Every landscape photographer needs at least one wide-angle lens. Wide-angle glass offers a wonderfully expansive perspective that’s perfect for capturing grand vistas, emphasizing lines, adding breathtaking three-dimensionality, and so much more.
But creating gorgeous wide-angle landscape photography can be a challenge. Beginners often struggle to come to grips with the wider field of view, and even advanced landscape shooters often fail to access their lens’s full potential.
I’ve been capturing wide-angle landscapes for years, and in this article, I share my best tips for outstanding shots. I discuss composition, angles, and common pitfalls – so if you’re ready to make some gorgeous images, then let’s dive right in!
1. Emphasize a foreground element
Professional landscape photographers love wide-angle lenses, and they’re always using the wide field of view to emphasize foreground elements while letting the background recede.
You see, wide-angle lenses allow you to get really close to an element in the foreground, which will then loom large in the frame. (A wide-angle lens, thanks to perspective distortion, changes the relative size of the objects in the frame; objects close to the lens look huge, while objects far from the lens appear very small.)
If you include a foreground subject close to the lens, it’ll instantly captivate the viewer. Then, once the viewer has appreciated the foreground, they’ll be drawn toward the smaller background objects (e.g., a sunset, a mountain, or an ocean horizon).
Try getting low and moving as close as you can to your main subject. Don’t be afraid to get just inches from a flower, a rock, a pattern in the ice, etc. Even if you think you might be too close, you’ll often look through the viewfinder only to discover that objects don’t appear quite so close through the lens!
2. Photograph a subject in its environment
As I mentioned above, the best wide-angle photography tends to include a main subject that’s large in the frame – but it’s important that you don’t become so focused on the main subject that you forget about its surroundings!
My favorite way to use a wide-angle lens is by getting ultra-close to my main subject, but then taking care to include key environmental elements in the composition, such as:
- Interesting rock formations
- Gorgeous clouds
- Stunning sunrises and sunsets
By including both a unique foreground subject and beautiful surroundings, you can create a storytelling image that offers plenty of interest and context:
3. Make sure the entire scene is in focus
Another fantastic part of using wide-angle lenses? The depth of field (that is, the sharpness throughout the scene) is often incredible.
The specifics depend on the exact lens and the aperture you choose, but you can generally get everything in the scene – from two feet away to infinity – in focus without much issue. However, you will need to take steps to make sure you’re keeping the entire scene tack-sharp.
First, make sure you use a relatively narrow aperture. A good starting point is f/8, but if your foreground object is especially close to your lens, you’ll want to increase the f-number to f/11, f/13, or even f/16.
Second, make sure you carefully focus your lens about a third of the way into the scene. This will help maximize the depth of field and prevent distant or ultra-close elements from going out of focus.
Pro tip: If you’re struggling to capture tack-sharp images, you can always use a hyperfocal distance calculator to figure out where you need to set your point of focus!
4. Watch out for distractions
Since wide-angle lenses include a lot in the frame, you’ll need to be extra vigilant to make sure your landscape compositions include zero distractions. Everything in the frame should have a purpose.
So before you press the shutter button, check your shot to make sure there are no eye-catching elements in the foreground. You should also review the background, and if you do notice unwanted elements, adjust your angle or your focal length to exclude them.
In general, you’ll want to keep your compositions simple and elegant. Clearly show the main subject, make sure any supporting elements actually contribute to the shot and avoid including anything else. Simple is generally best!
5. Keep the camera level to prevent distortion
The wider the focal length, the easier it is to introduce visible perspective distortion into the frame (where objects appear to bend inward or outward depending on the angle of the lens).
While perspective distortion can be corrected in post-processing, it’s generally better to avoid it in the field whenever possible. Also, the process of correcting perspective distortion will crop away pixels, which can become a problem if you want to print large or if key compositional elements are positioned along the edges of the frame.
So how do you prevent distortion? You keep your camera level! In other words, the lens should be parallel to the ground rather than angled upward or downward.
