Wide Angle Lenses. The Good, the Bad and the (sometimes) Ugly

July 23, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Wide Angle Lenses. The Good, the Bad and the (sometimes) Ugly

Wide angle lenses are tricky things. They can be a fantastic creative option for landscape photography but they can also be the source of much disappointment, especially when you first start using them and, perhaps, haven’t quite mastered what they are good for.

I use wide angle a lot in my landscapes and, like many people, I struggled to work out how to get the best from them to start with. I know that the mistakes and challenges I faced are quite common so I thought, by sharing some of the lessons I have learned, I could help new users of these lenses to get better results a bit faster.

So… to start off, what is a wide angle lens?

I’m not sure that there is a clear and set point at which a lens becomes 'wide angle'. If there is I guess it would be any lens that has a field of view wider than you would see with normal vision. That would mean that anything less than about 50mm on a full frame sensor and (around) 35 mm on a crop sensor would be considered wide angle.

For the purposes of these tips we will probably be looking more at lenses that are wider than about 27mm on a full frame and 18mm on a crop sensor.

And…what are wide angle lenses good for?

In the first place they have a wide field of view, sometimes you can be looking at a field of view of around 100 degrees (on the long edge of the frame). This obviously means that you can capture a very large scene, a grand vista, all in a single frame. So, if you have big wide view you can use a wide angle lens to capture it. But, before you do that wait until you hear some of the challenges, shooting big wide vistas with a wide angle lens is one of the biggest reasons people get disappointed when they first start using them.

Wide angle lenses also exaggerate perspective. Things in the middle ground look further away and smaller than they do to the naked eye. Things in the distance even more so. Telephoto lenses do exactly the opposite by compressing perspective and making the distance between for, mid and background seem less. The exaggerated perspective of the wide angle lens can be really effective at creating depth in the image but, this also has a downside that we will come onto in a minute.

Of course you can also fit quite large objects that are close to you into a single frame. This can be really useful when you have to be close to your subject and it would be too large to fit into a single frame with a ‘normal’ lens. Depending on the subject you are shooting this can also throw up some challenges.

Here’s an example of both fitting in a large object (with room for a great sky) and exaggerated perspective with a wide angle lens

Nikon D7100 and Sigma 10-20 lens at 10mm

OK. Now on to some of the challenges…

Remember I said you can use a wide angle lens to fit in a big wide scene, perhaps a grand vista? 

Well the problem is that this almost always creates a boring image unless you are very careful about composition. Because you can fit so much into the scene it often becomes very difficult to pick out a focal point and without a focal point images generally don’t look all that good. 

The secret to capturing a big wide view with a wide angle lens is to include a strong foreground element that draws the eye into the image. Of course this is a general guideline for landscape photography anyway but it becomes even more important with a wide angle lens.

You also have to be careful about distractions, particular near to the edges of the frame. With a wide angle of view it is very easy to include too much to either side (or at top and bottom) and it’s only later that you realise you have elements in the image that you don't really want. OK, you can crop the image to take those elements out but this could ruin your careful composition.

Then let’s talk about verticals. Wide angle lenses are well known for creating something called converging Verticals. This is when vertical elements in the frame can seem to lean in towards each other. Typically things above the horizon line lean in towards the top and below the horizon line lean in towards the bottom. The angle that you shoot at makes a big difference to the amount of lean. Also, the distortion becomes more pronounced as you move to the edges of the frame.

If you are shooting a scene with no vertical lines then this isn’t going to be a problem but, if you have buildings, walls, poles and even trees this can create some issues. 

There are ways to correct the issue in post processing, Adobe Lightroom (CC version) has a great ‘guided upright’ tool, but this will result in the image being cropped slightly so you have to consider and allow for this in your composition. 

Buildings near the edge of the frame can be very tricky as the amount of distortion can vary from one side of the building to the other creating a very distorted shape. I have normally found that using some of the more sophisticated transform tools in Photoshop is the only way I can correct this type of distortion.

If using a wide angle lens to shoot a scene that has any kind of vertical elements it’s worth shooting a wider composition than you think you need to allow for some cropping as part of the transformation process later.

Of course you always have the option to use the converging verticals as part of your composition, make a feature of them as they can look quite dramatic. It all depends on what you are trying to make the image look like, 

As a matter of interest, the picture of the lifeguard tower above had terrible converging verticals, because I was pointing the camera up at quite a steep angle, and required quite a bit of re-alignment. I knew this, and accounted for it in my composition so I didn’t lose any critical parts of my composition when I corrected things.

Wide angle lenses also create similar challenges with horizontal lines but these rarely seem to be as much of an issue, at least in my experience.

Wide angle lenses can produce some exposure challenges. 

Because the field of view is so wide you can often have one side of the scene much brighter than the other. or sometimes the centre of the scene is brighter, or darker, than the sides. This can be a particular issue with very bright conditions and blue skies.

Correcting the off balance exposure can often be achieved using grad filters, either physical filters in the field or in post processing.

Using a wide angle lens and a polarising filter can really cause some issues in blue sky conditions. The polariser works best at 90 degrees to the light but the field of view of the wide angle lens means that the centre of the image (assuming you’re shooting at 90 degrees to the sun)  is getting a lot of polarisation (because it’s at 90 degrees to the light) but the far sides are getting much less because they are only about 40 degrees. 

If there are clouds in the sky this is not normally too much of an issue but with blue skies it can create a problem that can be almost impossible to resolve in post.

Here’s just such an example that I did especially to illustrate the point. Notice the way the sky is much darker in the middle of the frame?


So…what are wide angles best for?

As a general rule wide angle lenses are best for shooting images where there is a strong foreground element, quite close to the lens, and where the background features can be allowed to take second place and where there are no strong vertical lines that are going to cause issues with verticals.

Like this one where I really wanted to make a feature of the shape of the rock and the light coming under it. Everything else in the frame is, pretty much, secondary.

Nikon D7100 with a Sigma 10-20 lens at 100 f/11 for 20 seconds ISO 100

Of course you can use them for other types of shots as well, it’s just that you will have to consider the implications on how your image is going to come out and, possibly, be prepared to take some corrective actions in post processing.

This image was shot at 10mm as well. There is the bridge leading into the frame and this provides both foreground interest and creates something which the increased perspective  of the wide angle lens really extends nicely. It does however have vertical lines and, in the original image, these were converging. I adjusted them slightly in Lightroom using the guided upright transformation and the effect has come out really well.

Nikon D7100 Sigma 10-20 lens at 10mm f/16 for 1/13 second ISO 100

So, before I use a wide angle lens I consider a number of key points:

  1. Do I have a strong enough foreground element?
  2. Do I have buildings or other verticals in the frame?
  3. Does it matter if my background and middle ground look far away?
  4. How is the light and is it going to cause me problems?
  5. Can I get the same, or possibly a better composition by using a longer lens and moving back?
  6. What's in the frame that I can't easily see through the viewfinder or on the screen, particularly towards the edges of the view?

I can then make the decision to use a wide angle lens, and how to compose the shot for any later post processing, or choose to use a longer lens and move back to fit the scene in the frame.

The easiest scenes to use a wide angle lens for are those that are completely natural, preferably without trees that are close by, that have something big and bold in the foreground, and a nice big backdrop, like a great sky. 

The toughest scenes to shoot with a wide angle are buildings and anything with obvious vertical lines. 

As with all things in photography the best way to get better at using a particular tool is to get out and shoot with it. So, if you have a wide angle lens that you have only just obtained, or one that you've had for a while that you haven’t done much with then maybe now is the time to get out there and see what you can achieve.

I’d love to hear how you get on 


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