How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens

How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens

Wide-angle lenses are among the most difficult lenses to use in photography and videography. The wider you go, the more difficult they become to handle. Let’s talk today about how to make the best use of wide and ultra-wide lenses. 

Just as with any lens, wide-angle lenses require special treatment. A specific understanding of how the lens renders, how it works best for you and how you work with it in post-production are required. Let’s work through these options today with regards to wide and ultra-wide lenses. 

Be Aware of the Properties of Wide-Angle Lenses

The first, and potentially most important, aspect of working with a wide-angle lens is to understand the way that a wider angle of view renders objects at different distances. 

Firstly, things that are closer to the lens get disproportionately larger and things further away get disproportionately smaller. This means that your subject at 70 cm from the front of the lens will be extremely larger than the background at 2 km from the lens. The wider that lens, the more prominent this distortion becomes. 

Second, with extreme wide-angle lenses, barrel distortion can become a serious issue. This means that objects towards the side of your frame will become stretched or bent towards the edges. This is especially visible in fisheye lenses, but still something to be aware of in wide-angle rectilinear lenses. 

Keystone distortion can also become an issue if you tilt your camera. Although this is an issue with all lenses because of the angle of the recording medium, wide-angle lenses often show this most prominently as we often try to capture large buildings or spaces with vertical lines that will converge up or down as we tilt the camera.

Clean Up Your Frame

One of the key concerns with wide-angle photography is the ability to clean up your frame. With so much inclusiveness in these lenses, it can be difficult to distil an image down to just what you need and produce an effective photograph. Let’s look at a few ways to do this. 

With a basic understanding of the way wide-angle lenses behave and render the scene in front of us, let’s work now towards using them effectively to create the images we are looking for. 

Get In Close: Fill Your Frame

This is key with wide-angle lenses. It is important to move your camera closer, farther, up, or down in order to get the objects in your frame to look the way you want them. As we mentioned above, things closer to the camera will render much larger than with longer lenses. Thus, walking towards your subject will make it appear much larger. Likewise, getting closer to the ground will render objects on the ground much larger. Even small movements with a wide-angle lens can result in huge differences. 

There are certainly things to be careful of when it comes to this type of rendering. Consider yourself photographing a hotel room, such as Mike Kelley does in Where Art Meets Architecture. The closer to the bed in that room you get, the larger the bed will appear. If you are pointing your camera at one corner of that bed, you’ll find that the corner you’re closest too will render extremely large while the far corner will render much smaller. If possible, stepping back and shooting the same angle of view with a longer focal length will render that bed more naturally. 

Keep Your Camera Level

As I mentioned above, keystoning can be a major concern when working with wide angle lenses. If we look up or down at something, the vertical lines in hour image begin to converge. Sometimes this can be undesirable and completely ruin the image we are working towards. Thus, it is important to check the pitch of your lens. 

If you desire your vertical lines to remain vertical, it is important that your camera’s sensor is perfectly vertical. Even a 1-degree angle up or down can change the way your scene renders significantly. So, take a few extra seconds when composing to make sure you have your angles right. 

Make Use of Internal Levels

Many modern cameras have an inbuilt level indicator for this specific purpose. Check your camera manual and learn to use this function for wide-angle photography. You might just find it saves you from time to time.

With a tilt-shift lens, it is possible to work around keystone distortion effectively, but that is a topic for another article. One other way to correct for slight keystoning is using post-processing software like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. When distortion is too extreme, the correction may look unnatural. However, small changes can be made with very little visual interruption. 

Be Aware of your Edges

When framing your image, make sure that you check the edges and corners of your frame. Of course, this applies to all lenses, but you will notice small movements a lot more with wide-angle lenses. 

A small change in angle may not affect the subject close to you in extreme ways, but it will certainly affect the background. The simple shake of your hand is the difference between including or cropping the top of a building. Thus, you need to take extra care when composing with wide-angle lenses. Whenever possible, I recommend using a tripod for delicate compositions. 

Use Shallow Depth of Field

There are some excellent wide or ultra-wide lenses on the market with very narrow apertures. Above, I mentioned being careful of how things distort when you get close, but I did not suggest that you shouldn’t get close!

Remember that distance plays a huge role in depth-of-field, and should not be discounted with wide-angle lenses. In fact, it can produce some very interesting effects. If you own a wide-angle lens with a large aperture like Nikon’s 24mm f/1.4 or Fujifilm’s 16mm f/1.4, try getting in close and using the lens wide open. You might just find you love the effect!

You may want to read my article on wide-angle lenses for portraiture to learn more about depth-of-field. 

What Other Things Should We Consider?

These are my main considerations when using a wide angle lens. If you love wide-angle, how do you like to use your lenses? What techniques or considerations do you follow when trying to get the most out of your lens?

Dylan Goldby's picture

Dylan Goldby is an Aussie photographer living and working in South Korea. He shoots a mix of families, especially the adoptive community, and pre-weddings. His passions include travel, good food and drink, and time away from all things electronic.

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