Plenty of photographers love wide-angle lenses, and for good reason: Wide-angle lenses can capture breathtaking landscapes, stunning environmental portraiture, jaw-dropping architecture, and so much more.
But what exactly is a wide-angle lens? And how can you create amazing wide-angle photography?
In this guide, I explain everything you need to know about working with wide-angle glass. I offer basic definitions, and I also share my favorite tips for wide-angle images – so that, by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be ready to capture pro-level results.
Let’s dive right in!
What is a wide-angle lens?
A wide-angle lens provides an image that’s wider than what you can see with your eyes. Wide-angle focal lengths sit in the 8mm to 45mm range.
Because of the wide-angle field of view, when you look through a wide-angle lens, you’ll encounter an expansive scene. For instance, if you’re standing on a beach at sunset, a wide-angle lens will show you the setting sun, but it’ll also show you the rocks at your feet and the clouds high in the sky:
Note that the smaller the focal length (i.e., the lower the focal length millimeter number), the wider the lens and the more expansive the view. A 35mm lens is slightly wide, a 24mm lens is moderately wide, and a 10mm lens is insanely wide.
Most manufacturers sell many of the same wide-angle focal lengths. Here are a few common options:
- 24-70mm (here, the 70mm end starts to stretch into telephoto lens territory)
Wide-angle vs telephoto lenses
If you’ve spent some time browsing lenses, you’ve probably come across the terms “wide-angle” and “telephoto.” These are two ends of the spectrum in photography lenses.
As I explained above, wide-angle lenses offer you a broader field of view, extending the frame beyond what the human eye naturally sees; telephoto lenses, on the other hand, allow you to zoom in when photographing distant subjects.
Telephotos are ideal for capturing small birds and planes high above, and they can also be great for zooming in on specific parts of a landscape.
But while telephoto lenses are perfect for smaller and more skittish subjects, they have serious limitations. They’re large, bulky, and very expensive, plus they’re not designed for expansive shots that include both the subject and its environment – so a tele lens will not help if you’re aiming to capture an entire seascape.
This is where wide-angle lenses have the upper hand. They allow you to capture more of the scene, making them perfect for grand vistas and wide-open spaces. So if you’re looking to go broader, not tighter, a wide-angle lens is the right buy.
Reasons to try wide-angle photography
Wide-angle lenses offer a few key benefits. First, as I emphasized above, the wider your lens, the greater the scene that you’re capable of capturing.
So if you want to capture beautiful, sweeping landscape shots that include the foreground and the background and a beautiful sky, a wide-angle lens is essential. Standard and telephoto lenses will only capture a small slice of the scene, while a wide-angle lens will show it all.
Second, wide-angle lenses help you create shots that have a deep depth of field – that is, shots that are sharp from foreground to background.
The closer you are to your subject and the longer the focal length you use, the more blurred the background will appear. Wide-angle lenses, however, use short focal lengths, which means that your main subject will turn out sharp, as will key elements in both the foreground and the background. This deep-depth-of-field look is heavily favored by landscape and architectural photographers (and can look great in portrait and street shots, too!).
Third, wide-angle lenses help exaggerate perspective. When you capture a sunset scene at, say, 16mm, the sand and water in the foreground will look unusually close to the lens, while the horizon line will look unusually far from the lens.
Take a look at this next shot; notice how the stones look huge in comparison to the background buildings?
While this type of perspective distortion isn’t always desirable, you can use it to emphasize foreground elements and create images with lots of depth. (For those reasons, the effect is used by landscape photographers all the time!)
Wide-angle zooms vs primes
Wide-angle lenses can grouped into two categories: fixed focal length lenses, known as primes, only capture a single field of view, while multi-focal length lenses, commonly referred to as zooms, allow you to zoom in and out as required.
If you’re trying to pick a good wide-angle model but you’re not sure which lens type to choose, consider your goals and preferences.
