In this guide we will cover wide-angle photography, explaining everything you need to know about wide angles and how to best use them.
First of all, we will clarify what are the peculiar characteristics of these objectives, how they are classified, and what are their main fields of application. Later, we will explain in depth how to photograph with a wide-angle and we will analyze the most common problems related to its use.
This article is written thinking above all of those who use a reflex or a mirrorless, and the wide angles are therefore intended as lenses in themselves, separate from the camera body. However, even if you have a camera with an integrated lens (a compact, an iPhone, or another smartphone) you can still apply many of the tips we will give you, especially those concerning composition and perspective.
The essential condition, of course, is that the instrument in your possession offers a very short focal length or, in the case of smartphones, a separate “ wide-angle camera ”.
What is a Wide Angle Lens
A wide-angle is a lens characterized by a shorter focal length than normal lenses, therefore less than 50mm, and which can consequently embrace a wider angle of view.
The diagram below shows how the amplitude of the angle of view covered varies according to the focal length of the lens, taking into account some “standard cuts”.
Let’s also take a tangible example: the sequence of images below shows the framing that can be obtained using some of the most common focal lengths in wide-angle photography, always shooting from the same point.
To give you a reference right away, consider that amateur SLRs and mirrorless cameras are usually sold in kits with an 18-55mm lens, whose equivalent focal length corresponds to about 27-82mm (the precise value varies slightly depending on the camera).
Used at its shortest focal length, already moderately wide-angle, a shot very similar to that of the third photo in the example above would have been obtained. Notice how evident the difference is compared to the shots taken at a shorter focal length: at 14mm, the amplitude of the angle of view is exactly double!
Below, you will find another comparison between the framing offered by this lens (in fact the shortest focal length available to many novice photographers) and that offered by the more extreme wide-angle lenses.
The diagram above is not a simulation – we actually shot at different focal lengths with a different wide-angle lens. Despite this, we want to point out from now on how the part in common between the various shots is identical, without any variation in perspective.
Classification of Wide Angle Lenses
We said earlier that, by definition, wide-angle photography is characterized by focal lengths of less than 50mm equivalent.
In practice, however, when we talk about these lenses, we mean the use of much shorter focal lengths, often less than 20 / 24mm. The “longest” standard still considered moderately wide-angle is in fact 35mm.
Precisely based on the different focal lengths, wide-angle lenses can be further classified into different sub-categories:
- Moderate wide angles: those whose focal length exceeds 24mm equivalent
- Pushed wide angles: focal lengths between 18 and 23mm equivalent
- Ultra-wide angle: lenses with focal lengths between 14 and 17mm equivalent
- Extreme ultra-wide-angle: focal lengths of 13mm equivalent or less
A separate case is a so-called fisheye, lenses designed for even more extreme wide-angle photography.
Fisheyes escape the classification based on focal length since they have a construction different from the classic rectilinear lenses, to which we are used. Their main characteristics are to cover an angle of view of 180 ° (or greater) and to cause a noticeable curvature of straight lines.
When (and Why) to Use a Wide Angle Lens
For many, wide-angle photography is synonymous with landscaping. However, this is not a hard and fast rule: these lenses can also be used in other areas, just as other types of lenses can be used for landscapes.
In general, the wide-angle is useful in all those situations where we need a wide angle of view, regardless of the type of subject and photographic genre.
That said, landscape photography is in fact the area of use of wide-angle lenses par excellence, together with indoor shooting and reportage. For other photographic genres, wide angles find less space although, as we shall see, they can sometimes be used successfully.
Use a Wide Angle to Shoot Wide Scenes
The need for a very wide view, typical of wide-angle photography, therefore arises mainly when we have to photograph landscapes, whether natural or urban.
If we used only a normal lens or a moderate wide-angle like the 18-55 present in the basic kit of the SLR, we would very frequently find ourselves in front of a landscape that is too wide to fit entirely in the frame.
At the beginning of the article we have already proposed a scheme that quantifies the greater width of the framed scene based on the focal length, but now we want to offer you a more concrete example.
The two images above, which are intended to be taken from the same point, simulate a situation of this type. The photo on the right is the one that would have been obtained using the classic 18-55 at its shortest focal length (29mm equivalent, in the case of Canon cameras): it is evident that it would not have been possible to include all the relevant elements of the scene. A 10mm ultra-wide-angle lens (16mm equivalent) solved the situation very well.
You might argue that it would have been possible to move away and shoot from a more distant shooting point, so as to be able to frame the whole subject anyway.
However, this is a viable solution only in some cases. In most situations, it is simply not possible to get too far away, due to physical obstacles of various kinds: just think of the indoor environments, in which the room for maneuver offered to the photographer is normally very limited.
In the next paragraph, we will discover that there is, however, another reason, less obvious and more interesting, why it is advisable to always have a wide-angle lens at hand.
Wide Angle Photography and Perspective
Let’s go back to the photograph we had used as an example earlier, the one taken with a 16mm equivalent wide-angle lens.
