Today we’re going to take a step back and view the art of photography through a much wider perspective, which is a terribly pun-filled way to say that this article will examine the basic concept of wide angle photography. We’ll take a look at what wide angle photography is, why you should try it, some considerations to keep in mind and finally a few lenses to get you started.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in September of 2010.
What Is a Wide Angle Lens?
Just to make sure this article is understandable to absolute beginners, a brief definition of our terms is necessary.
For the purposes of this article, a “wide angle” lens will simply be one with a fairly short focal length. If you have a 14mm lens and an 85mm lens, the 85mm will possess a greater magnification than the 17mm.
Because of its zoomed out nature, a wide angle lens is capable of capturing more in the frame than a zoom lens and is therefore considered to have a “wider” field of view.
Why Not a Zoom Lens?
When new photographers purchase their first digital SLR and eventually set off in search of a few good lenses to buy, they tend to have only one thing in mind: zoom.
A “good lens” is one that allows you to take a close-up shot of a fly on a horse’s ear from thirty yards. All that other stuff is just second rate, right?
Obviously, the answer is a resounding “no!” Don’t get me wrong, zoom lenses are absolutely fantastic and every photographer should have at least one good one. They’re just not the only thing you should consider in your quest to expand your lens arsenal.
In a recent article I raved about the wonders of using my 50mm 1.4, a lens that is by no means ideal for capturing your kid’s little league game from the top of the bleachers. However, there are in fact several situations where it is hard to beat for both convenience and quality.
This same logic applies to a good wide angle lens. While it definitely won’t be appropriate for all shooting scenarios, it is an incredibly essential piece of equipment that can produce uniquely stunning photographs.
More Than Landscapes
Shooting with a zoom lens or even something like a 50mm prime tends to limit what you can take in. If you’ve ever walked around with one of these you know that there are tons of shooting scenarios when you simply can’t get the shot you want.
Often, the first type of shot that comes to mind when you think about a wide angle lens is a landscape. After all, what wider subject could you possibly hope for than a mountain range or a vast windswept field?
There’s definitely a reason for considering these shots first: wide angle lenses are unrivaled in capturing the beauty of an immense landscape. Your eyes are capable of taking in nearly 180 degrees of a scene at once and when you’ve got a beautiful view, you typically want a lens that can capture as much or more than what you’re seeing.
However, taking in the sites isn’t the only thing that wide angle lenses are good at. For instance, when you’re indoors, walls tend to prevent you from backing up far enough to get everything you want in the frame. Anything zoomed in too far can leave you frustrated at your inability to capture anything but close details of the room you occupy. A wide angle lens will enable you to really take in the full room and capture the essence of the scene before you.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when shooting with a wide angle lens is that you’ll quite often come up with a result that surprises you in its awkwardness.
Because wide angle lenses take in such a wide field of view, they tend to distort the apparent physical relationships between objects. This results in notable distortion, most noticeable when you look at lines that should be relatively straight but are instead bent.
For this reason, you have to monitor your results closely, especially when you’re taking pictures of people. Keep in mind though that the distortion doesn’t have to be an unwanted side affect. Countless photographers use wide angle distortion as an important element of the image. As long as you’re aware of the distortion and how it affects a given lens, you can use it to stylistically create images that you simply couldn’t capture by any other means.
Depth of Field
Understanding depth of field is key to mastering wide angle photography. A cursory Google search will reveal many sources claiming that wide angle lenses provide a much stronger depth of field than telephoto zoom lenses. This is nice because it means that most of your wide angle image appears in focus.
However, according to Alex Don, this effect is mostly an illusion and that “if you enlarge a portion of it [the zoomed out image] this apparent depth of field will disappear.”
Similarly, Cambridge In Colour points out that what’s really changing drastically with the focal length is the distribution of the depth of field. Put simply, “a wide angle lens provides a more gradually fading DoF behind the focal plane than in front.” Because longer focal lengths flatten your perspective, they appear to have a greater depth of field. Keep in mind that in photography appearances are just as important as the literal truth (and occasionally more so).
The best step you can take toward understanding the technical side of wide angle depth of field is to experiment. Take the same photo with multiple lenses at multiple aperture settings and compare so you can get a feel for how to produce the effect that you want. All the technical articles in the world can’t compare to actually getting your hands on a camera and picking up some experiential knowledge.
Wide Angle Lens Prices
As with all types of lenses, wide angle lenses are all over the map in price. A Canon 14mm f/2.8L II USM will run you upwards of $2,000 and a Nikkor 14mm will typically be at least $1,500. Alternatively, you can grab a Sigma 14mm for only $700 and a similar Tamron for $800.
Contrast this with the lower end lenses which are obviously much more affordable. A Canon 35mm f/2 is pretty easy to find under $300 and a Nikkor equivalent at f/1.8 is widely available for under $200.
These are all primes but you can definitely pick up some affordable multi-purpose zoom lenses that start at around 17mm and go up to anywhere from 85-200mm.
To sum up, big fancy zoom lenses are both wildly impressive and highly practical in certain situations, but as a photographer you should always be ready and able to capture the bigger picture, and you’ll need a wide angle lens to do it.
Though wide angle lenses are most often thought of in relation to landscapes, they actually have a wide variety of applications in all kinds of settings.
Finally, always be aware of the level of distortion as well as both the apparent and literal range of the depth of field in your wide angle photos. With practice you’ll be able to use these variables positively to create the shot you want.
Leave a comment below and show us your favorite wide angle shots. Be sure to include the type of lens you used and whether or not you would recommend it to others.