Wide-Angle Photography Secrets

Wide-Angle Photography Secrets

Lens characteristics Wide-angle Standard Telephoto
AF speed, accuracy Unimportant Very important Critical
Bokeh (backgrounds) Unimportant Important Important
Flare characteristics Very important Important Unimportant
Performance (wide-open) Relatively unimportant Important Critical
Performance (stopped-down) Critical Important Unimportant

Relative importance of certain lens characteristics at various focal lengths.

The biggest issue with photographing wide-angle is that ....well, it's wide. When you point your lens at a random scene, you'll end up with a lot of things in the composition.. Some items will most likely be dark, while others will be lighter, some will be close, and some will be distant. This presents all sorts of hurdles, and in fact trounces on many of the traditional, techniques, rules, and even some desirable lens traits.

Using a telephoto lens, the field depth is narrow, hand holding long focal lengths is not easy, while most often you're attempting to shoot subjects that don't stay in one spot, meaning that fast and exact focusing is crucial, bad bokeh can have a really objectionable result on most photos, and you'll most likely be shooting with your aperture wide-open a majority of the time in order to diminish camera shake. Conversely, the more narrow viewing field allows you to use deeper hoods to eliminate glare and decrease lens flare. So, when looking for a new telephoto, you may want to swap some the optical quality for quicker focusing speed and preciseness -- or dig deep in your pocket or the extra money for either of the two pretty much alike lenses (e.g. Nikon 70-200 /2.8 II vs the Sigma EX 70-200 /2.8). For wide-angle lenses, the circumstances largely reversed. Read on to find out why.

Rectilinear, Lens lengths and Perspective

I have restricted this topic to wide-angle rectilinear lenses: lenses that render straight lines as being straight (or attempt to, anyway). I've purposely done this because including fisheye lenses would confuse an already complex subject even more -- and additionally because it seems that iwith all the Panorama Tools available, most people shooting with fisheyes usually de-fish them after shooting anyway, making the complications more identical to rectilinear lenses.

Another terminology question relates to the expression of width or lens focal length. With the DSLR crop-factor, this is challenging. I'm going to stay with the accepted convention of using the 35mm equivalent focal lengths here, even at the risk of upsetting members of the 35mm is for tourists society or other nit-picker for accuracy -- primarily because they are known units. If someone tells me "the field of view is 94 degrees", it's technically precise, although leaves me pondering until I figure the math and comprehend "ah, they mean a 24mm lens." So, whenever I generally discuss focal lengths, they'll be the 35mm equivalents. Although, I'll list the related physical focal length of the 1.5x crop factor within [brackets]. (If any Canon, Four Thirds or Point and Shoot users have gotten to this point, no discourtesy is meant; I'm pretty sure that if you were writing this article and you didn't own a Nikon, you'd use 1.6x, 2.0x or 4.8..

Before we continue on, I'd like to put another bit of terminology behind us: perspective. The simple fact is that lenses do not have absolutely anything to do with changing perspective -- Perspective pretty much a result of subject distance. If you place your camera and lens on a sturdy tripod and shoot an identical subject two times at varying focal lengths, and then crop the wider one to match up with the longer one, perspective will stay exactly the same on both photos. Although, as a photographer, you are not very likely to do this (unless as an experiment, such as this): instead, you'll be preoccupied in terms of your subject. Using a wide lens, you'll step in nearer to the subject, using the long lens, you'll step back. This alters the relation linking the subject, background, to the foreground. So, in a strictly practical sagacity, then wide-angle lenses provide you with a "perspective" different than telephoto lenses. When I'm discussing "lens perspective" here, it's this sense. If someone knows of better terminology to sustain the distinction, please tell me!

So What's the big deal about wide-angle?

Wide-angles view the world very dissimilar to standard or telephoto lenses. These differences are from mostly two entities: perspective and field depth. Additionally, wide scenes impart special exposure challenges.

Golden Gate Bridge Wide Angle
Wide angle photograph of the golden Gate Bridge - Notice a little vignetting in the upper right corner

What is wide-angle?

There's no exact line between what's a "normal" length lens and what's a "wide-angle" lens. Naturally, as technology emerges, and even wider lenses are produced, those soft lines can move. Although, to clear things up, let's make some lines in the sand in any case.

We'll make a line at 35mm [24mm]. A lens with more width than this is a true wide-angle. them we'll draw another line at 24mm [16mm]. Any lens with more width than this is ultra-wide. From 35mm [24mm] and wider, you will run into many of the tricky situations and creative opportunity characteristics of wide-angle shooting, while from 24mm [16mm] and wider, you will not be able to obtain acceptable pictures without having awareness of these characteristics -- except perhaps every now and then by accident.

It's been said many times that a 50mm [33mm] lens is fairly accurate of the way the human eye sees the world. While this may be controversial and, maybe even, impossible to validate in one fashion or another, there is some truth to it. Within the typical range of,35 to 90mm [24 to 60mm], scenes usually exhibit about as much substance as one can absorb at any given time, without moving their head.

The relationships linking foreground and background entities appear "correct" or "natural" (although this may be more of a trained artistic principle than anything inherent to how we perceive the world), while objects aren't normally distorted very much, except for those common distortion obtained from portraying three-dimensional objects onto a flat plane, this could be called perspective.