In this case, it might have been possible, in fact, to frame the main subject (the buildings on the opposite side of the canal) even with a longer focal length, choosing a more distant shooting point.
By doing so, however, it would not have been possible to position the bollard in the foreground on the right, keeping its proportions unchanged. Similarly, it would not have been possible to frame the closest bank of the canal for such a long stretch and obtain the same degree of convergence between the two banks.
A real shame, as these elements give the composition of the photo an evident sense of breadth.
This helps us to introduce the second most important feature of wide-angle photography, which is the ability to enhance the perspective of the image. As a direct consequence of the wide-angle of view taken, in wide-angle photos, the distance between the various planes of the image appears greater than it really is.
If exploited well, this peculiarity of wide angles can help give our photos a considerable depth and make the shot, overall, more effective.
To put an element in the foreground and, possibly, a graphic element that acts as a guide towards the background is a bit of a cliché of wide-angle photography and, even if overused, guarantees a result of the sure effect.
In the example image, the gravestones in the foreground, with their exaggerated dimensions, make the distance that separates them from the church in the background appear greater than it really is. The presence of the tombstones in the background, on the other hand, constitutes a classic case of decreasing perspective and further strengthens the depth of the scene.
Since there is a bit of confusion on the subject, we have to be precise. As explained in the article dedicated to this topic (which we invite you to read to learn more about the subject), the perspective of photography does not technically depend on the wide-angle lenses, but rather on the particular shooting point that they allow to adopt.
Returning to the image of the cemetery, if we had wanted to frame the tombstones with a telephoto lens, making them appear the same size, we would obviously have been forced to move away.
At that point, however, the church would have appeared larger and the difference between the size of the tombstones in the first and second lower floors. The proportions would have been rebalanced and the perspective would have changed, but not because of the lens, but because of the different shooting points!
Other Uses of Wide Angle Optics
We have therefore seen that landscapes, interiors, and architectural photos are the photographic genres most often associated with wide-angle photography and we have amply explained why.
In any case, wide angles can also be used in other areas, sometimes being the most suitable lenses for certain situations and in other cases offering the possibility of giving a touch of originality to one’s shots.
In the case of reportage and travel photography, a wide-angle lens can be used to create a more engaging shot, which gives the viewer the impression of really being inside the scene.
This effect derives from the remarkable sense of depth that can be obtained by playing with the particular perspective offered by wide-angle photography, which we have just discussed.
In portraits, wide angles are generally not recommended, especially the more extreme ones. In fact, to fill the frame with the human figure they force one to get very close to the subject, and (again due to the apparent dilation of the perspective) the unacceptable side effect of deforming the facial features is obtained.
Moderate wide-angles, such as 35mm, can still be successfully used in ambient portraits and indeed represent one of the most suitable focal lengths for this genre.
The wide-angle lenses are the lenses most suitable for photographing the night sky: thanks to their wide angle of view it is possible to take the entire Milky Way (including maybe even some terrestrial elements).
Furthermore, with short focal lengths it is possible to obtain shutter speeds that are congenial to this kind of shot; to find out more, however, refer to our in-depth article.
Finally, we mention the strange case of wide-angle macro photos. Macrophotography normally involves the use of long focal lengths, which have as a consequence that of completely isolates the subject from the background.
The wide-angle of view offered by wide-angle lenses, on the other hand, allows you to zoom in on excessively small subjects (typically insects) and at the same time show the surrounding environment.
How to Use a Wide Angle: Problems and Potentials of Wide Angle Photography
Using a wide-angle, technically speaking, is no different than using any other lens. You have to frame through the viewfinder or the display, focus, set shutter speeds and apertures, and simply shoot.
However, the use of very short focal lengths has non-negligible implications on the study of the framing and on the execution of the shot.
Wide Angle Photography and Framing Management
We must familiarize ourselves with the unusual angle of view offered by wide-angle photography and accept that the vision offered by these lenses is different from that which can be appreciated with the naked eye or through lenses with different characteristics.
An always lurking risk, taking pictures with wide-angle, is that you end up including in the frame also elements to which you had not paid attention, which could make the composition less effective.
For example, if you use very wide-angle lenses, you risk bringing the tripod onto which the camera is fixed back into the frame.
If, as we have seen, in wide-angle photography the foreground elements appear larger than they really are, the downside is that those further away will appear smaller than one might expect. This phenomenon, of course, is all the more evident the shorter the focal length used.
If you are not yet used to wide-angle photography, it could happen that what was supposed to be the main subject of the image appears so small that it blurs into the background, losing any weight in the economy of the composition.
The example photo shows just such a situation. The lighthouse, which is assumed to be the main subject in the photographer’s intentions, occupies a tiny portion of the photo, as does the sea, barely visible. The space left to the beach in the foreground, although made pleasant by the small dunes, is excessive. A closer shooting point would probably have been more congenial.
