Lessons From Shooting Landscapes With My First Ultra-Wide Lens

Lessons From Shooting Landscapes With My First Ultra-Wide Lens

Traveling with just an ultra wide-angle lens is a powerful way to improve your landscape photography, but my first trip without a telephoto was rife with mistakes.

As a nomadic photographer, I travel with one lens and one carry-on bag (here’s my entire minimalist packing list). For six years I’ve shot landscape photography with Canon’s 24–105mm f/4L lens. I owned a 50mm prime and 70–200mm telephoto, but in time I sold everything thanks to the 24–105mm’s exceptional versatility.

A few weeks ago I took a 15 day landscape photography trip through western Oregon. I’ve always shot with the super flexible 24–105mm, but this time I left it at home and took a new lens: Canon’s 16–35mm f/4L. I had reviewed my portfolio and found that most of my better work was in this focal range, but having nothing above 35mm radically altered my shoot mentality.

After setting my shoot goals for the trip, I left with the expectation of snapping two keeper shots a day. I had no idea just how challenging it would be — at best, I got one keeper a day. Even though I was shooting the same genre, the ultra-wide proved to be limiting and incredibly challenging. However, the constraints forced me to take fewer, but better shots.

Here are eight lessons I learned shooting landscapes on a dedicated ultra-wide lens.

1. Take off the Polarizing Filter

My B+W circular polarizing filter (CPL) has been on the front of my lens for six years. But because of the wide field of view, a CPL can only polarize a sliver of the image at a time, which creates this post production mess:

Mount Hood from Tom Dick and Harry, Oregon

Fixing that dark spot of sky in post is incredibly time consuming, so just take the polarizing filter off or turn it 90 degrees. Sadly, this means I couldn’t use the polarizer to rescue midday skies when shooting on the ultra-wide lens.

So what does this mean for the #1 filter in landscape photography? I never thought I’d say this, but despite my love for the polarizer, my only reason to use it is to protect the lens. As I shoot at better times of day anyway, the intended uses — darkening the sky and blocking out water reflections — become irrelevant. However, there’s one remaining use: cutting out reflections from small bodies of water. Since the effect is less noticeable than a polarized sky, it’s possible to get away with polarizing a sliver of the water, or the body of water may be small enough to be entirely polarized.

2. Don’t Shoot Panoramas

Panoramas are one of my favorite formats for print, but ultra-wide panos are hard to work with because they exhibit extreme fisheye distortion. So as a rule, I’ve stopped shooting panos with the 16–35mm.

However, I discovered an exception on the trip: if the image is full of curves instead of straight lines, the distortion can work to your advantage! In particular, this pano of Crater Lake looks natural because the crater is already elliptical, and the distortion just emphasizes the roundness.

Pano of Crater Lake, Oregon

So if you decide to shoot an ultra-wide pano, look for compositions with curves and without horizontal lines. Keep in mind that panos will be severely cropped during stitching, so shoot wider than you expect to keep from cutting off your foreground.

3. Don’t Slack off on Composition

Good composition is important for any image, but when shooting on an ultra-wide lens, there is no way to mitigate a poor composition by zooming. If your vantage point doesn’t have a clear foreground, mid-ground, and background, you have to move on to a different angle without hesitation.

Although I knew this would be the case before the trip, experiencing it was completely different from what I imagined. From habit, I kept reaching for a nonexistent telephoto lens to shoot panos and zoom in on textures in the mountains. It’s a severe handicap, but I learned more about intentional composition on this short trip than I have on much longer ones!

4. You’re Never Close Enough

Part of the challenge to composing shots with an ultra-wide is that you’re rarely close enough to the subject. Mountains, lighthouses, and buildings become tiny at 16mm, and zooming to 35mm won’t always address the size discrepancy between foreground and background.

So if the subject doesn’t feel big in person, move closer — even when it means abandoning a good vantage point. To communicate the magnitude of the subject, it needs to overwhelm you in person before it can make an impact in camera. For this 16mm shot of Mt. Bachelor, it meant trekking through some questionable wetlands to strike a compelling balance between the streams and mountain.