Prime lenses are usually more affordable, so if money is tight, a prime might be your best bet. Additionally, they are compact and light, making them ideal for travelers or those who are constantly on the move. Finally, if you love creating shallow depth of field effects, a prime lens is often the better choice, given that they tend to feature wider maximum apertures than zooms.
Zoom lenses, however, win in the flexibility department. Imagine going out for a day of shooting a variety of subjects: forests, beaches, street photography, portraits. With a zoom lens, you can capture it all without swapping out your gear. Convenience is the key advantage here, though you can save money in the long run because you’ll need fewer lenses to build out your wide-angle kit.
But zooms are bigger and heavier than primes, plus if you want a zoom lens with a wide maximum aperture, you’ll often pay a pretty penny. And the optics rarely measure up to prime lenses, especially not those in a similar price category.
At the end of the day, both lens types are perfectly valid options, and there’s no right choice; it all depends on your preferences and requirements!
When should you use a wide-angle lens?
Certain situations pretty much always make for great wide-angle photography. Landscape photographers use wide-angle glass almost exclusively, as do many architectural, street, and cityscape photographers. Here’s a more detailed list of the images you can capture with a wide-angle lens:
- Sweeping landscape shots
- Beautiful skyline and cityscape images
- Architectural interiors and exteriors
- Real-estate interiors and exteriors
- Scene-setting photos of event venues
- Environmental portraits
- Wider street shots
On the other hand, if you want to create tighter, intimate shots of a single subject, wide-angle lenses are generally best avoided. Here are images that are not easily captured with wide-angle glass:
- Half-body portraits
- Sports players in action
- Wildlife portraits
- Bird portraits
- Architectural detail shots
- Distant landscape detail shots
Of course, these lists aren’t exhaustive, and they’re not set in stone, either. Wildlife photographers do occasionally use wide-angle lenses to capture animal portraits, for instance – it just takes a lot of planning (and generally involves remote-controlled cameras and/or blinds). On the other hand, street photographers do occasionally use telephoto lenses to shoot wider scenes, but it requires a lot of distance (and can’t easily be done in congested, tightly packed areas).
So while you can use this section to guide your photography (and to decide whether a wide-angle lens is right for you), don’t let it restrict you. In fact, some of the best images are taken by going against the grain!
How to use a wide-angle lens: 7 quick tips
Wide-angle lenses are great, but it’s not always easy to get stunning wide shots. In this section, I offer my best tips, tricks, and techniques for working with wide-angle lenses, starting with:
1. Combine your subject and environment
A common mistake in wide-angle photography is losing sight of the big picture. It’s easy to get excessively focused on your main subject, so I recommend that you regularly remind yourself that wide-angle lenses allow you to capture a broader scene.
In other words, you don’t have to just set your frame around the main subject; you can have plenty of fun combining both the subject and its surroundings! As you shoot, pay attention to the background and other elements in your scene. Think about how you might incorporate it into your shots, and consider taking a few steps back to really emphasize the wider world.
Of course, you shouldn’t go overboard. More isn’t always better, especially because background elements can be distracting. The last thing you want is a distracting sign or stoplight taking focus away from a portrait subject! So if you do try to create more environmental images, look to enhance the overall composition without adding unnecessarily eye-catching elements.
2. Include foreground interest for added depth
Foreground interest refers to eye-catching elements in the foreground of your image – and if you can include a bit of foreground interest in your composition, it’ll look amazing. It’ll also add lots of depth, which can be a great way to make your wide-angle shots stand out.
Landscape photographers use this technique all the time. They’ll photograph a distant mountain, but they’ll add a river, a road, some flowers, or a fallen log in the foreground; that way, the viewer’s eye starts at the bottom of the frame, then slowly journeys through the scene toward the mountain in the background.
Of course, you can also use foreground interest to enhance urban landscapes, street scenes, and so much more. The sky is the limit!
So as you set up your shot, keep an eye out for these elements. Adjust your composition to include them. Try to create a journey for the viewer – so they can start in the foreground and naturally move toward the background of the scene!
