I’m a photographer based in Sydney Australia.I’m essentially a people photographer. I do a lot of portrait stuff – I also take a lot of photos in the developing world for aid organizations. So we’re talking about how to use wide angle lenses.
We’re going to go through some examples of how a wide-angle lens can be used and what it can bring to your photography. In particular, we’re looking at how a wide-angle lens can be used to tell a story.
And to really create a connection between the subject in the photo and the viewer. We are also going to look at some of the perils of my wide-angle photography particularly using ultra-wide-angle lenses.
We are going to come across such scenarios as ‘wide arm syndrome’ and Frankenstein’s forehead. So we really have three categories of wide-angle lenses. We have standard wide which is 35mm to 24mm, ultra-wide which is essentially anything wider than 24 mm.
Then once we get to say 15mm and beyond were in fisheye territory. So this is my collection of wide angle lenses. I am not suggesting you run out and buy them, although you could do a lot worse. I know that when I was starting out as a photographer.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L LENS
I was often looking at images and thinking: “Hmm, I wonder what lens they used there?”So in the interests of full disclosure, this is what I use. So there’s the 24mm to 70mm f2.8.This is a classic all-rounder lens.
It goes wide to 24mm lens and it is longish to 70mm lens and everything in between. This is probably the lens are I use most. I use it a lot in the studio, I use it a lot outdoors when I’m out and about and there’s lots of light.
It’s great for portraits and its great for action shots as well. Next up is my Canon 16-35mm lens. Obviously it covers some of the same ground as the 24-70mm but it goes that extra bit further.
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L
It goes to the 16mm lens which is pretty wide. These days you get all of the mark two versions of these lenses which are said to be sharper and certainly for the 16mm to 35mm lens.
I think that would be a good thing because these days I do notice it’s not quite as sharp as I would like. And finally my sellotaped 35mm lens. Always a classy touch – a bit of sellotape on the lens.
Now you’re probably asking why on earth I need a 35mm lens when I’ve got a 24 to 70mm lens and a 16 to 35mm lens. Well, the fact is , it’s a prime lens and I’ll talk more about prime lenses in another article.
But in a nutshell this lens is beautifully sharp, it has a fantastic color, great contrast and most importantly it has an aperture of F1.4. This means a beautifully narrow depth of focus.
It also means I can shoot in very low light which to me is very important. Now I find the 35mm lens is also a really nice focal length. It’s not super wide and that often encourages me to just pull back a little bit which they
think is a good thing.
It gives more of maturity to my photography, I’d say. So let’s look at and why we use wide angle lenses and when to use wide angle lens. There’s an expression in photography ‘zooming with your feet’.
What it means is, instead of using a zoom lens to get closer to your subject. You just walk a few steps closer to them. But there are times when you can’t zoom with your feet, you can’t get any closer to your subject.
There are times when you can’t get any further away from them. This was taken in a vocational school in East Timor. And for me, it was important to get a number of things in this shot. Obviously I’ve got the instructor, I’ve got the students. This is an IT lesson.
So I really had to get the keyboard and the mouse in there. Now I couldn’t move back as I was backed up against the wall but my trusty canon ef 16-35mm f/4l is usm lens did the trick.
And here I’m shooting at 17 mm lens. So I’m just about able to squeeze everything in. Another example of when you really don’t have any choice but to use a wide angle lens really.
we’re talking about an ultra wide angle lens – is for interior shots.So it’s another case of back against the wall and ultra-wide lens. So this is 19 mm.
Shooting interiors is really a specialized niche in a specialized niche. So perhaps I’ll do another clip on it later to look at the ins and outs of how to approach that.
So moving on from really having no choice but to use a wide-angle lens to make a conscious decision. Based on what we want the image to say.
Here’s a shot – taken for the organization Marie Stopes that deals with reproductive health and contraception.
