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Wide Angle Lenses in Photography: How to Properly Use Them

Introduction

Wide angles are between the most fascinating types of lenses that your money can buy without any doubt. The perspective, the width of field, the distortion are just a few of the things that contribute to make these lenses so interesting. And please, don’t make the common mistake to think that wide angle lenses are a good fit just for those who are shooting landscapes or architecture; that’s completely incorrect, since you’ll easily find outstanding pictures taken with this kind of lenses in all photography genres.
You have no excuses then: if you’ve always wanted to test a wide angle lens or you just bought one and you still need to get the hang of it, you must continue reading the article to find out how to properly use it and what are the mistakes to avoid!

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1. What does a Wide Angle Lens do?

Wide angle lenses have the ability to capture more things in one single picture than standard and telephoto lenses; this is probably the easiest explanation that you’ll ever find about wide angles.
Now, going a bit more deeply into the argument, wide angle lenses have also the ability of distort things, in two different ways.
The first type of distortion, that I already mentioned in the introduction, consists in making objects close to the lens appear a lot bigger than they actually are, while making objects far from the lens appear a lot smaller than they actually are.
Do you know what this mean? That with a wide angle lens you may find yourself shooting a majestic mountain from a distance and, even if with your eyes it might feel massive, it’ll probably occupy a tiny part of the frame in your pictures, if you aren’t close enough. On the other side, you’ll be able to give more importance even to the smallest and irrelevant objects by placing them close enough to your lens.
The second kind of distortion, physiological of wide angle lenses, is barrel distortion. Since it’s way easier to explain with an example, imagine to shoot a forest: the trees will lean, unless you placed them right in the middle of the frame. If your lens is pointing towards the sky, the tree will look like they are converging to the centre of the image; in the opposite case, where the lens is pointing towards the ground, you would see the trees going “outside” the frame, instead of converging to the centre.
To avoid as much as you can this kind of distortion (and get your trees straight!) you should make sure that the horizon is in the middle of the frame. Otherwise, you can also try to correct a bit that distortion later in post production.

2. Common Mistakes with Using a Wide Angle Lens

You should be aware that using a wide angle lens is not all fun and games: you may find yourself wondering why you can’t manage to capture powerful images like the ones you saw on the web and what the heck were you thinking about when you bought it. Don’t panic, in this chapter we’ll see together which ones are the most common mistakes to avoid when using wide angle lenses.
The most widespread mistake is to use a wide angle when not needed. You should know that, right after the moment when you buy a wide angle lens, you’ll go through a period where you feel like every scene should be captured with that lens: no matter what’s the subject, conditions, light. The outcome will be a bunch of memory cards full of not-so-interesting pictures with a few exceptions. Why? Because, as fascinating as it is to shoot with wide angles, not all scenes are made to be framed with such lenses. Take as an example the picture above here: I was in my early days of photography when I took this, and I had just bought a Samyang 14mm, my first 14mm. I was so excited to use it than I wasn’t even taking into consideration other lenses, and that excitement went on for months. I wasn’t realizing that all I was doing was missing chances to capture some nicer pictures just by zooming in a bit and change composition, I just had to use the wide angle. As I was saying, check out the photo above: there’s no point of interest in the sky neither in the foreground, weather conditions were dull and I should have at least tried to go closer to the water movement and zoom in a bit to crop out a part of that boring sky.
My personal recommendation is: don’t use a wide angle lens if you can’t fill all the parts of the frame with harmony.
Another common mistake that it’s easy to commit when using wide angle lenses is to place the main subjects at the edges of the frame. As I already mentioned before, wide angles suffer a lot from distortion, and the more you go towards the edges from the centre, the more the distortion will be evident. Now, in some case distortion is good, since it will help you enhancing leading lines; in other cases though, it can ruin your picture. In order to explain myself better, check out the picture below here: it’s a raw file from a session in Vernazza, a coastal town of Cinque Terre in Italy. What you’ll notice right away is that the church is leaning and feels like it’s “stretched”; same goes for the rest of the small town, it feels like it’s a cartoon and not a real place. This is all because of my mistake: I wrongly decided to place the town too close to the edge, and distortion made the rest.
Now, in many cases you’ll manage to correct all the leaning lines with a bit of post production, while in others there won’t be nothing you can do: that’s why the tip here is to avoid placing any important subject of the image near the edges, so that you won’t have to deal with leaning lines at all!