Wide-angle backgrounds are larger. They correspond more to real-life scenarios where you must to twist your head to see all of it. Often They may contain a great many objects at varying distances. Meaning wide-angle photography contains immensely abounding creative opportunities -- Wide-angle can reveal relationships and concurrences that aren't readily apparent to the casual observer; at its finest, the wide-angle photograph will "draw in" the onlooker in a very extraordinary way, quite different than the sense of "seeing composition through the photographer's eyes" that you might get from an exceptional normal-range photo.


The most obvious trait a wide-angle gives is its "overstated" perspective. Simply meaning objects in the background appear further from the foreground objects than they really are. This exaggeration occurs when a wide angle scene is propelled onto a flat surface, and straight lines become rendered as being straight. (A fisheye projection, where the straight lines are permitted to bow, is no less "accurate" than a rectilinear protrusion -- we're just not accustomed to it, while it pops out at us more.) Although, this trait has some not-to-simple and at times counter perceptive effects.

If your composition is ever so slightly off the horizon, verticals will converge and buildings will lean. Personally, I sort of like this attribute : it lends all sorts of creative opportunities. Although, there are those times when you'll simply want to capture a building without any perspective consequence. Of course, post-processing can fix the distortion, although it's always better to do it right in the first place. The way to do this is to position your horizon in the exact middle, shoot, and crop the excess foreground during processing. You'll come out with vertical verticals.

Woodbridge Temple
A really bad example of a 10mm lens looking up with the horizon tilted, But I was close. The shot could be fixed in post processing

Wide-angle ranch style house
Standing on the sidewalk in front of a ranch style house 10-20mm lens at 12mm

Flat objects arranged in an exact perpendicular relationship to the camera result with no distortion. Put a full-size cardboard replica of Alex Baldwin in a corner location of your scene, be sure to place yourself so that you' are perfectly perpendicular to Alex, and shoot. Alex will turn out looking looking just like himself. However, if you dress a friend as Alex Baldwin and place him in the reverse corner, he would turn out gravely distorted. That because he would be in three-dimension, and the cut-out is not.

Field Depth

"Short focal lengths contain just oodles of field depth." That they do. Conversely wide scenes are usually be very deep, which means you'll be needing all of the field depth you can get, if you want everything to stay looking nice and sharp (even if there's nothing attractive soft.) Besides, people see wide-angle pictures much as they see the actual scenes -- with their eyes shifting from one section to another. This relays that portions that are so slightly soft although they should have been sharp are much more displeasing than with telephoto or normal scenes, where those out-of-focus sections are a portion of the overall composition. It takes lots more thinking and hard work to compose a wide-angle setting than it does a telephoto or normal one. More on this to follow.  

Lens Flare

Flare is particularly difficult for shooting wide-angle photography. Due to the wide viewing field, deep hoods cannot be used. it's not all that unusual to have a bright source of light appear either inside the frame or immediately outside it resulting in loss of contrast and flare spots. The wide-angle lens unable to handle flare gracefully can be badly crippled in a number of shooting situations -- and as the photographer you must always consider flare; either you work it into your composition or make an attempt to diminish it while you're composing. For instance, if you plan on cropping anyway, you could go ahead and use your hand to shade the lens, even though this may place your hand in photo in the part you plan on cropping out.

Sun glare of the watter The sun is glaring off the in the frame. There are some flare spots visible, although they do not badly distract. Many lenses would've had a seriously hard time coping with this scene. Note the low-key detail retained in the very dark areas of the wall.

What's wide-angle good for?

Although the "traditional" uses for a wide-angle lens is in architectural and landscape and photography (and, while, many technical tips found below are best applied to that sort of work), by no means are wide-angles limited to this. In particular, wide angles are fantastic for interior and un-staged street photography, while they even their uses in portraiture.

Landscape Photography

Half Moon Bay Beach
Half Moon Bay Beach with Ritz Carlton hotel up on the bluff during a Pacific Coast overcast morning

It's my opinion that nothing can portray a landscape splendor quite as favorably as simply a good wide-angle photo. Landscape photography is infinitely challenging and enormously demanding, both of photography gear and technique : landscapes are many times best treasured as large prints, while they are unforgiving with technical and technique shortcomings. Serious landscape photographers always use a tripod and remote shutter release (or a self-timer) which are crucial.

Although, good light and an innovative eye for making the complex simple are even more imperative: never let not having a tripod keep you from photographing a spectacular landscape -- By taking some care, odds are that no one but you will pay any attention the technical substitutions you had to undergo.

For profound landscape photography, the crucial lens characteristic is stopped-down performance: and most important is evenness across the image frame, and the resolution. For instance, the Sigma 10-20 excels at this sort of shooting -- it's tack-sharp, while the bigger-than-normal barrel distortion won't make a lot of difference for this kind of application.  

Architecture Photography

Half Moon Bay Hotel
Ritz Carlton Hotel at Half Moon Bay - There's nothing wrong with the left side of the photo,
that's just fog rolling in from the ocean

An architectural photo is a joint effort by the the photographer and the architect. Wide-angle is essential for the purpose: no other lens has the capacity to acquire architectural as a whole. Similar to landscapes, stopped-down operation is crucial. Although, due to the "greater" detail that exists in architecture, contrast takes precedence over resolution, and while the profusion of straight lines, minimal distortion is highly essential. (Although, this has become way less important now that there are utilities like Panorama Tools and PhotoShop to fix this post production.) Even greater than for landscape photography, or architecture, nothing is ever too wide: the Sigma 10-20 never let's me down for this type shooting, at least for an APS-C cameras.

Situational Photography - Shooting things as they exist rather than manipulating the shooting arrangements

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