Mount Bachelor, Oregon

5. Enjoy the Sunbursts After Thorough Cleaning

High-end lenses often have a high number of diaphragm blades that allow you to create striking sunbursts. The 16–35mm has 9 rounded diaphragm blades, so you’ll get a total of 18 gorgeous spikes around point light sources. Since wide-angle shots typically need a large depth of field anyway, you’ll get sunbursts for free when shooting with a small aperture like f/14.

Roads End, Oregon

But take care: anything on your glass will show. I took this shot of the Oregon coast not long after cleaning my lens: notice the subtle bokeh around the sunburst? Those are from the salt spray! I couldn’t even see it on my neutral density filter, but at f/18 the camera certainly did.

So plan to give your lens and filter(s) a thorough cleaning immediately before incorporating sunbursts into your landscape. Or don’t go to the beach.

6. Go Wider Than You Want

The ultra-wide look doesn’t always flatter the subject, and sometimes you have to fix it in post. So leave yourself margin for cropping and correcting distortions by shooting wider.

Yaquina Lighthouse, Oregon with distortion

Yaquina Lighthouse looking like the Tower of Pisa.

This lighthouse was far enough to the side of the frame that the distortion caused it to lean noticeably. I usually wouldn’t mind, but since it’s a man-made structure and the subject of the image, it was important for it to look upright. Thankfully, I shot a little wider than I wanted to make allowance for correcting the distortion.

Yaquina Lighthouse, Oregon

Yaquina Lighthouse with upright correction applied.

7. Shoot More Verticals

An ultra-wide lens emphasizes proportions to the extreme. That can be problematic for distant backgrounds, but it can flatter vertical shots. So if you don’t want to emphasize the scene’s width, use the ultra-wide to exaggerate the feeling of height and exhaustion. As a bonus, the exaggerated proportions will help lead the viewer through the image.

8. Wait for the Light

An ultra-wide tends to cover more lighting conditions and angles in one frame, so it takes longer to get everything properly exposed. Since you can’t zoom to isolate an area or use a polarizer to darken the midday sky, the only choice is to wait for the right light between golden hour and astronomical twilight. I should have been diligent on previous trips anyway, but with an ultra-wide I didn’t even have the option to be impatient or lazy.

Have You Ever Traveled With Only One Lens?

As I packed for my trek through Oregon, I strongly considered bringing the 24–105mm as a backup in case the 16–35mm didn’t work out. But like Cortés burning his ships, having one lens forced me to exercise some weak skill-sets — and wade through some marshes — to get the shot. The fastest way to improve your composition instincts may be to shoot with an ultra-wide and no telephoto backup.

What lessons have you learned from shooting on an ultra-wide angle lens? Do you travel with it as your sole lens? Share your experience in the comments!

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52 Comments

Ben Lockett's picture

I spent a year only owning an 11-24 and an 85mn prime, and while I've filled out my lens collection now, I still find that most of my favourite shots are at 11mm, where the perspective makes pretty much anything look huge and impressive, and the wide angle means that it's so much easier to get a unique looking shot.

After struggling at 16mm I have trouble conceiving the power of an 11mm! Your star trail shots definitely back it up. Strangely, my instincts have been opposite: I find it much harder to make a wide angle look good without overdoing the "wide angle look," compared to zooming in on a telephoto.

What's your go to lens nowadays for landscapes?

Evan Kane's picture

Great article, I really like the idea of working with as few lenses as possible! It forces you to think about things in either new or specific ways :)

Absolutely—I probably would have chickened out after the first few days and pulled the telephoto back out, but glad I didn't have an option!

Shawn Mahan's picture

Great article! Most of my shots are are taken when I travel. The 24-105 that came with my 6d and it is truly a great all purpose lens. But after renting a 14mm prime I really wanted a wider lens. My awesome wife gifted me a 16-35 f2.8 l II for x-mas and I love that lens. I am still learning how to use it. I love getting more architecture in frame without having to stick photos together. I also like the way ultrawides stretch the sky. I do need to get better at not tilting the lens up or down as much because the distortion really gets exaggerated. I also agree with you on panoramas, I actually zoom up to 35mm if I want to take several pics of a scene. I think that it is my own ignorance, but at 16 mm there is too much difference in exposure and my stitched pics look more like the sky with the polarizer. Lastly, it is harder to get great portrait shots at 35. I am so used to being able to shoot a nice landscape or buildingscene and then turn and grab a pic of my wife with the 24-105 it's no problem. At 35mm portraits are a real challenge for me. So the one lens thing is hard at wide angles. If I am going to have just one lens I will put my 50mm prime on, especially if we are walking around at night.

Wow, you have an awesome wife! That's a gorgeous lens. I feel you on the tendency to get too much sky in frame — I tried something unusual that seemed to help: use your non-dominant eye to compose. I have no idea why, but I was better able to judge the composition (esp. how much sky to include) with my left eye, maybe because it's not used to looking through a viewfinder. Also seemed to help with my unending struggle to shoot level =)

Shawn Mahan's picture

Thanks for tip. I will give that a try!

Henry Bradley's picture

You might be seeing vignetting at the edges of the frame, which becomes the center when you merge two images. It can be decreased by stopping down or using profile correction in LR.

Shawn Mahan's picture

Good point. I do use lens profile corrections in LR, but not before I stitch. The vignette get can quite noticeable against some sky's. I think some of it is just swinging through to big of an arc to the point you just pick up different lighting angles. I will have play around with a few pics this weekend. Thanks for the tip.

David Pavlich's picture

I was using the 17-40 when the 16-35 f4 came out. The reviews were so good that I sold the 17-40 and got the 16-35 f4 and never looked back. It's a terrific lens that should be considered by any Canon shooter that wants a real go to landscape/cityscape lens. Very good article!

I've been really impressed with how well distortion is managed. Do you feel like your shots are razor sharp?

I've wondered if I have a "soft" copy—I was expecting a noticeable sharpness difference from my 24-105, but every time I compare the same shot, the 24-105 is actually slightly sharper. Autofocus was also spotty at first, but now that I've been reviewing shots from the trip it seems to have behaved for the most part since I shoot f/8+

David Pavlich's picture

My copy of the lens worked right out of the box. The improvement over the 17-40, especially at the edges, was markedly so. I thought about the 15-30 Tamron, but I use thread on filters, so that pretty much killed the Tamron. I'm very happy with the Canon lens.

David Pavlich's picture

This is a 30 second exposure from Lake Pontchartrain in SE Louisiana:

David Pavlich's picture

If you zoom in on that tiny ribbon at the junction between the water and sky, you'll see the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge. It's pretty well in focus. Trivia: It's the longest bridge in the world at 24 miles. :-)

Hmm, I guess I need to stop pixel peeping =D I do 2x3 foot metal prints, so I was hoping for a bit more sharpness on the new ones. The 5D's moire filter might just be the limiting factor.

David Pavlich's picture

Question: As prints grow larger, doesn't pixel density also play a role in the sharpness of an image? At least it does in terms of resolution.

Absolutely; the 5D Mark III has some nice big pixels to work with (which is part of why the low light noise performance is so good), but there's a moire filter (essentially a blur) in front of the sensor to help videographers out.

Unfortunately, it makes things a bit soft for printing large format without quite a bit of sharpening magic. So even though each pixel is quite large, each pixel is a bit blurred with its neighbors, lowering the effective resolution.

I'm told if moire isn't a problem for your genre, you can get the filter removed, but it probably voids warranty.

