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7 Ways to Get More Out of a Wide-angle Lens

Understanding Lenses: Part I, and is the second in a series of lessons about camera lenses. You can read the first article link to first article here.

Wide angle lenses 1

If you were to only ever use one lens a wide-angle would be an excellent choice. For many years, before I switched to digital, I used a 24mm lens almost exclusively with a simple film SLR. I loved that lens because it helped me take many beautiful and dramatic images.

The good news is that you can do the same with your wide-angle lenses, or the widest focal lengths on a kit lens. All that’s needed is an understanding of how to make the most out of that wonderful piece of glass attached to your camera.

What is a wide-angle lens?

A wide-angle lens provides a wider angle of view that what you can see with your own eyes. On a full-frame or film camera that’s any focal length wider than about 40mm. On an APS-C camera that’s focal lengths wider than around 25mm, or 20mm with the micro four-thirds format.

Wide-angle lenses have a couple of characteristics that you can exploit to take better photos:

  1. They exaggerate perspective, making things close to the lens look nearer than they are, and things in the distance look smaller. This stretches the sense of distance and scale. The shorter the focal length, the greater the effect.
  2. They have more depth-of-field at any given aperture than longer lenses. This helps you keep everything within the frame, or at least the most important elements, in sharp focus. It also means that accurate focusing isn’t so critical.

Making the most out of wide-angle lenses

Here are my tips for making the most out of your wide-angle lenses. If you’ve got any tips of your own, why not add them to the comments? I’m curious to see how readers use their wide-angles, and I’m expecting some links to some amazing images.

1. Foreground interest

Wide angle lenses 2

This applies primarily to landscape photography. It’s a good idea to make sure there is something interesting in the foreground for the viewer to look at. Otherwise there may be too much empty space and the image becomes boring. The photo above is a good example. Can you imagine how it would look without the people in the foreground? Without the human figures, there is no photo – just a monotonous expanse of white.

2. Environmental portraiture

Wide angle lenses 3

Wide-angle lenses let you take portraits and include the model’s surroundings at the same time. It’s a technique used by portrait, documentary and fashion photographers to tell a story. The setting is just as interesting as the person in the photo. It’s the opposite approach of using a telephoto lens and a wide aperture to blur the background.

3. Take photos inside your car

Wide angle lenses 4

It’s been done dozens of times before, but I couldn’t resist trying it for myself. To create this photo I attached my camera to a tripod, leant the whole thing against the passenger seat and wrapped the tripod and camera straps around the seat to hold it steady. I drove around our local area at dusk using a remote release to take photos.

Wide-angle lenses are idea for taking photos in any enclosed space, where it would be impossible to capture an image with a longer focal length.

4. Using lines

Wide angle lenses 5

Lines are a powerful compositional tool. The lines in this image take the viewer’s eye from the front of the image to the back and the mountains on the horizon. The wide-angle lens exaggerates the sense of scale and adds to the power of the lines. Training yourself to look for lines, and exploiting them in your photos with a wide-angle lens will help you create more dramatic images.

5. Converging verticals

Wide angle lenses 6

In a similar way to exploiting line, you can tip your camera backwards when taking photos of buildings to utilise the effect of converging verticals to add drama and interest to the image. You can tip the camera back a little, like I’ve done here, or a lot to get a snail’s eye view and really take advantage of the effect.

6. The human element

Wide angle lenses 7

Wide-angle lenses help you place a human element in a landscape photo. Here, the people in this seascape are small in the frame, adding a sense of scale and mystery. I asked my model to remain still throughout the 30 second exposure, so the sea and the children playing on the rocks in the distance were rendered as a blur.

7. Documentary photography

Wide angle lenses 8

Finally, wide-angle lenses are also useful for documentary photography. I took this photo during a parade in a remote town in South America. The wide-angle lens helped me capture the scene by fitting lots into the frame. The lens was fairly small, so I was able to take photos without anybody taking any notice of me. I stopped down so accurate focusing wasn’t critical which gave me the freedom to concentrate on composition and capturing the moment.

Understanding Lenses: Part I

Wide angle lenses 9

If you liked this article then take a look at my latest eBook, Understanding Lenses: Part I – A guide to Canon wide-angle and kit lenses. In the next lesson I’m going to look at lens aberrations – what they are and how to correct them in-camera or in Raw processing.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks and he's giving two of them away. Sign up to his monthly newsletter to receive complementary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Chris

    They exaggerate perspective, making things close to the lens look nearer than they are, and things in the distance look smaller. This stretches the sense of distance and scale. The shorter the focal length, the greater the effect.

