Making the most of a wide angle lens

Making the most of a wide angle lens

A wide-angle lens or ultra-wide angle (UWA) lens is an important part of a photographer’s kit of lenses – particularly landscape photographers. A wide-angle lens lets us view and photograph a wide scene and fit it all into a single rectangular frame.

This all sounds very good, save that there are a few peculiarities about shooting wide angle scenes that can pose a challenge to photographers.

A wide-angle lens gives us a very wide angle of view – often much wider than what we would normally see with our own eyes. It’s not uncommon for ultra wide-angle lenses to give us fields of view exceeding 100 degrees.

When you see the world in such a wide angle, the individual elements that make up the scene can appear small and insignificant; hence, detail tends to get lost or become de-emphasised if you shoot a scene with a wide-angle lens.

Have a look at this image, taken with a wide-angle lens (17mm on a full frame camera). It was taken from a lookout; note that the important things in this image all seem small and insignificant. The further away things are, the smaller they look and the less noticeable they become.

Wide angle landscape of Mt Cook and Lake Pukaki, taken from Peter's Lookout.

The better way to use a wide-angle lens is to shoot and compose to create the impression of depth in your image. This means having elements in the frame that the viewer can visually latch onto and use to“move” into the image, from foreground to background.

For this to work, you need to have a dominant foreground subject or feature, and you need to make sure it dominates the image so that the viewer’s eye will start with this subject and then move into the depths of the frame. To make a foreground subject dominant, you need to shoot close to it – quite often well within 2 to 3 metres from the subject. The wider your angle, the closer you will need to get to the foreground subject, so that you can make it dominant in the frame.

When shooting landscapes, look for this dominant foreground subject; great foreground subjects include objects with texture, colour or which is being lit in a very interesting way – perhaps for strong contrast or perhaps because it is being rim lit. Move in close and focus on this strong foreground subject. If you need to obtain a deep depth of field in your image, then shoot with a smaller aperture (higher f-number) to achieve this.

Here is an image shot with the same wide-angle lens as the one used to take the previous image, but this time with a strong subject dominating the foreground.

Wreck of SS Wyola taken with wide angle lens

When you begin to shoot very close to a subject (in other words, the distance between subject and camera is close), you’ll notice that perspective in your image becomes distorted and objects farther from the foreground subject now appear smaller and farther away. When you use wide angle lenses this way, you begin to warp perspective and create the illusion of great depth and distance in your image. This appearance of distance and depth is achieved because the size of objects further away relative to the strong foreground object decreases.

Don’t believe me? Try this.

Hold your thumb out at arms length and align it with an object about 4 or 5 metres away from you. Close one eye and look at your thumb; note the relative size of your thumb in comparison with this object.

Now, with one eye still closed, bring your thumb close to your open eye, making sure you can still see the object 4-5 metres away. Because your thumb is now closer to you, it seems much larger than the object.

When you transform this into a two-dimensional image, the thumb looks huge and the object will look tiny in comparison, thus giving the impression that it is much further away than it is in reality.

How does this affect your composition when using wide-angle lenses?

  1. Make sure photographs you take with a wide-angle lens include a dominant foreground subject.
  2. Compose for depth and deep perspective – so make sure that there are objects in the scene that will “lead” the viewer’s eye into the depth of the frame.
  3. Check the margins of your frame and make sure there are no distracting elements there. If there are, try recomposing or changing the angle of your shot.
  4. If possible, try and shoot scenes with backgrounds that feature very large and prominent shapes and forms, such as large banks of clouds, a waterfall, a blazing sunset, large hills and mountain ranges. These background shapes will form the backdrop of your landscape image.
  5. Take special care when shooting in wet conditions, such as at cascades or by the sea; because you are framing your image with your camera and lens close to a potentially wet subject, your gear may be exposed to moisture, waves or sea-spray.

Have a look at these wide-angle landscapes that also feature a strong foreground subject:

Wide angle landscape of a harbour at Kamini, Hydra, Greece.

Wide angle landscape featuring a boat at Sanur, Bali

Wide angle landscape at Capo Caccia, Sardinia

If you own a wide-angle lens and haven’t been able to use it successfully, give it a try using the tips in this article. Let us know how you go.

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