This article was updated in November 2023 with contributions from Tom Ang and Kim Brebach.
What is an ultra-wide angle lens? What type of effects do ultra-wides produce? And should you use them in your photography?
I’ve been working with ultra-wide angle lenses for well over 30 years, and in my view, they’re incredible. They offer plenty of practical benefits, they’re a great way to improve your photography, and they’re lots of fun to shoot with, too.
In this article, I explain everything you need to know about ultra-wides, including what they are and why I highly recommend them. I also include plenty of examples, so you know exactly what ultra-wide lenses can do, and I close with a handful of ultra-wide angle photography tips!
Let’s dive right in!
What are ultra-wide angle lenses?
Ultra-wide angle lenses are extreme versions of wide-angle lenses. Instead of producing a field of view that’s subtly wider than the human eye, they offer a field of view that’s far wider. They create a beautifully expansive effect:
Notice how, in the photo above, I’ve managed to capture over half of the room. That’s the power of an ultra-wide lens!
So what focal lengths correspond to ultra-wides?
Well, as you may already be aware, a 50mm lens (on a full-frame camera) closely approximates the field of view of the human eye. And wide-angle lenses feature smaller focal lengths, generally from around 24mm to 49mm.
Therefore, ultra-wide angle lenses have focal lengths that are wider than 24mm. A 10-20mm lens, for instance, is an ultra-wide zoom, while a 14mm lens is an ultra-wide prime.
(Note that these focal lengths are approximate; there’s no single agreed-upon set of focal lengths for wide and ultra-wide lenses.)
Take a look at this image, which is taken with a wide-angle (28mm) lens:
Then see how an ultra-wide focal length (11mm) widens the scene even further:
So while wide-angle lenses and ultra-wide angle lenses have a broad field of view, the ultra-wide effect is much more extreme.
When should you use an ultra-wide angle lens?
Ultra-wide lenses are hugely helpful, but you don’t want to use them all the time. For instance, trying to shoot a distant bird with an ultra-wide lens will get you nothing but a landscape and a distant blotch of feathers.
On the other hand, you can use ultra-wide lenses to capture entire scenes in a single shot. For instance, you can photograph an entire city skyline from end to end. Or you can photograph a beautiful mountain scene and include a foreground, a middleground, and plenty of mountain background.
Here are a few genres where ultra-wides are useful:
- Landscape photography
- Architectural photography
- Real-estate photography
- Cityscape photography
And here are a few genres where you should generally avoid ultra-wides:
- Bird photography
- Wildlife photography
- Portrait photography
- Product photography
- Street photography
Of course, you don’t need to follow this breakdown to the letter; it’s just a guideline. But it can be helpful, especially when you’re just starting out!
6 reasons to use ultra-wide angle lenses
In this next section, I share my six top reasons to work with ultra-wides. By the time you’re finished reading, I guarantee you’ll want to work with an ultra-wide angle lens or two in your own photography!
1. Ultra-wides immerse the viewer in the scene
Ultra-wide angle lenses draw the viewer into the situation.
They surround the viewer with the scene, and for that reason, the resulting shots feel stunningly real and full of detail.
And ultra-wides don’t just immerse the viewer in the scene; they immerse you, the photographer, which can be a wild experience.
As you shoot, you’ll feel like the entire scene is wrapping around your head. You’ll be pulled into the action, which is a great place to be!
2. Ultra-wides help you avoid perspective distortion
Perspective distortion causes vertical lines to converge, and it’ll even make buildings look like they’re falling backward. While it’s possible to fix distortion in post-processing, it’s much more efficient to avoid it in the first place – and ultra-wides can help you out.
You see, perspective distortion is produced when you tilt your camera downward or upward to photograph a scene. For instance, you might point your camera up to photograph a cathedral like this one:
And it’s that movement – that tilt up – that results in distortion.
But ultra-wide lenses are so wide that you often don’t need to tilt the camera when capturing a building. Instead, you can point the camera straight ahead and just…shoot. You’ll avoid distortion, and you’ll get a beautiful architectural image.
3. Ultra-wides reverse scale
Ultra-wide lenses tend to make objects that are close to the lens look enormous, while they make objects that are farther away look tiny. The wider the lens, the greater the effect!
(This is another consequence of perspective distortion, which I discussed in the previous section.)
