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Today Joe Decker shares some tips on wide angle photography.
One of the first lens purchases aspiring landscape photographers typically made is a wide or super-wide lens, anything (in full-frame 35mm terms) from 24mm on down, and with good reason, wides offer photographers the ability to capture the sweeping vistas of the natural landscape. But they can also be a challenge to use effectively, it’s all to easy to end up with a wide-angle shot that lacks the power and grandeur we felt when we were shooting. In this article, I’ll explain why that’s so often the case, and provide a few tips for working around those challenges, showing you how to use wide-angle lenses to create dramatic, effective images.
Because wide-angle lenses take in a bigger angle-of-view than other lenses, using a wide-angle lens at the same distance from your subject will render that subject smaller than it would otherwise. To compensate for this, you’ll have to move closer to your subject. Don’t be bashful about getting close, particularly with super-wides&mash;it’s almost impossible to get “too close” to your subject with a 14mm lens. This emphasis in size that wide-angle lenses give nearby objects means that …
Contrary to what you might expect, this means that the most important element of your wide-angle landscapes is the foreground. While wide-angle lenses do capture the wider landscape, they also (almost inevitably, because of their wide field-of-view) capture quite a bit of foreground as well, and this foreground is emphasized by the wide-angle perspective. As a result, if your foreground isn’t interesting, your photograph won’t be interesting. This leads us naturally to the Josef Muench idea of the near-far composition, an image which uses a wide-angle lens to not only show a broad vista, but also to show one detail of that landscape in an up-close, intimate way. When you’re photographing wide, be sure to spend some time looking for the most interesting foreground available to combine with your grand vista. (If there isn’t an interesting foreground, you might want to consider using a longer lens to leave out that less interesting foreground.)
Wide-angle lenses tend to bend and distort verticals, as you can see in the tree trunks near the top of Fallen Redwoods. Now, you might decide you like that effect, or that you hate it, but it’s important to be aware of it and to make a conscious decision about it. For some images it’s fun to embrace, but more often I find myself having to work to avoid it or correct it later. Avoiding it can be as simple a matter as composing so that there’s only a single obvious vertical (and that that’s vertical), alternatively, using shift movements with a tilt-shift lens can correct some of this distortion in-camera. Post-exposure, Photoshop’s “Lens Distort” filter can also save the day.
Compositionally, lines (such as streams or railway tracks) leading from the bottom corners of an image towards the center often have a particular magic for guiding the viewers eye through the picture, making for strong images, and this is particularly the case for wide-angle images. Hot Stream is a great example of this, the viewers eye tends to wander from the corner back through the image along the stream. As the stream moves back into the image, the stream gets smaller (in terms of inches on the printed page) quickly due the wide perspective. This quick fade (in width) into the distance creates a real sense of depth in the image.
Shooting wide creates two problems for those of us who use filters. Polarizers are a specific problem, the effect of a polarizer on a blue sky varies across the sky so greatly that wide-angle images including the sky are left horribly unnatural, so leave off the polarizer unless you know there’s no blue sky in your scene. Screw-in filters are a separate problem, it’s all too easy for the filter edges, particularly if you’re stacking more than one filter on the same lens. Filter systems, such Cokin’s P-series filters (with the wide-angle filter holder), can help you avoid these problems if you must use filters.
One of the things I enjoy most about working with wide-angle lenses is the ease of focusing them. As you move to wider and wider focal lengths, the depth-of-field at a particular aperture gets deeper and deeper. This allows you to make great use of the concept of hyperfocal distance, that is, the nearest distance you can focus a particular lens at a particular aperture and get “good focus”. At 24mm, by focusing about six feet out from the camera you’ll capture everything from about three feet to infinity in focus—even at f/11. At 17mm, focusing at the right point at f/11 will get you everything from infinity down to 17 inches away. Find (using a web site like this or any of a number of other sites, software tools or printed tables) and write down the hyperfocal distance for a couple of your widest lenses at a couple of your favorite apertures, and you’ll have an easy way of bringing the entire scene of near-far compositions into critical focus.
Using wide-angle lenses can certainly be tricky, but I love them all the same. Used well they can allow the photographer to create images that immerse us in a world with both small, intimate details and bold, dramatic vistas.