My favorite lens is my 24mm-70mm f2.8 Canon Zoom Lens. I use it to create a vast majority of my images and often shoot at either end of its zoom range. It’s my “walking around” lens and the most versatile lens that I own. I tend to keep it set on a wide angle setting which I use more often than the longer focal lengths. Wide angle images are just more fun.
I work with full-chip bodies, meaning the sensor is the same size as original 35mm film, and a normal focal length lens on my camera is 50mm. This covers the same angle of view as human vision and anything with a wider angle of view is considered a wide angle lens. If you shoot a small-chip body, a normal lens is more like 38mm and anything wider is a wide angle lens.
OK. That gets rid of the technical definitions.
Personally, I don’t care about the technology. Everything in photography seems like magic to me. I only care that my equipment gives me the results that I visualized before hitting the shutter button.
Wide angle lenses do just what their name implies—they capture a wider angle of view than we can see without moving our head. The only part of this that captures my attention is how can that unique ability of the lens help me to create images with impact and a meaningful storyline? That’s all that matters, right? Let’s see what we can do.
You can break wide angle images down into 3 broad categories with the first being the most obvious—the sweeping scenic.
Broad natural vistas such as National Park Viewing Points make beautiful wide angle images. The park terrain and features are dramatic and a wide angle zoom lens allows us to capture as much of the vista as we want. Add in great lighting or weather events and you have a great image. The same can be said for city views or even cloud patterns or lightning storms. This is often the first subject photographer’s capture using a wide angle lens.
Because wide angle lenses have “built in” depth of field and most objects are distant in a scenic, it isn’t necessary to stop down very far to get everything in focus. This is another advantage of these lenses.
Scenics, however, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wide angle images.
Shooting in either a tight space, such as inside a hot air balloon, or in a situation where you can’t back up, such as a church plaza in a city in Mexico, often calls for a wide angle lens. This situation is especially common in architecture where it is often necessary to stop down your aperture further to get greater depth of field to keep everything sharp.
Another consideration is convergence. If you can keep your camera lens horizontal, vertical lines run straight up and down, but if you have to tilt your lens up slightly to capture the tops of buildings, vertical lines will converge.
If this leaning in of buildings is too extreme, then it feels like the buildings are going to fall in on the viewer. Unless that is the effect you want, going to a wider focal length with its wider angle of view and stepping back a ways allows you to lower your lens into a more horizontal position reducing the effect of convergence. Conversely, if I am shooting down on a structure, like a huge multi-storied shopping mall in China, vertical lines will spread apart or diverge.
My favorite use of a wide angle lens involves the distortion properties of that type of lens. This is where a wide angle is really fun!
Forced perspective creates the illusion that a viewer can just about reach out and touch the foreground subject. This is especially effective in landscape photography, where desert wildflowers become huge in the foreground, or architecture, where the nearest structure becomes monumental relative to the rest of the scene.
Forced Perspective is a powerful storytelling tool that I use often for impact and content.
Depth of field has a big impact in this kind of image. It is critical to pick the proper point of focus and stop down all the way to get maximum depth of field. Everything should be sharp, but especially the foreground subject. By exaggerating the wide angle distortion, you are telling a viewer that the foreground is the most important part of the image. Make sure you pick a dramatic foreground structure to support this effect.
Practically every camera out there comes with a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens. The wide angle range is much more than a tool to capture wide open spaces. Use it to create a sense of great depth or produce an image with a dramatic foreground. Work with the distortion and pump up the impact of your images. That is why wide angle lenses are fun, and in my view fun is the whole point of photography.
Try it out!