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3. How to Achieve Success with a Wide Angle Lens

Now that we saw which are the most common mistakes when using a wide angle lens, it’s time to learn what are instead the techniques that will make your wide angle pictures stand out more from the others!

3.1 Exploit all the Layers of the Scene

When using a wide angle you should learn to think in terms of layers; and no, I’m not talking about the Photoshop ones. I’m talking about the ones that are present pretty much everywhere, you just need to visualize how to correctly place them into your composition.

3.2 Use the Distortion in Your Favor

Till this very moment I have to admit I talked nothing but trash about the barrel distortion typical of wide angle lenses; but ehi, every cloud has a silver lining, right?
Sometimes the distortion will give more depth of field to the image, or will enhance some lines/textures that otherwise wouldn’t get much attention. In order to enhance these lines, try to get really close to them and place them at the borders of the composition: like I said in a previous chapter though, they shouldn’t be one of the main subjects of your picture, as they’ll probably suffer a quality loss.

3.3 Create Stunning Pictures with the Bokeh Effect

I know, wide angles and bokeh effect: I must have gone crazy, right?
As a landscape photographer, I’m not used to open up my aperture very often; in some other photography genres though, using wide apertures with wide angles will create some incredibly artistic and original effects! Think about pet photography, shooting animals from up close to make their beautiful eyes stand out more and get all the rest blurred. Think about street photography, where you might not have enough space to use a telephoto to shoot your subject and so you decide to opt for a wider perspective; if the background is not interesting, you can try to use open apertures (f/2.8, f/4) to separate your main subject from the context.

4. Best Wide Angle Lenses for Photography

Nowadays the market is filled with fantastic wide angle lenses, and I’m quite sure this will give you some strong headaches when you’ll be just about to buy one. Let me save you some time by making a small list of the very best lenses on the market at the moment!

- Canon EF 16-35 f/4 L IS

In my opinion probably the best wide angle produced by Canon at the moment: it has been out for a while now, but it’s stunning quality never cease to attract new clients! One of the biggest pros of this lens is the sun star: one of the bests you’ll find on the market!

- Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8 G

Even if it’s starting now to feel a bit the weight of the years, it’s still one of the best wide angles ever made from Nikon, if not the best; it’s been out since 2007, but it’s quality will still amaze you! Thanks to its wide maximum aperture (f/2.8), you’ll also be able to use it in low light conditions.

- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art

Well, it’s no secret that the Art Series from Sigma has some of the best lenses on the market in its line-up; this prime 14mm it’s carrying on the name of Art lenses with honor. Thanks to its amazing image quality and it’s unique aperture of f/1.8, you’ll be able to shoot to get incredibly sharp images in low light conditions and/or get an amazing bokeh effect!

- Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM FE

Created specifically for the Sony mirrorless system, this lens is all you can ask (and possibly more) from a wide angle: sharp at all focal lengths and apertures, fast and luminous, thanks to the maximum aperture of f/2.8. If your camera has the Sony name on it, then you should absolutely consider putting this lens in your gear!

- Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2

If you are looking for a bang for your buck lens, this is it! The Tamron 15-30mm, now at its Mk2 version, has an amazing image quality and it’s very fast too thanks to its wide aperture of f/2.8. You’ll struggle to find a better lens in the same price range.

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Interested in comparisons?

We wrote an article about the two most popular photography brands: Nikon and Canon. Check it out!

Conclusion

Wide angle lenses are not easy to tame; they are not the kind of lenses that you just go out, point and shoot. They ask for more attention in terms of composition and placement of your subjects in the frame.
Don’t despair: using the right precautions you’ll be able to take some beautiful pictures, with a depth of field that you’ll hardly manage to capture with other types of lenses.
I hope that this article gave you a few inputs and ideas about what you should avoid and what you should look for instead when you have a wide angle lens mounted on your camera!

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