So here without any sort of caption for the image, we can say that we’re in the village. We can say we’re in Papua New Guinea, and we can probably guess that this guy is talking to the villagers about reproductive health because that’s what it says on the back of his shirt.
Arguably we can glean something of the attitude of the villagers towards what this guy has to say. We’ve got lots of faces, lots of different expressions.
People are curious, some are a little skeptical, perhaps a bit confused.
But they’re attentive they really want to know what this guy has to say.
So using a wide angle lens here allows me to get lots of context in the shot.
We’re at 35mm lens, so not so wide but wide enough to get a lot of visual information in here.
So going from left to right we’ve got the name of the school, we’ve got a lovely smiling girl holding a book (this book promotes literacy in her own language). And to the right, we can see a bunch of schoolboys and an old shed.
We can see that this is a rural area and is probably quite poor. Next, one thing I love most about wide-angle lenses is that it means you can get really close.
Now it’s possible to overdo it and I know in the past I did overdo it quite a lot. I got too close, I got pretty much amongst people’s nostril hairs and the resulting shots while at the time I thought they were fantastic.
How Do Wide Angle Lenses Work
Now I look at and think, “hmm too close, bit too wide”.Anyway, we’re in East Timor again. This little girl is having her arm measured for malnutrition and the green tells you that she’s not malnourished.
This shot is really all about the child. So it was important to get really close, to get down on her level, to get those big eyes and actually to be in the position of the guy who’s measuring her arm.
So I wanted this shot to feel as if we are right there – the viewer is right there in this clinic in a little village in East Timor. Being a street vendor in Bangkok is not an easy life. It’s long hours, it’s hard physical work and at the end of the night, you plunge your hand into a bowl of filthy water.
So I’m shooting at a 16mm lens. I can get really close and get down on her level and give a sense, perhaps it’s just a glimpse, of what that woman’s life is like.
A different kind of shot altogether. We’re at a party, we’re at a wedding, we’ve got drunk people dancing flinging themselves around. Again, we want to be close, we want to feel we’re in amongst the action.
But also things are moving fast, people are dancing, people are falling all over the place. By getting close with a wide-angle lens and here we’re talking about a 20mm lens, we are casting a wide net.
They can dance, they can fling themselves around and without moving too much. We can feel sure that we’ve got them, we’ve got them in the frame.
And in this shot, we’ve also got reactions. We’ve got the main action, which is this guy falling over with the older woman.
But we’ve also got reactions of the people around them. Going back to the previous point, we’re telling a little story here. So here’s the same guy pulling some moves on the dance floor. Again we’re nice and wide, we’re very close, probably about a meter away from him.
We got some reactions in the background and we pretty much feel we’re there on the dance floor. Another action shot.This time we’re on a beach in Papua New Guinea. These children are up and down like jumping beans.
They’re moving very very fast. There’s no way my camera could follow them with a longer lens. So I’m on 22mms, I’ve found a spot where they’re nicely framed, they can jump around as much of they like, they’re going to be in the frame.
And I also get that all-important context. There’s a lot of visual information in the shot. So can’t stress enough how good a wide-angle lens is for action – anything that’s moving fast (apart from maybe a car or a horse or something like that).
Now looking at these shots makes me a little bit nostalgic because these days I don’t really have the time to do street photography. And to be honest, these days in Sydney you probably wouldn’t last more than five minutes as the street photographer without getting a tap on your shoulder from Mr. Plod.
Here’s a shot in Hualamphong station in Bangkok, taken quite a few years ago now. And you notice that these two women, both of them waiting for a train, neither of them is glued to their smartphone.
Now each of these images was shot from the hip. Basically I had my camera at waist level, I had the manual focus set to about 2 meters. If you’re lucky no one knows is actually aware that you are taking a photo. So you’re getting nice little slices of life.
And for that, a wide-angle lens is invaluable. Again it gives you a broad canvas and a bit of room for error.
