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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.