The fact that you have an ultra-wide-angle lens doesn’t mean you have to use it at all costs: in many cases, a more moderate lens may be the best solution.
Especially at the beginning, we advise you to make several tests using different focal lengths and varying the shooting point, so as to find a perspective that harmonizes the relationship between the elements of the scene.
The Focus in Wide Angle Photos
The depth of field, as we know, depends on three main factors, one of which is the focal length used (the others are the focusing distance and the aperture ).
Using the short focal lengths typical of wide-angle photography, all other factors being equal, the depth of field will be very high.
This means that by taking pictures with a wide-angle, it will be possible to have everything in focus even using relatively open apertures, such as f / 8.
Installation Times and “Blurred” Risk-Taking Pictures with Wide Angle
In wide-angle photography, the risk of finding yourself with blurred photographs is far less than in other photographic genres. With the same shutter speed, the chances of the photo being moved are in fact directly proportional to the focal length used.
There is a rule according to which to avoid this problem it is necessary to use a shutter speed slower than the inverse of the equivalent focal length. In the case of a 20mm wide-angle, this would mean that even shooting at 1/20 ″ the photo would have a good chance of being sharp (although it is always advisable to keep a certain margin).
Having said that, it should be borne in mind that almost all outlets for wide-angle photography, landscapes, and interiors in the first place, involve strictly using the camera on a tripod.
Photo Filters on Wide Angle Lenses
Given that wide angles are designed especially for landscapes, it is natural to think of associating them with the photographic filters most often used in this genre.
In fact, wide-angle lenses are often combined with ND filters, through which it is possible to obtain long exposures even in the presence of a lot of light.
In this regard, however, an important consideration must be made. Some ultra-wide-angle lenses, for example, the popular Samyang 14mm, are not compatible with screw filters, due to their overhanging front lens. In these cases it will be necessary to resort to plate filters, a system that, however, is more expensive and more complicated to use.
The situation is different with regard to the polarizing filter: if used in wide-angle photographs in order to improve the contrast of the sky, this often causes aberrations that can heavily compromise the shot.
This happens because the polarizer acts on a lower angle of view than that taken with ultra-wide-angle lenses, leading to an evident decrease in brightness on the party concerned.
In the example image (taken at 22mm equivalent) you can see a clear manifestation of this phenomenon in the sky. If you take pictures with a moderate wide-angle, however, the polarizer remains perfectly usable in many cases.
The Typical Deformations of Wide Angles
The wide-angle lenses, especially cheaper ones, are often affected by a strong barrel distortion, particularly noticeable at the edges of the image. The example photo shows this type of alteration, amplified in post-production to better convey the idea.
In the case of natural landscapes, barrel distortion is generally not considered a big problem, while it is definitely unsightly when using the wide-angle lens for architectural photos.
To some extent, you have to learn to live with these imperfections, perhaps by managing the shot in such a way that the main elements are not too close to the edges. In any case, it is also possible to resort to photo editing software (even automatically) to significantly reduce this unpleasant effect.
Very different is the question of falling lines, often associated (wrongly) with wide-angle photography. This phenomenon manifests itself with vertical lines converging upwards and typically occurs when we frame a building from its base, tilting the camera to be able to shoot it in full.
The fact that in this situation wide-angle lenses are normally used contributes to the mistaken belief that it is an effect due to short focal lengths. In reality, falling lines are a very normal phenomenon, due to the geometric perspective and are completely independent of the type of lens used.
Wide Angle Lens: Which to Choose?
At the end of this guide, here are some tips on which wide-angle to choose for your SLR or mirrorless camera.
The first decision to make obviously concerns the focal length. If you are not yet very familiar with wide-angle photography, it is better to avoid buying extreme ultra-wide angles, which could then be difficult to manage.
Furthermore, we advise you not to “leave holes” between the shortest focal length already available to you and that of the wide-angle lens you will purchase. If at the moment your most extreme wide-angle is a 28mm equivalent (as in the case of the 18-55 in the kit), worry about covering the 20-24mm equivalent before thinking about extreme focal lengths (like 14mm or less).
All major manufacturers offer very versatile wide-angle zoom lenses, which cover the focal range just below that of basic lenses. Some examples, for APS-C reflex cameras, can be the Canon EF-S 10-18mm (equivalent focal length: 16-29mm) and the Nikon AF-P DX 10-20mm (15-30mm equivalent).
To these are added interesting proposals from Sigma and other third-party brands. If you are new to wide-angle photography yet, these lenses are definitely the best options to get started.
As for the brightness, a feature generally considered very important in the choice of a lens, in the case of wide angles it can easily take a back seat.
Although short focal lengths allow you to have everything in focus even at medium apertures, it is still unlikely that you will find yourself having to shoot wide open: for this reason, it would make little sense to invest in an expensive particularly bright lens, such as f / 1.4 or f / 2, unless you have specific needs (astrophotography, for example).