    Oh no, not again. If you keep the same distance from your subject there is no effect at all! Perspective depends on subject distance, not focal length. Please, people, stop spreading this misconception!

  • Arturomar

    @chris:

    Can you explain your point a little further?

    It seems to me that if I keep the same distance from my subject but change my 10mm lens for my 300mms telephoto I’m going to have a very diferent perspective.

    Or maybe you are trying to say that there is only changes on sizes but not perspective, for example, if there is an object behind my foreground object I will never see it changing lenses but I will if I walk sideways enough and this action is what changing perspective is about.

  • http://gepimages.com Garry Eller

    I have been a photographer for 15 years. 13 of those were shooting racing all across North America. I just came across your blog today and I look forward to future information. Its good to see a post on using leading lines with a wide-angle lens. I had an art background before I ever picked up a camera. These principles transferred over for me and I have since enjoyed a 17mm or 24mm in creating interesting wide photos. Thanks again.

  • http://www.martinspencephotography.co.uk Martin Spence

    Interesting read…

    What is the best way to compose portrait shots with a wide angle so that the person doesn’t appear distorted?

  • http://www.gingerman.co.uk Steve

    “A wide-angle lens provides a wider angle of view that what you can see with your own eyes”

    ( I’m sorry the article is interesting and useful, but this is a silly throwaway inaccurate statement )

    Try using your fingers to work out your field of view – even with 1 eye its’ about 160º in my estimation.

  • Dan

    This needs to be clear and specify that, for demonstation purposes, the two theoretical images at different focal lengths need to be framed identically to easily undersand what Chris and the author seem to be in disagreement about. Focal length does indeed affect perspective, but the effect of focal length in reliant on the distance from subject. For example, if you shoot a model with a 200mm lens, head to toe shot, you will be X distance from the model so that he/she can fit head to toe in the shot. Now switch to a 35mm lens. The perspective will be drastically different without moving an inch, but to replicate the same framing, you will have to move much closer to your subject. The effect on perspective cannot really be compared well unless you move to create an identically framed shot. Once you move close enough to your model to frame them the same as in the 200mm shot, then you will really see the drastic difference in perspective that is caused by changing your distance from the subject. So while different focal lengths are necessary to and contribute the change in relationship between the model, the foreground and the background, it is the movement of your feet, in a photo framed identically, that ultimately affects perspective (compression and perceived distance of foreground and background in relation to subject) the most. So, all things equal framing-wise, a subject and their foreground will look nearer with a wide-angle lens than with a telephoto lens, just like with a telephoto lens the background will look closer, but this will be because you moved the camera to replicate the same shot. If you don’t do that, then we are talking about two different things, or at least it is much more difficult to understand how distance, focal length, foreground and background are related and which factors have the primary effect on the image. Does not all make sense? I know I sort of jumbled that all into one awful paragraph. Excuse my disregard for any sort of formatting or proofreading.

  • Arturomar

    If you change lenses keeping the same distance and position from your subject you’ll always have the same point of view, you’ll never see anything different, just the same things whith different framing and sizes.

    Now if you change your position either by aproaching your subject or around it or in whatever direction, you’ll start seeing things that you couldn’t see while changing lenses thus effectively changing perspective.

    So, chris is right.

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog Andrew S Gibson

    Thanks for your feedback regarding perspective and distance guys. I’ll go into those topics in a little more depth in my next guest posts.

  • JenR

    1. Foreground interest

    Photo is photoshopped rather than forced perspective. I really liked this photo until I noticed the bg didn’t have shadows. Unless they were PS out of the photo.

  • http://blog.tonivaughan.com Toni Vaughan

    Andrew- I recently bought the Canon 10-22 wide angle zoom and find myself using it almost exclusively since. Love this lens! Here is an example of an environmental portrait I did recently with it. [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonivaughan/6909215480/' title='Windy Bill.jpg' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7042/6909215480_6b3b68f9d4.jpg']

    This is another shot with the wide angle….
    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonivaughan/6909221970/' title='Red Pickup.jpg' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7204/6909221970_df5aeb482d.jpg']

    Thanks for the post.. By the way I have your ebook and think it’s very good, am waiting for part 2.

  • http://www.brianpowell.info Brian Powell

    Hey arguing guys…

    It’s semantics. You’re getting “point of view” and “perspective” confused. If you knew the difference, you would see the author used the correct term correctly.

