How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens for People Photography

How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens for People Photography

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Wide-angle lenses are indispensable in travel photography. When I organize photo tours, I find that each and every trip has a storytelling component. Almost always, we as photographers, strive to not only describe a situation, but tell a tale, and when it’s about people, we want to tell the audience the story of the hero in the center of it. We want to draw the viewer in so far that they can sense it, breathing the very scents of the scene.

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There is an ideal tool for this type of need; the wide-angle lens that normally ranges (on a full frame camera) from about 21mm to 35mm. It has a variety of advantages; you can get close to people, evoke a sense of immersion in the viewer, and get people and objects in focus with minimal effort.

I normally use FUJI X cameras which have APS-C sized sensors. As this sensor is smaller than full frame, if you want to translate the focal length of the lens from full frame (a size of sensor similar to that of 35mm film cameras), you will have to multiply it by 1.5 times. Thus an 18mm lens on full frame is LIKE a 27mm lens on a cropped sensor (18 x 1.5 = 27).

In this article, when I refer to a focal length, for example 24mm, I am referring to the length on full frame. A focal length of 24mm on a full frame camera will act like a 36mm on the Fuji ASP-C sensor.

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The difficulty inherent in the wide-angle lens is that it forces you to be very conscious of the distortions it produces. When photographing people, it also requires you to get close to the subject, which can be uncomfortable for most amateurs.

If you are looking for the dream location to take the wide-angle lens for a spin, it’s India, specifically Benares. It’s a scenario full of detail, with dramatic first planes of foregrounds, colorful seconds, smells, activity, and noise. It’s a great big beautiful mess, and there are always extraordinarily attractive people to photograph.

With wide-angle, the typical range goes from 21mm to 35mm, although some photographers use up to 18mm when photographing people. The famous photo agency Reuters published its best photos of 2013, and if you read the blurb under each, you’ll see that 80% of them were taken with a 24mm wide-angle lens. With a quality prime 24mm lens, the distortion of the outside lines is not as much of an issue.

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Between the photo tours I organize in India, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Cuba (among other places), I recognize that I have a special predilection for Varanasi. By what I can see in the data from my Adobe Lightroom software, is that 73% of the photos I take are done with a 18mm lens. I also use – despite the fact that it requires a lot of skill when dealing with people as subjects – a Zeiss 12mm, which is the equivalent of an 18mm on APS-C format.

It isn’t only that wide-angle lenses open the shot more, the viewer gets more information inside the frame, and the wide-angle lens allows for a much more natural view (it is argued among experts as to whether a 28mm or a 35mm is the most natural point of view).

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Wide-angle has a series of advantages, but – as aforementioned – not without also presenting an inconvenience; it does have a great tendency to deform the outlines, like on images of people. Also, it does require a specific and honed technique to get the best photos from it. In the majority of cases you have to get close to the subject in order to get dramatic results, as well as getting a notable depth of field, and this is something that creates yet more issues for photographers who are not accustomed to getting up close and personal with people.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of the wide-angle lens.

Wide-angle lens characteristics

Distortion of the point of view

A 24mm lens, if it is not used properly, will deform outlines and produce exaggerations. If the lens is not good quality, you will see a curvature in some parts of the photo instead of straight lines. In some type of photography this exaggeration of the lines is considered a creative argument and can add a dreamy look to a picture. This works fine from time to time, specially if you do not over do it.

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The best approach to this possible issue is to be aware of the horizontal position of your camera and avoid, as much as possible, tilting it up or down. Having the camera on an horizontal plane parallel to the ground helps.

Distortion of the vertical axis

It is important to take your time situating the camera critically with respect to the vertical axis. This is why whenever I use a wide-angle lens I change my position (camera height) with respect to ground level. Using a wide-angle lens 50cm (19.7″) off the ground isn’t the same as being one meter (39″), or one meter eighty high (5.9 feet). I normally try a few levels to find the position that will give me the best angle, though I recognize that with practice you can understand this process before actually having to go through trial and error.

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I am always very aware of at least one vertical line in a picture taken with a wide lens. It can be a street corner, a mast, a raised arm. The vertical reference can many times be the anchor, the basic reference of the picture, the nail of the whole image. The best way to ruin a good picture is to show a bent mast where the viewer clearly expects, and knows, that it should be straight and distortion has been created by your position taking the picture. On many modern cameras you can set your viewfinder to display a grid. This will allow you to see through the display and organize the lines of the whole set with the vertical and horizontal references that are visible.

High and low angle

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A high camera angle consists of taking in the subject or the scene from top to bottom, situated on high ground from the objects you want to photograph. When using a low angle, you would be taking a photo from bottom to top from a point below what you want to photograph. As well as getting a more original point of view, a lot of times it is used as a technique to augment the distortion and highlight different parts of the subject. Honestly, I would use it with a lot of caution, here’s why:

If you have seen the movies of Orson Wells you will remember the scenes which evoke feelings of dreaminess – or sometimes nightmares. Wells loved to use the emphatic form made by shooting from a high angle far above the subject, and the low angle doing just the opposite. Anyone who has seen his movies knows perfectly how much distortion it produced, as he used it to create very specific environments. If you use extreme high and low angles, you will get this effect as well.

Depth of field, getting everything in focus

Depth of field is important if you want everything in focus. With an 18mm lens it’s difficult to get a photo that has shallow depth of field or less of the scene in focus. With an aperture of f/5.6, it will keep practically everything in focus from a distance of one meter (3.3 feet) to infinity. This makes it interesting and convenient if you want to take pictures without even focusing.

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A lot of street photographers shoot this way – focus at two meters (6.6 feet) with an aperture of f/5.6. From there, you already know that if you keep a set distance from the subject, everything will be reasonably in focus. This can save you lots of time in situations were you do not have much time to focus properly or you find that your automatic focus behaves erratically.

The originality of the plane and of the frame

With an extreme wide-angle lens, once your eye is trained, you can offer a rather original vision of reality. In real life we do not see wider than 50mm. Going beyond this, 28mm, 24mm, 21mm, 18mmm, creates a kind of unreal feeling. Lines exaggerate their proximity or separation, the foreground seems tremendous (large) in relation to the background. The relative size of objects differs from what we normally sense. If we add to all this the depth of field characteristic and the possible distortions, we do have a creative weapon that should be used with great care! As much as we are surprised by an original point of view, we get bored by seeing to many wide-angle lens distortions.

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Proximity to the subject

This will give the viewer a strong feeling of being there, of immersion into the scene. In possibly half of the photographs that I take with a wide-angle lens, the distance to the subject is less than two meters (6.6 feet). In documentary style photography – not necessarily photographing landscapes – a wide-angle lens rewards closeness with a subject, as it results in a rather impressive image. Great photographs are done with a 18mm lens and have been made from a distance of less than one meter (3.3 feet) from the subject. This is typically done by getting the subject in the third of the frame and allowing the viewer to observe what is happening at the second plane. You should be specially aware of the way your lens behaves; the nearer the subject to the edge of the frame, the bigger optical distortion you will get. Also remember what has been said about the way to hold your camera to avoid distortion; vertical and horizontal axes as well as the tilting issue.

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Many photographers feel uncomfortable getting this close. But, if you like photographing people, a wide-angle is an essential tool. The best you can do is get used to getting close to people, with a friendly manner and a smile.

Landscape photographers do not always follow this proximity suggestion. Their use of the wide-angle is aimed more at obtaining an impressive depth of field, many times a spectacular symmetry and… searched distortion! You will see hundreds of pictures taken with a 15mm were the clouds follow a very characteristic pattern created by the distortion of the lens.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Harry Fisch has photographically documented more than 35 countries. He organizes and leads International Photographic Tours and Workshops in exotic destinations with his company Nomad Photo Expeditions. Winner of the people section 2012 National Geographic world photo contest, and later disqualified, he has also been a finalist in the 2013 Sony World Photo among other international awards. You can see more of his work here.

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks very much. Very good article. Gets my thinking cap back on.

  • Andy

    Is it just me, or is there some sort of weird vignette in a lot of these photos? It kinda comes in towards the middle of the frame, particularly towards the top?

  • Boqueron123

    You are absolutely right Andy, most of mypictures show a weird vignette https://harry-fisch-pgu1.squarespace.com/config#/|/

  • Boqueron123

    Thank you Keith 🙂

  • NA CHO

    While the subject of the article is interesting, you should be VERY careful when talking about focal length and sensor size. Your first paragraphs are a mess and only help to confuse beginners (like I was confused as a beginner with all the poor talk about crop-factor). This wreaks havoc when you contradict yourself with wrong statementes like “Thus an 18mm lens on full frame is LIKE a 27mm lens on a cropped sensor” (wrong, a 18mm on APS-C gives an angle of view similar to a 27mm on 35mm-film-format) or “a Zeiss 12mm, which is the equivalent of an 18mm on APS-C format” (wrong again, you are talking about a 12mm on APS-C, which will give an angle of view similar to a 18mm on 35mm-film-format).

    I think we should stop taking the 35mm-format (not full frame, please) as the holy grail of photography. Angles of view for a given focal length change with sensor size, this has happened since the beginning of photography with large and medium format film. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about the ANGLE OF VIEW a focal length delivers on a specific camera? By the way, APS-C is the most commonly used here, so why focus on 35mm-film-format?. Then explain how you can get that angle of view on different format cameras (such as mirrorless or compact cameras).

  • Boqueron123

    You are right about the explanation on crop factor . My wrong. As you state “… a 18mm on APS-C gives an angle of view similar to a 27mm on 35mm-film-format and a 12mm on APS-C, will give an angle of view similar to a 18mm on 35mm-film-format”.

    I am not specially found of Full Frame cameras and the only reason of my comments on crop factor was to explain (poorly as it seems) the choice of lenses when going wide. Full frame is very interesting in many situations. As a matter of fact I owned full frames before (5D’s) and since a while I only use Fuji X cameras on my photo tours Nomad Photo Expeditions http://www.nomadphotoexpeditions.com . 100% of my present work a is done with APSC fomat.

    Thank you for your comments 🙂

  • RSTH

    I concur with NA CHO. This is just sloppy journalism and does nothing more than to confuse beginners on how focal lengths are interpreted across various sensor sizes. Some articles on this website really need to be screened better before being posted…..

  • PixByPeter

    Harry, great article. Some folks just don’t get that although all the technology in modern cameras is truly amazing, photography is at its best when the emphasis is more on the art than science. It’s about creativity, not how sharp your lens is. Jay Meisel once said he is more interested in the picture than the pixels. His recent book is entitled “It’s not about the f-stop”. That’s the philosophy of photography that I embrace. Happy Trails!

  • melissa Joelson

    I’m an extreme amateur with a new, Sony a5100 I’ll be taking to Egypt in a couple of months. I’d like a reasonably priced wide-angle lens and would really appreciate some advice. I see the Sony 20 2.8, but have no idea if that’s going to be any wider angle than the lens the camera came with. Thanks for the help!

  • Boqueron123

    Thanks :-). I have to admit that I totally share your point of view. It is mainly about “seeing” beyond thechnicalities rather than mastering the technique. The later is very useful, but the best camera or lens will not make the best photographer :-). Getting to know how to approach people is also a need when you are interested in people photography. . I will address this issue in future posts.

  • PixByPeter

    Melissa, sounds like an awesome trip. If the lens that came with the camera is an 18mm to something zoom, that is already wider than the Sony 20mm. In addition your current lens is probably f/3.5 at the wide setting, so the additional speed (larger aperature) of the Sony 20/2.8 will not make much of a difference (less than 1 stop). Read the instruction manual and shoot a lot in the interim. Look for articles on composition here and elsewhere on the net and shoot, shoot, shoot. It’s the only way to learn and with digital there is no cost associated with shooting a lot. Buy an extra battery and memory card before you leave on your trip. You might also want to check out the a book by Bryan Petersen called “Understanding Exposure”. It’s the best $20 you’ll ever spend on this hobby. Happy Trails!

  • melissa Joelson

    Thank you so much, Peter! I appreciate your advice. Yes, it will be an awesome trip and I don’t want to mess up the photo-ops!

  • PixByPeter

    Harry, looking forward to those future posts. I’m not shy about engaging, but have difficulty getting folks to NOT pose afterwards. As a result I often “lurk” to get some candids before approaching. If i’m shooting with primes, I use the conversation time to switch to a wide angle lens. Like you, I love cropped sensor cameras for the type of shooting I do. I traded in my DSLR stuff for mirrorless 4/3s format a few years ago and never looked back. It’s light and small and perfect for travel/street photography. The quality is amazing, even at higher ISOs, as I usually don’t go beyond 11×14 prints, like a landscape or wedding photographer might need to do. Then again, most photographers today don’t make prints at all. Some recent WA shots below.

  • Boqueron123

    :-). Nice ones.. Here you can find a couple of comments on approaching people. http://www.nomadphotoexpeditions.com/blogwp/7-tips-approaching-stanger/ , The balance between taking the picture and have someone pose is difficult. As it is trying to act “as if” there was no camera when there is one..

  • Ksharp

    Lovely article, I learnt so much from it. Thanks!

  • Boqueron123

    Thanks 🙂 Nice to read you. Hope to be helpful in the future.. BTW.- I have read on disquss that you were interested on the mirorless world . I won (and lateer lost) the world National Geographic Photo contest a couple of years ago with a Fuji XPro1 (mirorless), her the story http://goo.gl/lW4tAL

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