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Don't Fear the Wide-Angle Lens

A "normal" focal length lens is straightforward since it has an angle of view reasonably matching that of human vision. Telephoto lenses see what we are used to from binoculars and telescopes. But wide-angle lenses seem be a bit scary at times.

The obvious fact about wide-angle lenses is that they take in so much. Depending on just how wide a lens is, you may be surprised to find your feet or tripod legs intruding into the edges of the frame if you aren't careful. But by seeing such a wide field of view, everything in the frame ends up being tiny if you just stand back and shoot as you would with a more modest focal length. While this is one way to use a wide-angle lens, such images typically end up looking less than satisfactory. Objects appear to be far away, lost in the jumble of other tiny things and lack impact.

To come anywhere near filling the frame when shooting a subject with a wide-angle lens, you'll need to get up close and personal. But as you do, you will no doubt notice that not everything gets bigger at the same rate. The closer something is to the lens, the faster it grows. With a wide enough lens, you may be still be able to focus when only inches from your subject. Try it. No reason to be scared.

Up close and personal with avalanche liliesBut as you get closer, you will probably start to think that your view appears distorted. Things close to your lens will indeed get larger, but objects further away will stay tiny. The sides of buildings seem to converge as they get higher since the top floors are further away than the lower ones. If you're shooting people, their nose will grow faster than the rest of their face since it's the closest part to the lens. If they're sitting down, their knees will be huge with the rest of their bodies smaller. If they're carrying a bit of extra weight around their waist, they'll be mad at you for making their stomach look even bigger. Sorry folks, it's just that it was closer to the lens. To avoid all this, portrait photographers generally steer clear of wide-angle lenses, tending to prefer modest telephoto lenses since they have the opposite effect, making everybody look slimmer. Most people prefer this more flattering perspective.

And perspective is the operative word here. And no, wide angle lenses don't actually have a distorted perspective. If you shoot the same subject from the same distance with a wide-angle lens and with "normal" focal length lens, objects will be rendered identically. The only difference is that the wide-angle view will see a wider view, just as it should. Crop that wide-angle image to match the framing of your "normal" shot, and everything will look the same in each. See, no distortion. What is happening as you get close with a wide-angle lens is that you have to get very close. If you could still focus with a longer lens from that distance, the dramatic changes in relative size would be the same with each. What is often labeled as distortion is an optical affect based on relative distance, not on focal length. The only difference when it comes to focal length is that you can, and should, get close to your subject when shooting wide-angle, whereas you will most likely be far away when shooting telephoto. Different focal lengths naturally lend themselves to use at different distances, and it's the distance that makes the difference.

The secret is to use this affect to your advantage. You can emphasize a subject in its environment simply by getting close. Find an interesting background that spans a good percentage of the horizon. Then look for an interesting foreground subject you can get close to. Your subject doesn't need to be very big either since your proximity to it will make it look larger than life anyway. Even a small patch of wildflowers with a mountain range spread across the horizon behind it has all you need for great picture taking. Maybe you missed the peak wildflower bloom, but with a wide-angle lens you can make even a small surviving patch fill the foreground. Only you need know it wasn't the entire hillside.

If you're having difficulty finding wide-angle compositions, it's only natural. No, really. You're accustomed to see the way your eyes and brain see the world, roughly the way a "normal" medium focal-length lens of around 50mm on a full-frame SLR sees the world. With practice, you will find it easier to notice subjects worth exploring, but in the end, there's no substitute for composing with your camera. Doing so lets you see things at the desired focal length. Simply watch through the viewfinder as you explore your surroundings. Being careful, of course, not to walk into a tree or anything in your zeal. I find that many of my wide-angle shots are made at or near ground level since that's where my most frequent foreground subjects are. This way, I'm usually on all fours crawling around instead of walking. For a change of pace though, feel free to shoot from other heights too. Try exploring an interesting tree trunk some time.

One of my favorite things about shooting wide angles is the vast depth of field that automatically comes with such short focal lengths. Shooting those "deep panoramas" out across the valley is really just a matter of focusing around a third of the way into the frame and stopping down until everything comes into focus. There are formulas and tables out there for hyperfocal focusing, but wide-angle lenses are so forgiving in this area that you may well find you don't really need one. And remember, in this age of instant gratification via the camera back LCD or tethered laptop or tablet, you can and should check your results and adjust as needed. Back in the film era, this sort of thing really was scary as you never really knew what you had shot until days later. Now, there's nothing to fear here since you can tell while still on location if adjustments are needed. If you find you just can't get everything in focus all at once, there's always multi-shot focus stacking. By shooting multiple frames at increasing focus distances and then merging them digitally later, you can achieve any depth of field the gusts of wind and rising sun will permit.

When you're shooting so close to your foreground, even a slight shift of camera position can have a notable impact on composition. Working with a tripod makes it easier to keep everything stationary while you fine tune things and double check the corners for any unwanted surprises such as your camera bag or perhaps the shadow of your tripod leg or even your own foot. Think carefully if you can improve your composition by shifting your camera position slightly or by reorienting your shooting angle. Once you get everything to your liking, fire away. Or, for a change of pace, take advantage of your ability to hand-hold such a short focal length and simply explore through the lens and snap away when you find things to your liking. Or try both approaches. Of be daring and simply hold your camera up near something pointed slightly upward so you can be assured of including your chosen background. Move it around slowly as you fire away blindly. Most such shots probably won't amount to much, but some just may. Or they may at least give you a new idea to explore in a more structured manner with your tripod. Pretty much all composition can benefit from a bit of exploration.

Date posted: September 15, 2019


Copyright © 2019 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Uneven Polarization with Wide Angle Lenses
Working with Perspective, Subject Distance and Focal Length
Going Ultra W-I-D-E
Lens Myths

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