Of course, you’ll run into scenarios where – for compositional purposes – you’ll want to angle your camera, and that’s okay. But do what you can to keep the angling to a minimum, and if you do have key elements along the edges of the frame, deliberately shoot wide so you can crop in later without ruining the file.
6. Angle your camera upward
I know, I know; in the last section, I told you that you should keep your camera as level as possible! But while a level camera will prevent perspective distortion, you can also use this distortion to your advantage.
If you get up close to a tall object, such as a mountain or a waterfall, then you tilt your camera upward, the edges of the object will appear to converge on a point high above, creating a highly dramatic effect. Such an image may not look strictly natural, but it’ll certainly look cool!
7. Angle your camera downward
In the previous tip, I discussed how you can emphasize tall objects by pointing your camera upward and relying on the perspective-distortion effect.
Well, you can also emphasize leading lines on the ground – such as ripples in the sand or rivulets of water running toward the ocean – by pointing your camera downward.
This technique will create a composition that really draws the viewer in, one that’ll carefully guide the viewer from the near foreground to the distant background:
8. Don’t be afraid to shoot in close quarters
While it’s virtually impossible to capture landscape photos in a cramped space using a telephoto lens, the same is not true of a wide-angle lens. With a bit of creativity, you can use a wide focal length to produce gorgeous images of small areas!
For instance, you can zoom all the way out to encapsulate a huge portion of the scene:
And you can also capture intimate shots by finding interesting patterns in the scenery, then getting in close.
Be sure to pay careful attention to objects around the edges of the frame. If you’re not careful, distractions may start to creep in, which can harm – or even ruin – your otherwise beautiful shots.
9. Beware of polarizing filters
You may already be familiar with polarizing filters, which can darken skies, reduce reflections, emphasize clouds, and saturate colors. Landscape photographers love working with polarizers, but when you’re using an ultra-wide lens, you can run into issues.
For one, depending on the angle of your camera, you may end up with a polarization effect that’s applied unevenly across the scene. This is due to the nature of polarizing filters – they work differently depending on the filter’s angle relative to the sun – and while it’s not an issue on telephoto lenses, it can come into play if you’re shooting at, say, 15mm. When this happens, it’s generally better to avoid a polarizer completely.
Second, some ultra-wide lenses feature a bulbous front element that simply cannot take a polarizer. So if you’re using an ultra-wide lens, you may need to adjust your compositions or even choose different subjects to prevent unwanted reflections from plaguing your images. If your lens won’t take a polarizer, you may want to consider avoiding waxy leaves, water, and wet rocks, all of which will create reflections and reduce image saturation.
10. Manage uneven light
When photographing landscapes with a wide-angle lens, you’ll frequently encounter varying amounts of light in the frame. Often, the background sky will be much brighter than your foreground objects, and this can cause significant exposure problems. Do you expose for the sky and lose detail in the foreground? Or do you expose for the foreground and blow out the sky?
My recommendation is to use a graduated neutral density filter, which will darken the top portion of your composition while leaving the foreground untouched. You might also consider using a bracketing and blending technique, where you capture several images at different exposures, then merge them together in post-processing.
In truth, both of the above approaches have their merits! Filters do tend to be expensive, but they’ll also save you time behind the computer, while bracketing can be highly effective but takes greater patience when editing. If you’re not sure which technique you like best, rent some filters, try both options, and see what you think!
Wide-angle landscape photography: final words
Wide-angle lenses are often the most-used glass in a landscape photographer’s kit. Hopefully, with these tips, it’ll become the most-used glass in your kit, too!
Just remember the different approaches I’ve shared, pay careful attention to your compositions, watch out for distortion, and you’ll end up with amazing results.
Now over to you:
What do you plan to photograph with your wide-angle lens? Share your thoughts (and images!) in the comments below.
Table of contents
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 10 Tips for Photographing Wide-Angle Landscapes
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES