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Getting the Most from Wide Angle Lenses 
by Jim McGee

It used to be that 35mm was thought of as a wide-angle lens. Today most "standard" zoom lenses start at 28mm (28-80mm) and lenses starting at 24mm are becoming ever more common. Additionally advances in lens design and manufacture have brought a class of lenses known as "super-wides" (20mm and wider) down to price points where more and more photographers are exploring their creative possibilities.

But the very fact that these wide-angle lenses can seemingly bring in the whole world is both their strength and their weakness. Where zoom lenses compress the apparent distance between objects wide-angle lenses stretch that distance and can make your subject fade into insignificance. The good news is that like most photographic tools learning some basics will allow you to tame these lenses and start exploiting their creative possibilities.

Use Strong Foreground Subjects 
The wider the lens the more it will exaggerate the apparent distance between foreground and mid-ground objects. If there is no strong foreground subject to lead your eye into the image the result is a boring photo. Experiment with different types of foreground subjects to get a feel for what works for your style of photography. In the first shot I used the carved stone acorns and the rock garden to fill the foreground, in the second colorful boats are used to offset a stormy gray sky. Don't be afraid to try different things, grass, logs, stones, leaves, almost anything can be used. If there are no straight lines in your subject (such as in landscapes) try angling the lens downward slightly. This includes a little more foreground and will greatly enhance the sense of depth in the image.

Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 @ 17mm

Nikon 28-105mm f3.5-4.5

Get low 
Wide-angle lenses create a big sweeping view and have tremendous depth of field. Getting down low to include things like grass and streambeds increases that feeling of sweeping grandeur.

Nikon 28-105 f3.5-4.5

Nikon 24mm f2.8

The stretched perspective that makes those landscapes look so great will distort the features of people and animals. While this may be undesirable for family portraits you can have some fun with it!

Wide angles are sensitive to the film plane being parallel to the subject. When using a wide angle to capture a subject with straight lines do a quick check to ensure that those lines aren't converging or diverging from parallel. In some cases a small amount of convergence is no big deal but in the example of the church below it's pretty obvious.

New computer-aided designs have largely cured design defects that caused distortion problems in older super-wide lenses. This was a real issue in older lenses. Some lenses distorted so badly that they were effectively special effects lenses. The reason I mention this is that many of these older wide-angle lenses are now on the used market at tempting prices. I wouldn't buy anything used in this category of lenses unless I could run a test roll first.

Nikon 24mm f2.8 tilted 

Nikon 24mm f2.8, same position, with film plane parallel to church

Get low, get close, and point the lens up at subjects to use the lens' natural distortion to create a feeling of drama. No other lens can create dramatic images like a wide angle can!

Nikon 18-35mm f3.5-4.5

Minolta 28-80 f3.5-5.6 AF II

Because they take in so much of the scene it's more likely that a wide angle lens will have the sun appear somewhere in the image making them more susceptible to lens flare. Flare is usually undesirable as it can wash color out of an image and create colored blobs of light that obscure parts of the image as shown in the image on the left. But don't be afraid to experiment creatively with flare. Sometimes it can yield a more interesting image. You can also use the sun to your advantage for another kind of dramatic effect. In the shot of sunrise over "The Great White Throne" on the right I stopped the lens down to f22 so as the light spilled over the peak it would splinter into a sunburst pattern.

Nikon 18-35mm f3.5-4.5

Nikon 24mm f2.8


Wide angles have tremendous depth of field and many have very close minimum focusing distances. This makes them wonderful tools for capturing flowers and other close-up images (Nikon 17-35mm f2.8).

Nikon 17-35mm f2.8

Working in close quarters 
Wide angles can also be used to capture indoor scenes and are a real aid for working in close quarters. However in these situations is it particularly important that you watch for lines and make sure that they are parallel to the edge of the frame. In this image of a tropical porch notice the railing posts and that they are parallel to the edge of the frame (Nikon 24mm f2.8).

Nikon 24mm f2.8

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