Wide Angle Lenses – How to Use Them

canon 16-35

Wide angle lenses can make for powerful images, with a field of view significantly wider than a regular lens or even the human eye. If you have had your camera a while, you have probably considered buying one. But do you really need one? How do they work, and when do you use them? Or maybe you already have one but aren’t happy with your shots?

What is a wide angle lens?

The commonly accepted norm is any lens wider than the human field of vision is a wide-angle. Lenses in the 24mm – 16mm range are considered a wide-angle lens, and less than 16mm is deemed to be ultra-wide. Fisheye lenses are those less than 8mm. The most popular range is 16-35mm.

Canterbury Cathedral at 10mm
Canterbury Cathedral at 10mm
So What’s a “normal” lens?

A standard lens is one that, on a full-frame camera, has a focal length of 35mm or more. This is multiplied by 1.6 for canon and 1.5 for Nikon on a crop sensor. This makes the “normal” lens for a crop sensor 24mm, as this equates to 36mm on a full-frame camera.

When to use a wide angle

Wide angle lenses are used for capturing as much of the scene in front of you as possible. Therefore, they are convenient for interiors in real estate photography. Landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes and architecture are the other main categories that shine. However, as they include so much, you need to be especially mindful of not having distractions or negative space in your image.

interior of leeds castle
Interior of Leeds Castle, UK, taken at 7mm
How to use a wide angle

The most common mistake people make when using wide angles lenses for landscapes is to use them for every big vista or a standard lens. i.e. straight horizontal or vertical. This, however, creates a scene with the horizon across the centre. However, if you angle the lens down, the horizon becomes the top third of the image, and the foreground becomes the star.

wide angle mistake - horizon in middle
Rookie mistake. Taken at 16mm on Canon 16-35mm shooting straight forward, which put the horizon across the centre

It becomes more important to find a foreground subject because your background being pushed further to the back. Otherwise, everything in the frame will be too small to be of interest. So get as close or low as you can to your foreground and have a definite subject, preferably in the midground (to avoid distortion) in the image. My subject was the lake with autumn trees leading the eye in the picture below. I was on a sloping hill and couldn’t get closer to them than about 8ft – but the ‘trees’ in the lower edge of the frame were really only low shrubs though they look like small trees.

bavarian alps and lake apsee
Bavarian Alps, taken at 14mm looking down. Horizon in top third and colourful foreground and leading lines to Lake Alpsee
mountains beside tromso airport
Taken at on zoom lens at 150mm instead of wide angle. At the bottom of the mountain were houses which I wanted to exclude.
Not for every landscape shot

Bear in mind; the wide-angle lens won’t be the right lens for every big vista. A wide-angle will make everything in the scene look further away. Unless you are shooting close to the ground, in which case the foreground becomes much more significant. While you will fit everything in, you need to be mindful that the background will appear further away and smaller. So if you are going for dramatic tall mountains, then the wide-angle may not be the right lens for the shot. However, if you have an interesting foreground leading to an interesting distant element, the image retains its impact.

canterbury cathedral wide angle
Focal length 9mm – Using the distortion to advantage – the corridor really wasn’t this long
drawbacks of wide angle

The two drawbacks of a wide-angle are barrel distortion and lens flare. All wide angles distort the image, especially at the edges of an image, the cheaper ones more than others. You have to be especially mindful of what is in the edges of your images. Anything at the edges will bend inwards and require straightening in your editing. It follows then that you should never have a person on the outer edges of your image. You can minimise distortion by moving further back and zooming in slightly or later in post-processing.

Canterbury UK, notice how buildings on left hand image lean inwards, and RH side, corrected perspective in Photoshop.

Lens flare – you may like it in images – sometimes it helps, sometimes not. Apart from trying to remove in PS or the like – you can get around this by adjusting your angle, using a lens hood or (my favourite method) blocking it with your hand.

wide angle shot of sunset from eiffel tower
Paris from Eiffel Tower at 7mm, lens flare caused by setting sun. I had a hood on but should have also blocked with my hand.

They do take some getting used to, if you have never used a wide-angle before. Like a macro, they aren’t a lens you can just put on and shoot with, which was the mistake I made when I got my first one. I’m not a read the manual kinda girl. You need to understand HOW they work to use them to their best advantage.

Practice makes perfect

When I first bought one, I went out all excited, got some shots, downloaded them at home and was disappointed. The images were uninteresting and had distortion. It then didn’t leave the bag much as I regretted buying it. Shortly before a big overseas trip, I changed camera systems and bought a wide-angle as well as a zoom and walkaround. I knew I wanted to get interiors of churches and views from the Eiffel tower, so a wide-angle was going to be needed. Lots of youtube and practice before I left gave me a basic understanding; though I still made mistakes, these were ones I could correct in post. Having said that, it’s not a huge learning curve – and once you have nutted it out, you will be able to capture more interesting and powerful images.

Pink Cliffs at Heatcote
Prev Heathcote's Amazing and Historic Pink Cliffs
Next Well That Didn't Go To Plan
bee on flower

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: