Going Ultra W-I-D-E
I love wide angle lenses. I'll admit it. There's nothing like getting right up close and personal with a mountain wildflower. But there's a lot more to getting a good wide angle shot than just that.
The human eye sees things about the same way as a standard 50mm lens on a full frame camera. You could call this more or less an "average" focal length. Indeed, this is the reason why such lenses are called average focal lengths. Lenses with a shorter focal length are therefore wide angle lenses. But not all wide angles are created equal. There are wide angle lenses, and then there are really wide angle lenses. And then there are really, really wide angle lenses. The wider you go, the more dramatic the results you can get, but the more challenging the shooting.
The first shot most people take with a wide angle lens is generally taken in a pinch when there isn't room to back up more with a regular lens, or simply because the camera in question has a zoom lens on it and the shooter feels like standing his ground and not backing up. In either case, the compositional priority is simply one of getting more to fit within the frame. After all, when you look through a wide angle lens, that's the obvious characteristic you notice first. Such a lens takes in a wide angle of view so you see more.
But images shot this way miss the point of a wide angle lens in my opinion. The fascinating thing about a wide angle lens isn't that it takes in a lot, it's that you can get up close and personal with your subject while still having a far away background that remains in focus. And the wider your lens is the closer you can get and still achieve this.
Talking about focal lengths for lenses is more confusing in this age of digital than it was back when most everyone shot 35mm film. Now we talk of "35mm equivalent" focal lengths though to compensate for differences in sensor size and agree on a yardstick that allows us to talk about focal length regardless of what you shoot with and what I shoot with. In such terms, focal lengths longer than around 35mm are generally lumped together with more "average" focal lengths such as the standard 50mm point of view. A standard wide angle lens could be considered anything from around 35mm down to perhaps 24mm. Wider than 24mm you start to enter the world of the ultra wide lens. It is these "ultra wide" angle shots that I am concerned with here.
To get the best results with an ultra wide angle lens you have to pay careful attention to your shooting position. Too far away and your subject won't fill the frame. But when shooting really close even a tiny shift of position will have a huge effect. When you're really close it's not just the size of your subject that will seem exaggerated. Move your camera a half inch to one side or the other and it will look like a mile. OK, now I'm the one exaggerating, but it will look like a lot more than half an inch. In such circumstances, close attention to detail is needed to get the best composition. Take your time, and think about what you are doing. Pay attention to the entire frame too, not just your subject. An ultra wide lens takes in a lot and sometimes this just might include your own shadow or the corner of the camera bag you thought was completely out of the line of fire.
Optimizing your position means paying attention to where you shoot from in all three dimensions. When seeking what will work best, handhold your camera and move around while looking through the viewfinder. Move left and right, forward and back as well as up and down. Watch what happens to your composition. Learn what effect movement in each of these axes has on what you see so that next time you will be even better prepared to work in the world of ultra wide angles. Once you find the position that you like best, set up your tripod so you can hold things still. Depth of field with wide angle lenses can be pretty impressive but you will probably still need to stop the lens down if your background is far away.
Effectively using an ultra wide angle lens also requires boldness. The timid need not apply. If you want to stand back and shoot things stick with a more normal focal length. If you want to use a really wide lens you have to be willing to go for the gusto. Get right up on top of your subject. Don't be shy. You might start out keeping a respectful distance, but as you work, try to see how far you can push things. That's what an ultra wide lens is all about. Make the most of the opportunity.
I enjoy lying down on the ground in front of a small cluster of flowers with a beautiful mountain vista in the background and settle in for some shooting. With the light from the setting or rising sun changing as I work, I can shoot away for quite a while. If you've never done this, give it a try and see what all the fun is about.