Lots of photographers love wide-angle lenses, and for good reason: wide-angle lenses can capture breathtaking landscapes, stunning environmental portraits, jaw-dropping architecture, and so much more.
But what exactly is a wide-angle lens? And how can you use a wide-angle lens to create consistently beautiful photos?
In this guide, I explain everything you need to know about working with wide angle glass. I offer basic definitions and also share my favorite tips for wide-angle photography – so that when you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to capture pro-level results.
Let’s dive in!
What is a wide angle lens?
A wide-angle lens provides a field of view wider than you can see with your eyes. The wide-angle focal lengths are between 8mm and 45mm.
Due to the wide-angle field of view, when looking through a wide-angle lens, you encounter an expansive scene. For example, if you’re standing on a beach at sunset, a wide-angle lens will show you the setting sun, but it will also show you the rocks at your feet and the clouds high in the sky:
Note that the smaller the focal length (i.e. the lower the number of millimeters of focal length), the wider the lens and the wider the view. A 35mm lens is slightly wide, a 24mm lens is moderately wide, and a 10mm lens is madly large.
Most manufacturers sell many of the same wide-angle focal lengths. Here are some common options:
- 24-70mm (here the 70mm end is starting to expand into telephoto territory)
Why use a wide angle lens?
Wide-angle lenses offer a few key benefits.
First of all, as I pointed out above, the wider your lens, the larger the scene you are able to capture.
So if you want to capture beautiful panoramic landscape photos that include foreground and background and a beautiful sky, a wide-angle lens is essential. Standard and telephoto lenses will only capture a small portion of the scene, while a wide-angle lens will show it all.
Second, wide-angle lenses help you create shots with great depth of field, i.e. shots that are sharp from foreground to background.
The closer you are to your subject and the longer the focal length you use, the more vague the background will appear. Wide-angle lenses, however, use short focal lengths, meaning your main subject will be sharp, as will key foreground and background elements. This deep depth of field look is highly favored by landscape and architectural photographers (and can also look great in portraits and street shots!).
Third, wide-angle lenses exaggerate perspective. When you capture a sunset scene at, say, 16mm, the sand and water in the foreground will look unusually close to the lens, while the horizon line will appear unusually far from the lens.
Take a look at this next shot; notice what the stones look like huge in relation to the buildings in the background?
While this kind of perspective distortion isn’t always desirable, you can use it to emphasize foreground elements. and create images with a lot of depth. (For these reasons, the effect is used by landscape photographers all the time!)
When to use a wide angle lens?
Some situations pretty much always make for great wide-angle photography. Landscape photographers almost exclusively use wide-angle lens, as do many architectural, street, and cityscape photographers. Here is a more detailed list of images you can capture with a wide-angle lens:
On the other hand, if you want to create closer, more intimate shots of a single subject, it’s usually best to avoid wide-angle lenses. Here are images that are not easily captured with a wide-angle lens:
- Half-length portraits
- Athletes in action
- Animal portraits
- Bird portraits
- Photos of architectural details
- Detailed shots of distant landscapes
Of course, these lists are not exhaustive and they are not set in stone either. Wildlife photographers sometimes use wide-angle lenses to capture animal portraits, for example – this takes a lot of planning (and usually involves cameras and/or remote-controlled blinds). On the other hand, street photographers sometimes use telephoto lenses to shoot wider scenes, but this requires a lot of distance (and can’t be done easily in crowded, tight areas).
So while you can use this section to guide your photography (and to decide if a wide-angle lens is right for you), don’t let it restrict you. In fact, some of the best images are taken against the grain!
How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens: 4 Quick Tips
Wide-angle lenses are great, but getting great wide shots isn’t always easy. In this section, I offer my top tips, tricks, and techniques for working with wide-angle lenses, starting with:
1. Include foreground interest
Foreground interest refers to the eye-catching elements in the foreground of your image – and if you can include some foreground interest in your composition, it will look surprising.
Landscape photographers use this technique all the time. They will photograph a distant mountain, but they will add a river, a road, flowers or a fallen log in the foreground; this way, the viewer’s eye starts at the bottom of the frame and then slowly travels across the scene towards the mountain in the background.
Of course, you can also use foreground interest to enhance cityscapes, street scenes, and more. Sky is the limit!
2. Make sure the context tells a story
Wide-angle lenses are, well, largemeaning they include tons of context in every scene.
And even if the context can be pleasant, it must contribute to the shot; otherwise, it’s just superfluous information.
My recommendation? Make sure any context complements the main topic and helps tell the story. For example, if you’re photographing a person in a park using a wide-angle lens, make sure the surrounding trees and lake help tell the story of a peaceful spring day.
3. Add leader lines
Leading lines refer to the lines that guide the eye through the frame, and they’re a great way to give your photos a three-dimensionality.
Leading lines usually start at the bottom of the frame – as foreground interest – then work their way up (and back), so they push the viewer towards the main subject.
That said, you can really position the guidelines anywhere in the frame; for example, an outstretched arm can direct the gaze to a car (in a street photo), or a fallen pear can direct the gaze to a fruit basket (in a still life photo).
So practice looking for lines. And then, when you find a line or two, use it to guide the viewer through the frame!
4. Don’t be afraid to be minimalist
Minimalist photography features many negative (i.e. empty) spaces, such as vast expanses of sky, long stretches of unspoiled beach, white walls and so on. Negative space takes up most of the composition, while a small portion of the image features an eye-catching subject (like a person walking in the distance).
And wide-angle lenses are great for producing great minimalist shots.
You see, the wide field of view will help fill your photos with negative space. Simply find a subject, position yourself so the subject is surrounded by empty space, then zoom out to your widest focal length. The results will be magnificent!
Wide-angle lenses: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about wide-angle lenses and how to use them to create great photos.
So choose the perfect wide-angle lens. Start practicing. Have fun!
Now your turn :
What type of wide angle lens are you planning to buy? What kind of wide angle photography do you want to do? Share your opinion in the comments below!