    Everything equal, focal length DOES IN FACT change “perspective”. Not point of view. Focal length and also angle (esp. with wide angles) change perspective lines. No, you don’t all of the sudden see something that was once hidden behind the subject -if you don’t move- but you do of course see more of the scene.

    To add to the confusion, wide angles *do* show very different lines/scale when you are closer versus farther away from subjects. So there is some overlap in your argument (you’re not disagreeing there). This is one of the shortcomings of wide angles, IMO. The farther away you are from your subject, and the wider the lens, the more things are distorted to be larger/weirder on the edges and smaller (I mean TINY) in the middle.

    If you still don’t understand, google ‘perspective in art’ and click the wikipedia link.

    Again, the keys are distance to subject, distance of subject to background, AND YES focal length matters to “perspective”. A 200mm lens will foreshorten a scene, changing the relationship of the vanishing point to the foreground elements, where a wider lens (24mm) will elongate that relationship.

    PS- Missed a key point about wides though — they’re great for getting CLOSER, not just getting more in the frame. No, not the funny looking super close fisheye portraits with big noses, but documentary and journalistic shooting. You can get close but still retain a lot of the scene/context, which is what I do with my 16-35mm all the time at weddings.. It’s the reason the main lens for photojournalists has traditionally been the 35mm.

  • ron heferen

    i have taken photo from the, tv with a [ sigma af-mf zoom lense 70-300 f4-5.6 dg macro ] on auto with anickon d800 , and the photo came out 1 class . ron

  • ron heferen

    i have taken photo from the, tv with a [ sigma af-mf zoom lense 70-300 f4-5.6 dg macro ] on auto with nickon d800 , and the photo came out 1 class . ron

  • Molly

    I’m still an amateur when it comes to photography, but constantly learning! After a trip I recently took, I was wishing I had a wide-angle lens. I’ve been reading articles like this, which are making me want one even more! My issue is that I don’t have a large budget to drop on a lens… am I correct that I’m not going to find a wide-angle lens for less than $300-400?

  • Guest

    Excellent descriptions of how to use a wide angle lense. Some ideas on how to tell a story with my images.

  • Darryl Lora

    Dam! You ALWAYS give out such good tips and articles……10/10 for this one, and for the other one, and for the other one, and for the……………..

Some older comments

  • Molly

    August 20, 2013 12:02 am

    I'm still an amateur when it comes to photography, but constantly learning! After a trip I recently took, I was wishing I had a wide-angle lens. I've been reading articles like this, which are making me want one even more! My issue is that I don't have a large budget to drop on a lens... am I correct that I'm not going to find a wide-angle lens for less than $300-400?

  • ron heferen

    October 12, 2012 09:24 am

    i have taken photo from the, tv with a [ sigma af-mf zoom lense 70-300 f4-5.6 dg macro ] on auto with nickon d800 , and the photo came out 1 class . ron

  • ron heferen

    October 12, 2012 09:18 am

    i have taken photo from the, tv with a [ sigma af-mf zoom lense 70-300 f4-5.6 dg macro ] on auto with anickon d800 , and the photo came out 1 class . ron

  • Brian Powell

    August 28, 2012 02:44 am

    Hey arguing guys...

    It's semantics. You're getting "point of view" and "perspective" confused. If you knew the difference, you would see the author used the correct term correctly.

    Everything equal, focal length DOES IN FACT change "perspective". Not point of view. Focal length and also angle (esp. with wide angles) change perspective lines. No, you don't all of the sudden see something that was once hidden behind the subject -if you don't move- but you do of course see more of the scene.

    To add to the confusion, wide angles *do* show very different lines/scale when you are closer versus farther away from subjects. So there is some overlap in your argument (you're not disagreeing there). This is one of the shortcomings of wide angles, IMO. The farther away you are from your subject, and the wider the lens, the more things are distorted to be larger/weirder on the edges and smaller (I mean TINY) in the middle.

    If you still don't understand, google 'perspective in art' and click the wikipedia link.

    Again, the keys are distance to subject, distance of subject to background, AND YES focal length matters to "perspective". A 200mm lens will foreshorten a scene, changing the relationship of the vanishing point to the foreground elements, where a wider lens (24mm) will elongate that relationship.

    PS- Missed a key point about wides though -- they're great for getting CLOSER, not just getting more in the frame. No, not the funny looking super close fisheye portraits with big noses, but documentary and journalistic shooting. You can get close but still retain a lot of the scene/context, which is what I do with my 16-35mm all the time at weddings.. It's the reason the main lens for photojournalists has traditionally been the 35mm.

