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:
- 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.
- 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
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 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
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
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
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 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
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
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.