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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Previous comments
Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Nice, have a fantastic trip! The f/4 version wasn't too bad on weight, but my bag wasn't even long enough to hold it =D Sounds like you'll have some time to put it to good use.

Olga Radzikh's picture

How do you get those gorgeous long sun rays? And how do you avoid the flare? I have a Canon 16-35 mm lens, but my sunbursts have short tiny rays and a lot of flare that is difficult to edit out. Is there a special kind of technique to this?

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Hi Olga! It's a few different factors, but in a nutshell:

- Shoot at f/14 or higher to get a really pronounced sunburst. f/18 has been my sweet spot, but at that point any dirt/salt spray on the lens pops right out =D

- You need the sun to be on the smaller side, so make sure there aren't clouds "spreading out" the light source. A really great trick is to find some foreground (like a rock or tree branches) to help shrink the sun to a smaller point. The smaller the light source, the more pronounced the effect becomes.

- Often the rays get washed out in an overlit sky, so you might need 2 exposures, OR snug up the sun to a rock. That will give your rays a dark background to show up on!

- Flare tends to be more noticeable when you put the sun too far to the edge of the frame, although it can actually look really nice. So try to keep the sunburst closer to the center of the image, and shrink the lightsource so the flare is less pronounced.

Hope that helps! This was my first trip getting some real sunbursts — it's addictive on this lens! The quality blows my 24-105mm sunbursts out of the water.

Tommy Botello's picture

You can also take a 2nd image of the scene where you block the sun with your finger, or something else. This prevents light flare from spreading across the entire image, or most of it, thus degrading much of the detail. Then you just stack the images on top of each other in Photoshop and mask the sun and it's rays back in.

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

I hadn't heard this trick, I have images in mind this would have saved! I'll definitely try this. Sounds like it would work best for shots when the sun is closer to the edge.

Alex Armitage's picture

Can confirm :) Very helpful! Maybe i'll write about it.

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

That's awesome. I needed to know this last year in England =D

Olga Radzikh's picture

Thank you! I already knew about the f stop settings, but shrinking the sun is somewhat news to me. Will try!
But just to illustrate the point, here is a photo taken with f/22 and 16 mm, sun partially hidden behind the building. You see how the sun rays are short and flared instead of being long and sharp? Would you know why?

Olga Radzikh's picture

By the way, would you (or anyone) happen to know what went wrong here? This was shot with f 22 and 16mm. Sun is partially hidden behind the building. But the rays are short and flared out instead of being long and sharp

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Hmm, two possibilities:

1. f/22 might actually be too far — the diffraction might be kicking in overtime. I shot in the f/14 – f/18 range and that seemed to be just right for the 16-35mm.

2. Your light source could be a bit big — that entire portion of the sky looks blown out, so instead of having a nice small point light source it's relatively large. It's hard to tell in my shot because the sky looks overexposed, but the sun was orders of magnitude brighter than the surrounding the sky, so it was a relatively small light source.

I'm guessing it's mostly #2. Let me know if it helps!

Olga Radzikh's picture

Thank you, that makes a lot of sense!

Alex Armitage's picture

Olga, first try not to go over f/16 on that lens unless you absolutely need less light (for a longer shutter perhaps) as it tends to be a bit less sharp past that point.

Secondly, this is likely happening because it looks like the sun might be behind a little bit of clouds which results in a much bigger light source. It doesn't take much haze/cloud coverage to soften the sun light and make the light source bigger to create the effect that is happening in your shot. That would be my guess but it's hard to tell from a single photo.

Alex Armitage's picture

Here's an example of how clean a sunburst can look depending on your exposure as well, one of these is 0 EV and the other is -2 EV

Hope this helps.

Olga Radzikh's picture

Gorgeous sunbursts! Thanks for the information!

Simona Carena's picture

Helpfull info. Thanks! :-)

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Glad it was helpful, Simona!

Robert Altman's picture

I totally agree that if I have only 1 lens to travel with the wide is the way to go (I have an olde Nikon 17-35 F2.8). If I am traveling light I pair that with my 100mm Macro- good for portraits/shaort tele/and macro shots - if I am feeling more ambitious my 70-200 f4 makes the perfect companion...

J Sclafani's picture

That was interesting and informative. I need to get outside and shoot.

Paul Scharff's picture

Good advice. I would have added that you realllly have to watch the plane of your lens to minimize distortion. I have the 11mm Irix and only pull it out of occasions, but love it when I use it. For architecture, I'll use the Sigma 8mm on my crop sensor (~13mm equiv.) and I almost never have to correct my verticals, simply because I've done so much of it. Finally, you can use it just for the rush of looking down from a cliff through your camera. I come close to vertigo, and I don't even have to pay any admission fee to a theme park.

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Great point — that sounds like it would be a really common issue for architecture, do you find it limits the compositions you can shoot? If I understand correctly, it sounds like you'd have to shoot level all the time?

Paul Scharff's picture

Yes, that's correct, and it turns out it's almost never an issue. Sometimes I'll need to get higher and as such purposely capture keystoning that requires PP correction. Usually it's to get up a wee bit higher to show kitchen counters, and in extreme cases, quite a bit higher to show a water view filling more of the window. But to be honest, even with verticals corrected, it looks a bit unnatural when I have to do that so I limit it as much as I can. Here's a shot taken this week with no vertical correction, and it feels very natural in my view.

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

That makes sense, looks like it worked out well!

Rhonald Rose's picture

I am in a dilemma. I have a Canon TS-E 17mm lens. I bought it for it's Ultra Wide angle (plus tilt-shift). I am also building up X-T3 lens collection (so far 3 prime and no soom). My dilemma is whether I should sell off TS-E 17mm and go for a zoom lens "Fujinon Zoom Lens XF50-140mm F2.8 R LM OIS WR" or I should keep the TS-E (I have used TS-E, but not for it's T/S functionality).

Thanks to mirrorless push, the DSLRs might go out of use in another 5 years or so. I own a Canon 5D IV and Fujifilm X-T3. These days I am leaning more towards X-T3 than the beast 5D IV.

Any advise?

Thomas Hall's picture

I’ve been using the Laowa 12mm 2.8 for about a year now and I really enjoy the wide angle and clarity of glass that you get with it. It’s one of my favorite primes.