At its very best, photography presents the viewer with something previously unseen. Some of the best photographs are the ones that show a far away place, a seemingly impossible event, or an unimaginable situation. These shots usually come from those annoyingly well-traveled and worldly photographers whose websites, blogs, and Instagram accounts we mere mortals enviously follow.
But fear not, for us plebeian scum it’s still possible to make compelling and inspired photos, even if our budget for travel and gear is a bit limited.
And one of the simplest ways to increase the dynamism and visual interest of our images is by using a wide-angle lens. By widening our angle of view, we’re able to capture shots of the world around us in a way that’s exquisitely uncommon and decidedly more compelling than when shooting with a standard lens.
But just how much, and in what ways can wide-angle lenses impact your photography? Let’s find out.
What is a Wide-Angle Lens
For those who may not know, a wide-angle lens is any lens whose focal length is smaller than the long side of any given film plane or sensor. Since focal length is relative to the size of a camera’s film or sensor, what constitutes a wide-angle lens will vary according to camera type.
Since many photogeeks and new shooters will recognize the 35mm format used by classic film cameras and newer digital cameras as a point of reference, we’ll use this format to illustrate.
Following our definition above, a wide-angle lens will be any lens on a Full Frame or 35mm film camera body that has a focal length of 35mm or less. On a Full Frame or classic 35mm film camera, 35mm lenses are often considered wide-standards.
Similarly, an ultra-wide lens is any lens whose focal length is shorter than the short side of a film plane or sensor. So in the 35mm (Full Frame) format these would be any lens with a focal length shorter than 24mm.
The shorter the focal length in mm, the wider the lens will be, and the larger field of view one will be able to achieve.
Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s look at what a wide-angle lens can do for your photography.
Wide-Angle Lenses Capture More of the Scene
Whether you’re shooting landscapes, cityscapes, or street shots, your photos can benefit from inclusion of more things within the frame. Wide-angle lenses allow this. It’s much easier to convey the sprawling vistas of landscape shots when you’re shooting a wide lens. The viewer sees the foreground, midground, and background all in equally sharp focus.
It’s also possible to draw the viewer’s attention to a subject immediately in front of the camera, while including the distances far afield. This is useful in street shooting to provide context, and establish a relationship between the subject and his or her environment.
Also useful in architectural and city shooting, using a wide-angle lens helps convey a sense of size, space, and distance that’s impossible to produce with a standard or telephoto lens.
Not convinced? Think of a city scene for a moment. Did you envision just three buildings? Of course not. To adequately present the viewer with the feeling of being in a city, you’ll want to make a shot with dozens of buildings in the frame. To do that, you’ll need to be shooting a wide-angle lens.
Wide-angle Lenses force You to Get Close to Your Subject
This is one of the most well-known and often-cited reasons for shooting a wide-angle lens. In order to make any kind of subject appear prominently in the shot, you’re going to have to get quite close, otherwise your subject will be lost in the scenery.
This is a fantastic way to really force yourself to engage with your subject. In street shooting especially, using a wide-angle lens imbues each frame with a feeling of tightness. This intimacy between photographer and subject comes through in the final image, and let’s the viewer feel truly connected to the scene.
Using a wide-angle lens is one of the easiest ways to instantly improve your street photography. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly difficult to commit to the idea that you’re going to be within kicking distance of every one of your subjects. But if you’ve got the gumption, you’re bound to make some amazing images.
Try it out. It’ll be fun. As long as no one gets hurt…
Wide-angle Lenses let you exaggerate Small Spaces
Though we may not like it when real-estate agents use them, wide-angle lenses are great for those shooting in cramped places. With a wide- or ultra-wide, it’s possible to make even the most infinitesimal studio apartment seem like a penthouse suite.
For those of us not in the real-estate game, this aspect of wide-angle shooting is still super-useful. Road trips and vacations benefit from the wider scope, where shooters and subjects may be stuck in a car, train, or plane for long stretches of otherwise mind-numbing time. And travelers looking to capture shots of explored interior spaces will love the versatility of wide-angle lenses.
Snapshots and family photos can also benefit from a wider angle of view. Making compelling shots of Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas celebrations, or indoor birthday parties is a simple task when shooting with a wide-angle lens.
Fun with Distortion
More than any other type of lens, wide-angle lenses (and ultra-wides especially) allow you to play with perspective in a really unique way. Without too much difficulty is possible to skew the shot and make playfully distorted images.
By positioning the front element of a wide-angle lens very close to the subject, it’s possible to make the foremost point of the subject hyperbolically large while making the rest of the subject shrink away rapidly into the background. While not everyone will appreciate these types of photos, they’re only possible with a wide-angle lens.
Fish-eye lenses, in particular, allow the shooter to really bend the rules of photography. For this type of shooting, the wider the better. Some lenses even allow the photographer to take a photo of their own feet while pointing the camera at the horizon. Pretty wacky.
Leading Lines and Guiding Attention
Finally, with wide-angle lenses it’s easy to greatly emphasize horizontal and vertical elements in a frame. We can make the cables of a bridge, or the rails of a train track shrink off into the distance in long, unbroken lines. And we can use these lines to guide the viewers eye where we desire.
Frame your shot with these horizontal or vertical lines so that they begin at an extremity and end at a subject, and we’ve turned basic lines into leading lines. By using wide-angle lenses in this way, it’s possible to draw attention where we desire, and to do so in a way that imbues our photos with dynamism and drama.
If you’ve got a specific wide-angle lens that you can’t live without, let us hear about it in the comments. Maybe we’ll pick one up and cover it in our next lens review. And if you’ve got a site, Instagram, or blog where we can see your best wide-angle work, link us to it!
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