A timely article for me - as this is my second week of making myself use only my AF-P Nikkor 10-20mm DX (somewhat neglected till now ). Your points 3 and 4 are especially spot-on. Composition: it's easy to go wow at the big, bold bowl of goodies the viewfinder shoves in your face and just click, only to peep and think meh. I find I have to stay all the more focused on the key element in the picture and make sure everything else serves it. Closeness: this is wide-angle's biggest weakness when it comes to my favorite kind of shooting: street photography. I have to be so close up that it's uncomfortable even if someone has indicated that it's okay. That, or crop and lose the whole point of shooting wide-angle. But, still, for turning the mundane into the awesome, wide-angle can't be beat.

Great shot David. Street photography at 10mm sounds like an amazing challenge — definitely an area where the telephoto seems like the traditional fit, but you can't beat the wild perspective the ultra-wide adds!

Great shots and solid advice! However I would argue that a good circular polarizer is still a great accessory for an ultra-wide angle lens. Yes, it’s absolutely worthless for cloudless skies but when you are shooting toward the sun with calm water (or wet leaves and rocks) in the foreground, a CPL will nearly eliminate the glare in the foreground. Just take multiple exposures w/ the CPL on and off and blend as needed in Photoshop.

Here are some examples where a CPL on my 14-24 has saved me:

https://fstoppers.com/photo/121880

https://fstoppers.com/photo/196924

https://fstoppers.com/photo/80072

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55162f47e4b0d6bbb549d4e2/552362b9...

Also I would keep that 24-105 with me - just in case. Carrying only a 16-35 on an out of state photography trip is ballsy!

That is a really good point Richard — I guess I won't toss it out just yet =) I forgot about glare on greens, which definitely makes a difference. Curious, why did you end up blending exposures? IIRC, when you block out reflections from water or leaves, that's usually 90 degrees opposite of the sky, so I'm thinking I wouldn't need a separate exposure in that case?

Gorgeous shots, one of those looks familiar!

Haha yeah I threw in Smith Rock because it was in the article. Did you make it up to see the Monkey Face viewpoint?

The reason for stacking images and compositing in Photoshop is because a CPL is still effective reducing glare in the foreground even if you're shooting directly into the sun, even if it is at a less-than-optimal 90 degree angle. The sky of course would band like crazy and so two images would be required for a proper image.

For reference, here are two of the above photos without the glare being minimized via CPL. The difference is pretty huge. Full disclosure, the Hanauma Bay shot was also aided by a long exposure on the water to help smooth things out a bit.

I drove past Monkey Face if that counts! But I mostly stayed on the ground, my bro had runner's knee and wasn't too keen on Misery Ridge =D

Definitely noticeable! My confusion is that usually if I turn the CPL so that it cuts out water reflections, it has no effect on the sky anymore. They seem to be almost exactly opposite phase; but then again, I didn't use my polarizer much after the first few days so it's possibly a different situation on ultra-wides?

Aah I see. Yeah you will likely still get banding on a perfectly clear sky at 16mm no matter what the orientation of the CPL.

Also yes, Misery Ridge is a bitch with a backpack full of gear. Another reason to come back in a couple of years, which would hopefully be timed nicely with the reopening of some of the Columbia River Gorge trails.

I'll have to keep my eyes open — I haven't noticed banding in my photos yet, but there's time =D

I'm hoping to make it out to Mount Rainier sometime, I was really disappointed the roads up to Tipsoo Lake were closed for construction right when I flew out.

Alex Armitage's picture

I really only shoot with the 16-35 f4 or 70-200 f2.8. Never feel like I need much more than that.

Between two ultra-sharp lenses, I think you're covered! Too bad the 70-200 is a beast — I don't think I could ever bring myself to pack that in my carry-on =D

I was also going to suggest the 70-200mm, but it is definitely a beast. However, you could go for the 70-300 which is one pound lighter. It's not a fast lens, but it doesn't need to be for landscapes.

Nice, I had no idea Canon offered an L version of the 70-300.

Alex Armitage's picture

The 70-200 certainly adds some weight. About to spend 7 weeks in Europe with that exact setup and I'm not even taking a suitcase :)

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