Expand Your Horizons; Five Tips for Great Wide Angle Photos

Until recently, few digital camera owners were able to make true wide angle images because a 38mm focal length was the shortest available in built-in zooms. (All focal lengths are discussed in 35mm format equivalent.) Today, an increasing number of digicams include zooms that start at 28mm or even 24mm. Many of the high-end cameras also accept 0.7x adapters, ideal for ultra wide angle photography. And SLR system lens manufacturers have also started making incredibly short zooms, such as 12-24mm, for a very wide angle of view. All of this is great news for creative shooters who want to expand their visual horizons.

Most camera owners think of a wide angle lens as something that's useful for including an entire landscape vista, street scene, or a large group of people, in a single image. While that is one valid reason for owning a wide angle lens, or a wide angle adapter accessory, there are many others as discussed in the text. (28mm equivalent.) Photo © 2005 Peter K. Burian.

Wide Angle Characteristics
Wide angle lenses include more of any scene than longer lenses, useful whenever you want to include more in a single shot: a large group of friends or an entire landscape vista, for example. But short focal lengths have other significant characteristics as well. The most noteworthy is the exaggerated relationship between near and far objects. The distance between foreground and background objects appears to be much greater than our eyes perceive. Called "expanded" perspective, this is actually an optical illusion but it's a compelling one.

As another factor in the expanded perspective, the relative size of objects also appears to be distorted. Those near the camera become prominent, appearing unusually large. Meanwhile, more distant subjects are rendered much smaller than expected. Move in close to the primary subject to exploit this characteristic.

Wide 1957 Chev 635 F.tif: Often called "distorted", the exaggerated perspective produced by short focal length lenses is not always obvious. Examine this image closely however, and it's apparent that the front of the Chevy (the subject area closest to the lens) seems to loom toward the camera. While this effect is not ideal for documentary photographs, it can be desirable in more interpretive images. Also note the star-like effect in the small areas of reflection, produced by a very small lens aperture. (24.5 mm equivalent; at f/18; polarizing filter.) Photo © 2005 Peter K. Burian.

Linear distortion is another trait. Tilt the camera upward to include an entire building and you'll notice that vertical lines appear to converge so the subject appears to be leaning backward. Called "keystoning" this distortion of lines occurs because the base of the building is closer to the lens than its top. Distorted perspective occurs whenever the camera is not held parallel to the primary subject lines. Indoors, for example, vertical lines will seem to converge or lean inward, making the entire room seem to be out of plumb. As we'll see, you can prevent this problem or exaggerate it for creative effects.

Because we rarely use wide angle lenses for extreme close-ups with high magnification, they can produce images with great depth of field. At any f/stop, the range of acceptably sharp focus is quite extensive. Set a very small aperture such as f/16 and everything -- from foreground to background -- can be sharply rendered.

Although it may seem strange to move in extremely close to a subject, it's worth doing so for frame filling images with wide angle lenses. The shorter the focal length, the closer you must move to the subject to make true close-ups. (24mm equivalent focal length; fill flash with accessory flash unit with wide angle adapter.) Photo © 2005 Peter K. Burian.

Wide Angle Shooting Techniques
The shorter the focal length, the more obvious the wide angle characteristics will be. And other issues will arise too, some producing technical problems. In order to avoid disappointment with your wide angle -- and especially ultra wide angle -- images, it's worth becoming proficient with short lenses. Consider the following techniques as a starting point for the best possible results.

1. Avoid "distortion". For the most accurate rendition of vertical subjects (buildings, trees, etc.) hold the camera level, so its back is perfectly parallel to the subject. This will prevent "keystoning": the "leaning over backwards" look. If the photo then includes too much of the foreground area, crop it later, using image-editing software in your computer.

2. Maximize unconventional perspective. For creative purposes, you may want to exploit the "distorted" perspective. In that case, tilt the lens upward at an extreme angle, perhaps by shooting from ground level, for a dramatic effect. Exaggerate converging verticals with a group of skyscrapers, a huddle of football players, or the interior of a stadium, for example.

3. Focus for great depth of field. For the greatest range of acceptably sharp focus at any f/stop, try this. Set focus at a point roughly a third of the way into a scene: a landscape, field of wildflowers, cathedral interior, etc. This method is most convenient with manual focus, a feature included with an increasing number of digicams.

4. Simplify. An extremely wide angle of view can encompass many elements which compete for viewer attention. Often, there is no single, large subject that is clearly the center of interest. Consequently, an ultra wide is not the ideal lens for snapping distant landscapes from a roadside lookout. In order to make images with a clear message or purpose, move in closer to exclude extraneous details. Fill the frame with a few desired objects, or a sweep of red tulips at a botanical gardens, for example.

5. Minimize light falloff. Darkening at the edges of the frame occurs to some extent with most wide angle zooms, particularly at wide apertures (very small f/numbers). For more even illumination select a smaller aperture such as f/8. This is particularly useful whenever a subject of one color (sky, building, etc.) fills the frame. Note too that a thick polarizing filter can cause darkening at the corners (vignetting) when the mount intrudes into the image area. A special "thin ring" polarizer, designed for wide angle lenses, should prevent that problem.

When using a lens that encompasses an exceptionally wide area of any scene, it's often difficult to avoid including some extraneous subject matter. In order to minimize clutter, move in close to the primary subject and wait for a moment when the background is relatively free of unrelated or distracting elements. (18mm equivalent.) Photo © 2005 Peter K. Burian.

Final Recommendation
Whether you decide to buy a very short zoom for an SLR, or an ultra wide angle adapter, it's worth experimenting to make the most effective images. Look for suitable subject matter and try unusual viewpoints to exercise your creativity. Some of the pictures will seem "distorted" or "unnatural" but others will be "dynamic" or "dramatic". Whether for unique photographs or for problem-solving in tight quarters, your new lens or accessory will surely prove to be a suitable investment.

Canon 10-22mm zoom, Nikon 12-24mm zoom, Sigma 12-24mm zoom, Tamron 11-18mm zoom, Olympus 11-22mm zoom: Most lens manufacturers now make zooms with extremely short focal lengths for digital SLR cameras. Such lenses provide true ultra wide angle effects in spite of the (1.5x to 2x) focal length magnification factor produced by sensors that are smaller than a 35mm film frame.