While such distortion isn’t always desirable, it can look stunning when carefully incorporated into your photos. You can use it to magnify interesting foreground subjects:
Or you can use it to enhance visual flow:
4. Ultra-wides can create pseudo-panoramas
A panorama encompasses a huge portion of the scene and is generally far longer than it is tall, like this:
Unfortunately, panoramas are difficult to do well. You generally need to work on a tripod and take multiple images while carefully moving your camera. Plus, panoramas require significant post-processing.
But with an ultra-wide lens, you can create handheld panoramas with very little effort. Here’s what you do:
First, capture an image using an ultra-wide focal length:
Then open it in your favorite post-processing program and slice off the top and bottom of the frame:
That’s all there is to it! You’ll end up with a stunning panorama, and you won’t need to learn any additional techniques to get it right.
5. Ultra-wides are great for reflection shots
Do you love working with reflections? Do you want to take photos that feature expansive reflections, like the one displayed below?
Then use an ultra-wide angle lens! They’re so wide that you can easily include puddles, lakes, and reflective metal in every scene. Just make sure you get as close to the reflection as possible – don’t be afraid to place your camera on the ground – then shoot away.
6. Ultra-wides include so much detail
Every ultra-wide lens includes a huge field of view…
…and thanks to the huge field of view, you can include nearly everything in a single shot.
If you want to photograph a beach landscape, you won’t just get the water and the sky. You’ll get the sand, the rocks, the people on the beach, and maybe even your own feet.
And if you want to photograph a cathedral, you won’t just get the artwork on the ceiling or the stained-glass windows in the distance. Instead, you’ll get everything, from the ceiling and the pews to the windows and the walls. Ultra-wides are wide!
Capturing entire scenes isn’t always desirable, but when you encounter a sweeping scene that takes your breath away, you’ll be glad you had your ultra-wide angle lens!
Tips for capturing beautiful ultra-wide angle photography
Ultra-wide lenses are powerful, but in order to create amazing shots, you have to use the right approach. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Pay attention to the distortion
The first thing you notice is the exaggerated perspective, the distorted edges, and the relationships between foreground and background objects that are stretched, sometimes unnaturally. Wide-angle scenes can contain many objects at different distances, which helps to draw the viewer in.
You’ll also get a different perspective compared to other lenses. As a rule, you’ll find yourself moving much closer to the subject, stepping right into the scene. Think of ultra-wide lenses as the opposite of tele lenses where you tend to back away from objects. Telephoto lenses tend to flatten the scene, ultra-wide angle lenses exaggerate it. This makes background objects appear further from foreground ones than they actually are.
If your camera is even slightly tilted, verticals will converge. Buildings will develop a lean, which adds a sense of drama to otherwise dull scenes like this one:
Sometimes you don’t want this effect, and then it’s best to make sure your camera is perfectly level. You can correct perspective distortions in post-processing, but you’ll end up with much smaller images by the time the edges are chopped off.
2. Focus manually
On ultra-wide lenses, the auto-focus also faces new challenges since objects just a few meters away can be quite small and hard for the AF to lock onto. Beyond the first few meters, ultra-wide lenses tend to take a guess at focus, and that doesn’t help with sharpness – manual focus can often be a better way to go. The main thing is to decide on the visual centre, and focus on that.
3. Watch for flare
Flare is a real pain with ultra-wide lenses, blowing out highlights with little provocation. The broad field of view means you often have a source of bright light not far from the frame, and that’s enough to do the damage. The best times to use these lenses are the magic hours of early morning and late afternoon, outside, or middle of the day inside.
4. Use a tripod whenever you can
By now, it should be pretty obvious that pointing and shooting is the wrong technique for ultra-wide photography. Shooting early or late in the day, or inside, and stopping down to f/11 or more, means using a tripod. Add manual focusing and we’re back in the good old days of carefully composing each shot, following a set of rules. Not a bad idea for landscape and architecture photography, but not practical for action or street photography.
5. Avoid close-up portraits
Ultra-wides don’t make good portrait lenses unless you’re looking for cartoon-like comic effects. In close-ups, you can get plenty of distortion that exaggerates the bits in the foreground, like noses and foreheads. Ultra-wides are useful though when you want to capture people in their environment, in a shop or office or artist studio, and want to show a lot of their surroundings. Perhaps a bit too much in this case:
Ultra-wide angle lenses: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about ultra-wides. You know what they are, when you should use them, and what makes them so special.
So grab an ultra-wide angle lens. Head outside, practice, and have plenty of fun!
Now over to you:
Do you plan to buy an ultra-wide angle lens? What will you use it for? Share your thoughts in the comments below!