noticeable.
Tilting your camera upward will cause the vertical lines in your photo to converge towards the top of the building. This distortion will make it appear like the buildings in your frame are leaning backward.
Tilting your camera downward will cause the vertical lines in your photo to converge towards the bottom of the building. This shift will make it appear like the buildings in your frame are about to fall forward.
Although tilting your camera allows you to capture the entire building, it also serves to increase the amount of distortion. Be sure to keep this in mind if you do decide to tilt your camera.
Use a Wider Lens
Another option that will enable you to avoid cutting off objects with vertical lines is using a winder lens.
A wider lens will expand your field of view. The frame of your image will get wider, your objects will appear smaller, and more will fit in your frame.
The wider frame and smaller objects associated with a wider lens will make it easier to encompass the entire building in your frame. In some instances, you may not even need to recompose simply switch to a wider lens, and your building will fit.
This is a very simple way of ensuring that you capture everything you need from a scene.
Keep in mind that, using a wider lens will increase the amount of distortion and vignetting in your image.
Move Away From Your Subject
Taking a step back and zooming out with your feet is a great way to preserve the vertical lines in your photos. Moving away from your subject will increase the distance between you and your subject.
By increasing the distance between you and an object, the object will appear smaller and therefore, easier to fit inside your frame.
This technique is straightforward. If you cant, capture the entire object in your frame, back up and try again. Continue moving backward until the whole building fits inside your frame.
The risk of using this technique is that you can end up with very small subjects with little detail. As you move farther away, small details will become harder to notice.
By moving away and producing smaller subjects with less detail, you reduce the impact of your focal point.
To minimize this risk, you could also use a lens with a longer focal length. A lens with a longer focal length will limit how far you need to be from an object for it to fit inside your frame.
Shot From A Higher Position
Changing your perspective and viewpoint is a great way of being able to capture large objects without distortion. Avoid cutting off objects by getting to a higher location and adjusting your composition.
This can be challenging because there is not always a higher shooting location that can be easily accessed.
When you plan on shooting larger buildings, try to seek out access to higher viewpoints ahead of time. Research the area to determine what opportunities are available ahead of time. Once you found a few potential locations reach out to the owner and request access to their property.
Keep in mind that if you go to high, you risk cutting off the bottom of your objects.
Use a Tilt-Shift Lens
Tilt-shift lenses are great for producing architecture photos with limited distortion. A tilt-shift lens allows you to capture your entire subject in the frame without having to shoot from a higher location or move away from your subject. The special shift feature allows you to keep the same composition but adjust your perspective.
Steps For Using A Tilt-Shift Lens
- Find your subject.
- Chose the location you want to capture your image from.
- Make sure the camera is on a tripod and leveled with the horizon.
- Using the shift adjustment nob, shift lens upwards to include the top of the building in your image.
- Take the photo.
The tilt-shift lens is a must-have for architecture photographers who want to avoid cutting off objects while reducing the amount of distortion in their photos.
Include People In Your Photo
Adding people in your composition is a great way of mixing up the visual elements in your architecture photography.
Formal geometric shapes dominate cityscape photos, and the organic form of human subjects helps soften the structure.
You can also use people as a point of reference to emphasize the immensity of a building. By placing a person near or even on your building, your viewers will be able to put the size of the building into perspective.
How To Use A Wide Angle Lens in Street Photography
Don’t Be Shy
Street photography isn’t something you may initially associate with wide-angle lenses. Shooting undetected and avoid being intrusive on other’s personal space is easier when you’re using a lens with a longer focal length.
That said, many benefits come with using wide-angle lenses in street photography.
Using a short focal length to photograph a human subject requires you to get close. This often forces you to be bold and unafraid to talk to strangers.
Although you may find this to be a dreadful task and not beneficial at all, if you intend to create compelling images, you’ll find that this venture is often a necessary one.
Images of people taken using a long lens often fall short in making a connection with the subject. This is especially true if you’re taking photos secretly.
The emotions and vulnerability of a human subject define the strength of the connection between image and viewer. To achieve this connection, you must be willing to approach and engage your subject.
Zone focus is a way of pre-focusing your camera to a specific range. By doing this, all the images, you capture will be in focus for a specified range. This type of focusing is great for street photographers who need the ability to capture photos very quickly.
There are a few ways you can start zone focusing. Either determine the aperture needed to reach proper exposure or decide on the approximate focus range that you want to shoot at. Once you have decided this, you can begin shooting.
How Zone Focus Works
- Determine the distance that you’ll be reproducing your subject at with your selected lens.
- Determine the acceptable sharpness using a depth-of-field calculator to determine your zone. Everything in this zone will be in focus.
- Focus on an object that falls within your focus range. Deactivate your autofocus and your free to shoot with a constant focal range.
- Wait patiently until a subject passes through the focus zone and snap your image!
This process eliminates the guesswork related to focusing your images even when you’re shooting from the hip.
Context is one of the elements that brings street photography alive. The surroundings and how they interplay with your subject work together to help the storytelling process.
Wide-angle lenses bring a significant amount of context into the frame.
The elements don’t all have to be in focus; the background often isn’t. Blurred objects may still be recognizable and can offer visual context for the subject.
Pay attention to bright elements
Traffic lights, bright neon signs, and car headlights can distract your viewer’s attention away from your main subject(s). This is also true for light reflections on buildings and car windows.
Pay attention and thoughtful of where these bright objects are placed within your frame. Try to place these elements on or around your subject. If you’re unable to, try a different angle and recompose.
Shoot in Early Mornings and Late Afternoons
Paying attention to the quality of ambient light is critical when doing street photography with wide-angle lenses.
The wide-angle lenses capture a lot of contrast, which becomes clear when you’re shooting in the sunlit streets of a city.
You may have part of the street that is deeply shaded, while the other is in the full force of the midday sun. Although this heightened contrast can sometimes enhance your composition, most of the time it impairs it.
One way to soften contrast is by shooting when the sun is low on the horizon. That is during early mornings and late afternoons.
Unlike the harsh light during mid-day, the ambient light during this time is more diffused, ideal for street photography.
How To Use A Wide Angle Lens In Portrait Photography
Pay Attention to Distracting Lines
One of the most common mistakes portrait photographers make is ignoring distracting lines on their subject’s background.
Often, you’ll see vertical lines, such as tree branches exude from a subject’s head. Or a street lamp may appear to be growing from the shoulder of the subject.
Distracting horizontal background lines are also common. For instance, horizon lines emanating placed at eye level.
Because of the wide-angle lens’ broad perspective, it’s easy to include distracting lines in your composition. As such, when using these lenses for portrait photography, you must pay close attention to the contents within your frame.
Use Distortion Creatively
As mentioned previously, wide-angle lenses can cause extreme distortion that isn’t well suited in portrait photography.
The proportions of a person’s face can become distorted, resulting in noses that seem too large.
Peoples heads also tend to become oval or egg-shaped due to the inherent distortion of the lens.
That is not to say, however, that wide-angle lenses don’t have a place in portrait photography.
You can use distortion in portrait photography to create an artistic and unique effect in your image. For instance, some photographers use distortion to exude surreal and comical effects in their photographs.
Wide-angle lenses capture broader scenes. This wide perspective means that there will be more competing elements within your frame, making it difficult to make your subject stand out.
One way to make your subject stand out within a wide scene is through contrast. Contrast is the difference in brightness and darkness in your composition.
Viewers are drawn to brighter elements than darker ones. Thus, making your subject brighter than other elements within your frame will help in making it stand out.
There are plenty of ways you can do this, one of which is by illuminating your subject with light. Another is by dressing your subject in bright-colored clothing and placing them against a dark background.
By making the subject lighter and the background darker, you can effectively separate your subject from the rest of the scene.
Take your portrait images to the next level by creating them in beautiful, natural environments.
Doing an outdoor photoshoot is a great way to create compelling visual stories. It’s also effective in evoking emotions from your audiences, such as nostalgia or inspiration.
When doing these types of shoots, try to photograph your subject in candid motion.
Although capturing moving subjects is much harder than static subjects, doing so often results in more exciting images.
Photographing your subject while they are active and engrossed in their environment is one of the best ways to display a person’s connection towards a place.
If you’re unable to photograph your subject in motion, try photographing them in dynamic poses. This will give your images the illusion of movement where there is none.
You can also do this by accentuating the angles and positions of arms and legs. Highlight the blank space between your subjects’ bodies to make them appear more dynamic.
Positioning your subject this way also helps to accentuate their shape. Emphasizing shape is one of the best ways to create visually stimulating images.
This is especially true when taking pictures of silhouettes. Silhouette subjects lack textural and tonal detail. Thus making their shapes clearly defined is extremely important.
Use Negative Space
Negative space is one of the most important elements in visual arts. It is the space around or between your subject containing little to no detail.
Although it’s tempting when using wide-angle lenses to include as many elements in your frame as possible, this is rarely effective.
Crowded compositions tend to take away your viewer’s attention from your subject. On the other hand, sufficient use of negative space will highlight your subject and make it stand out.
Negative space also provides your viewers with breathing space as they navigate through your photograph. It allows your viewers to focus on your main subject while giving their eyes a place to rest.
Whereas crowded compositions are visually exhausting, minimal compositions are often harmonious and visually pleasing.
If you’re looking for a new lens to expand your photographic work, wide-angle lenses are a great place to start.
Wide-angle lenses can help you produce unique and stunning images, especially if you intend to photograph magnificent scenes. They are a fantastic addition to your camera gear and I strongly recommend checking them out!