3. Add leading lines
Leading lines refer to lines that lead the eye through the frame, and they’re a great way to give your photos three-dimensionality.
Leading lines generally start toward the bottom of the frame – as foreground interest – then work their way up (and back), so that they push the viewer toward the main subject.
That said, you can really position leading lines anywhere throughout the frame; for instance, an outstretched arm can lead the eye toward a car (in a street photo), or a fallen pear can lead the eye toward a basket of fruit (in a still life photo).
So train yourself to look for lines. And then, when you find a line or two, use it to guide the viewer through the frame!
4. Watch the depth of field
It’s easy to assume that everything will be in focus with a wide-angle lens. But while wide-angle glass does make it easier to maintain sharpness, depth of field still matters.
Your aperture setting and focus point play a crucial role here, especially when your composition includes elements close to the lens (see my tip on including foreground interest, above!). To ensure most or all of your scene is in focus, make sure you dial in a smaller aperture, such as f/8 and beyond.
Additionally, set your point of focus about a third of the way into the scene. This technique allows you to approximate the hyperfocal distance, which is basically a fancy way of saying that it maximizes your window of sharpness!
5. Don’t be afraid to go minimalist
Minimalistic photography features lots of negative (i.e., empty) space, such as broad expanses of sky, long stretches of untouched beach, plain white walls, and so on. The negative space occupies most of the composition, while a small portion of the image features an eye-catching subject (such as a person walking in the distance).
And wide-angle lenses are great for producing stunning minimalistic photos.
You see, the wide field of view will help you stuff your photos full of negative space. Simply find a subject, position yourself so the subject is surrounded by empty space, then zoom out to your widest focal length. The results will be gorgeous!
6. Get up close for added distortion
Most photographers try to avoid distortion in order to capture natural-looking images that closely mirror reality. But as I mentioned above, distortion isn’t always bad – and if you really lean into those distortion effects, you can produce some unique and creative shots.
Here is the basic rule of perspective distortion: The closer you get to your subject, the more you can exaggerate proportions, making nearby objects appear larger while pushing away the background. So if you put your lens close to a person’s face, their nose and lips will become large while the area behind them will seem to recede.
Of course, ultra-wide lenses may not be your first choice for a flattering portrait, but that’s not what we’re after here. The goal is to create disorienting, almost surreal scenes. Landscapes with a towering flower in the foreground or a pet’s face humorously exaggerated can spark intrigue. You can even use this technique for architectural photography, where the distortion can emphasize the intense lines of a building.
So the next time you’re out shooting, challenge the norms. Try positioning yourself close to your subject with your wide-angle lens. It’s a simple way to create stunning, unconventional images!
7. Correct perspective issues in post-processing
While distortion can be a creative tool, there certainly are times you’ll want to minimize it. When you’re photographing architecture, for instance – either interiors or exteriors – a wide-angle perspective will frequently result in converging verticals. And when shooting landscapes with trees, you may sometimes notice the trunks “leaning” to one side.
The bad news is that, in both of the above cases, the distortion can look somewhat amateurish. The good news is that correcting such issues is a straightforward process in most post-processing software. Lightroom, for instance, offers a “Transform” panel where a single click can remove perspective distortion, and you can even purchase dedicated programs that are designed specifically to handle perspective issues.
Bottom line: Before you publish or share a wide-angle image, make sure you look it over for any unwanted perspective distortion! While distortion isn’t always bad, it’s important that you use it deliberately, not accidentally.
Wide-angle lenses: final words
Wide-angle photography is certainly a lot of fun – and you can use wide-angle glass to capture gorgeous landscapes, portraits, and so much more.
Hopefully, you found this article useful, and I do encourage you to save some (or all!) of the tips I shared. That said, don’t follow them too carefully; photography is all about finding what works for you and adapting old approaches to fit your unique style.
So pick the perfect wide-angle lens. Start practicing. And have fun!
Now over to you:
What kind of wide-angle lens do you plan to buy? What kind of wide-angle photography do you want to do? Share your thoughts in the comments below!