How To Use Wide Angle Lens For Landscape Photography
When I was a kid and I had my mum’ s hand-me-down camera – it was an old Cosina SLR. It had a 50mm lens on and I remember standing on top of a hillside in France looking over this huge beautiful valley. And thinking “what I need now is a wide-angle lens.
There’s no way I can get this beautiful vista into a single shot with my 50mm.” Now if I’d had a wide-angle lens I can guarantee the shots would have been pretty ordinary. Because I know how to use wide angle lenses. The steep hillsides in the distance would have looked pretty flat.
So generally speaking, you wouldn’t use a wide-angle lens for landscapes. Anything in the distance is just going to look small, it’s going to look flat.
But, by the same token, anything close to the camera is going to look big.
And that can sometimes work in landscape photography. If you are trying to emphasize the foreground rather than the background like in this shot
of some rice paddies for example or the rocks in this stream. Then it can work quite nicely.
By now it’s pretty clear what a wide-angle lens does – it distorts perspective. Anything far from the camera becomes small, anything closed to the camera becomes big. That’s not always what you’re after as a photographer. Sometimes you want to do the opposite – you want to compress the scene.
You want things that are further away to appear closer and that’s when you’ll use a long lens. But the ability to distort perspective with a wide-angle lens is very useful . And know in detail how to use wide angle lenses.
It allows us to kind of editorializing. In the same way, a cartoonist might make a caricature, might draw the chin or nose or ears much bigger than they are. So we can choose which elements in the picture we would like to enlarge for creative effect.
Here is an obvious one. We’re back in PNG and this guy is getting dressed up in traditional tribal gear with face paint and feathers. Now, this was a lovely guy, he was warm, he was friendly, but he was a big guy, he was a tough guy and to be quite honest you wouldn’t mess.
And the face paint is all about theatricality, it’s all about looking tough, looking warlike, looking scary. So by getting close to his hand, which is holding that shard of mirror, I can bring out that physicality even more.
Here again, this is an image of the menace. We have a nun in East Timor holding a rather nasty looking dart. That ended up in her compound during disturbances in the mid-2000s.
So we need the frown of the nun but the focus of the shot is the dart itself and her fingers holding it. Of course, by using a wide-angle lens and by getting close, her hand and more importantly the dart is really front and center.
A different scenario here. I’ve got some very cute children in Vietnam. This shot is all about cheekiness.I’m at 24 mm, I’m pretty close to the little boy in front, and it means his head is nice and big, his eyes are nice and big shiny.
And I’ve got all those other cheeky little faces at different sizes in the shot. And in a way, they lead the eye around to the boy in the center of the shot. Now the ability to distort perspective is a great thing but it doesn’t come without certain perils.
Here’s one of them – the dreaded ‘wide-arm syndrome’.Now I didn’t spend much time studying her arm. But I can assure you it doesn’t really look like that. But the fact is I shooting very wide at 17mm, I was very close.
I guess a meter away and she was right on the edge of the frame. Here again, it’s not quite as dramatic but again some wide arm syndrome.
So here’s the next shot, also 16mm, but I’ve just moved a step back. It means everyone is more in the center of the frame so they’re not getting stretched. It’s really on the outer reaches that that stretching takes place.
So here’s another howler, rather than the fat arm syndrome, this is the elastic arm syndrome. A different kind of shot – same problem. This was in my very early days. I had my 16-35mm. I thought it was the best thing on the planet.
And I was going to get as close as I possibly could. The result: Frankenstein’s forehead – not good. So the lesson here is clear. If you’re shooting ultra-wide and your subject is straying into the outer edges of the frame, then take a step or two back and maybe adjust the focal length as well.
Maybe you don’t need to be on 16mm, you can be on 18mm, even 20mm will make a big difference. Overall I’d say a wide-angle lens is an excellent tool to tell stories. To get that sense of in-your-face immediacy, that connection between subject and viewer that can make your photography come alive.
After reading this how to use wide angle lenses what you think, please let me know. If you found this article useful, please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question. Thanks very much.