  • Toni Vaughan

    August 27, 2012 02:53 am

    Andrew- I recently bought the Canon 10-22 wide angle zoom and find myself using it almost exclusively since. Love this lens! Here is an example of an environmental portrait I did recently with it. [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonivaughan/6909215480/' title='Windy Bill.jpg' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7042/6909215480_6b3b68f9d4.jpg']

    This is another shot with the wide angle....
    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonivaughan/6909221970/' title='Red Pickup.jpg' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7204/6909221970_df5aeb482d.jpg']

    Thanks for the post.. By the way I have your ebook and think it's very good, am waiting for part 2.

  • JenR

    August 26, 2012 02:56 am

    1. Foreground interest

    Photo is photoshopped rather than forced perspective. I really liked this photo until I noticed the bg didn't have shadows. Unless they were PS out of the photo.

  • Andrew S Gibson

    August 25, 2012 09:47 am

    Thanks for your feedback regarding perspective and distance guys. I'll go into those topics in a little more depth in my next guest posts.

  • Arturomar

    August 25, 2012 12:56 am

    If you change lenses keeping the same distance and position from your subject you'll always have the same point of view, you'll never see anything different, just the same things whith different framing and sizes.

    Now if you change your position either by aproaching your subject or around it or in whatever direction, you'll start seeing things that you couldn't see while changing lenses thus effectively changing perspective.

    So, chris is right.

  • Dan

    August 25, 2012 12:29 am

    This needs to be clear and specify that, for demonstation purposes, the two theoretical images at different focal lengths need to be framed identically to easily undersand what Chris and the author seem to be in disagreement about. Focal length does indeed affect perspective, but the effect of focal length in reliant on the distance from subject. For example, if you shoot a model with a 200mm lens, head to toe shot, you will be X distance from the model so that he/she can fit head to toe in the shot. Now switch to a 35mm lens. The perspective will be drastically different without moving an inch, but to replicate the same framing, you will have to move much closer to your subject. The effect on perspective cannot really be compared well unless you move to create an identically framed shot. Once you move close enough to your model to frame them the same as in the 200mm shot, then you will really see the drastic difference in perspective that is caused by changing your distance from the subject. So while different focal lengths are necessary to and contribute the change in relationship between the model, the foreground and the background, it is the movement of your feet, in a photo framed identically, that ultimately affects perspective (compression and perceived distance of foreground and background in relation to subject) the most. So, all things equal framing-wise, a subject and their foreground will look nearer with a wide-angle lens than with a telephoto lens, just like with a telephoto lens the background will look closer, but this will be because you moved the camera to replicate the same shot. If you don't do that, then we are talking about two different things, or at least it is much more difficult to understand how distance, focal length, foreground and background are related and which factors have the primary effect on the image. Does not all make sense? I know I sort of jumbled that all into one awful paragraph. Excuse my disregard for any sort of formatting or proofreading.

  • Steve

    August 24, 2012 09:51 pm

    "A wide-angle lens provides a wider angle of view that what you can see with your own eyes"

    ( I'm sorry the article is interesting and useful, but this is a silly throwaway inaccurate statement )

    Try using your fingers to work out your field of view - even with 1 eye its' about 160º in my estimation.

  • Martin Spence

    August 24, 2012 06:24 pm

    Interesting read...

    What is the best way to compose portrait shots with a wide angle so that the person doesn't appear distorted?

  • Garry Eller

    August 24, 2012 01:45 pm

    I have been a photographer for 15 years. 13 of those were shooting racing all across North America. I just came across your blog today and I look forward to future information. Its good to see a post on using leading lines with a wide-angle lens. I had an art background before I ever picked up a camera. These principles transferred over for me and I have since enjoyed a 17mm or 24mm in creating interesting wide photos. Thanks again.

  • Arturomar

    August 24, 2012 06:05 am

    @chris:

    Can you explain your point a little further?

    It seems to me that if I keep the same distance from my subject but change my 10mm lens for my 300mms telephoto I'm going to have a very diferent perspective.

    Or maybe you are trying to say that there is only changes on sizes but not perspective, for example, if there is an object behind my foreground object I will never see it changing lenses but I will if I walk sideways enough and this action is what changing perspective is about.

  • Chris

    August 24, 2012 01:14 am

    They exaggerate perspective, making things close to the lens look nearer than they are, and things in the distance look smaller. This stretches the sense of distance and scale. The shorter the focal length, the greater the effect.

    Oh no, not again. If you keep the same distance from your subject there is no effect at all! Perspective depends on subject distance, not focal length. Please, people, stop spreading this misconception!

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