Wide angle lenses can be an incredibly valuable piece of equipment for any photographer, but if you don’t know how or when to use them, it won’t be very helpful. If you want to be a more versatile photographer, a wide angle lens is a must-have accessory in your camera gear bag.
What is a wide angle lens? Technically speaking, a wide angle lens is any lens that has a wider field of view than what the human eye perceives. This results in an emphasized perspective that can cause subjects to be stretched and distorted, resulting in a unique stylistic image.
Using a wide angle lens can be a bit tricky, but with a bit of practice, you can learn how to use the features of a wide angle lens to your advantage. Keep in mind that a wide angle lens will alter the proportion of subjects depending on their distance from the lens. Subjects far from the lens will look disproportionately smaller, while those subject closer to the lens will look disproportionately larger.
Table of Contents
How to Use a Wide Angle Lens
There are no strict rules saying what you can and cannot use a wide angle lens for, but there are definitely some general tips that can help you take more successful photographs. To learn some of the basic techniques for how to use a wide angle lens, read on below.
Fill the Frame and Stagger Subject Distances
One of the advantages of using a wide angle lens is the fact that it allows you to manipulate perspective and make certain subjects feel closer while others stretch into the distance. However, if all the subjects in your intended photograph are all on the same plane, there will be no difference in the perceived perspective, and there will be no focus in the image.
This results in the image feeling somewhat flat and uninteresting, with no emphasized subject. At this point, you might as well be using a different lens because you have not utilized one of the main benefits of a wide angle lens.
By staggering the distance of subjects from the lens, you will take advantage of the wide angle lens’ ability to manipulate perspective. Something that is closer to the lens will be larger, and thus will draw the eye and become the point of attention in the photo. Don’t be afraid to get up close to your intended subjects: it will give the image more depth and a more dynamic appearance.
Getting closer to a subject will also help you fill the frame and make a more interesting photograph. By placing a subject very close to the lens while having other subjects further away, the image will feel like it has more layers of depth and be visually much more interesting.
Have a Definite Subject
If you don’t have a particular subject intended for your image, using a wide angle lens won’t do you any favors. Without a definite subject, a wide angle lens can potentially make your image look cluttered, flat, and confusing.
Simplicity can be powerful in images. Even if you are trying to photograph in a chaotic environment, like a busy New York intersection (or a monument in Paris) or a festival, photos can often be improved by isolating one or two subjects and concentrating on them. In wide angle photography, this usually means getting especially close to the intended subject so that it will be disproportionately large and fill the frame.
By having a large, focused subject in the foreground of the image, the background will stretch outward, setting the scene but not drawing attention away from the intended subject. Simplicity in the composition can result in stunning, graphic photographs that are appealing to viewers.
Keep in mind; photographers often don’t just take a single photo and leave it at that. Frequently, a good photographer will experiment and alter his or her approach to the subject. Sometimes, a series of photos may start with an emphasis on a particular part of the scene, but in the course of the session, it may become apparent that there are other elements that could make a potentially better subject for the photograph.
Don’t be afraid to test out different ideas for the subject matter and try various composition styles. You may end up surprising yourself and grab a great final result that you would have never predicted.
Keep Your Camera Level and Avoid Any Tilt
While you can easily add a stylistic element to photographs by angling your camera, with a wide angle lens, this isn’t usually advisable. Small tilts in the camera with a wide angle lens will drastically distort the image. Vertical lines, such as those created by the edges of buildings or power lines, can converge at awkward points and ruin an intended composition.
For vertical lines to remain perfectly vertical when using a wide angle lens, try to ensure that your camera is also perfectly vertical and level. Some cameras have a built-in sensor to tell you if your camera is level, and this can be especially useful when working with a wide angle lens. If your camera begins to tilt, you may find yourself struggling with the effects of keystone distortion. We will discuss keystone distortion later in this post.
Using a tripod can help you avoid tilt if you have trouble keeping the camera level when holding it in your hands. Many tripods also have a built-in level in case your camera does not have a sensor to indicate when it is not level.
Of course, sometimes, you may want to tilt your camera for stylistic reasons. If you want vertical lines to look distorted and harsh, even a tilt of just a degree or two can have drastic results when using a wide angle lens.
Inspect the Border and Corners of Your Frame to Make Sure Subjects Aren’t Cropped
Composition is key when it comes to photography, and with a wide angle lens, it is important to carefully examine the edges of the frame to determine you have the intended composition. When using a wide angle lens, small movements can drastically alter the composition of the photograph.
If you are trying to photograph a very particular composition, it can be useful to use a tripod to ensure you don’t accidentally crop out an element or lose some important piece of the background. A small tremble of your hand may be enough to lose the tip of a tree or crop off the top of a building.
While it is critical to have a clear intention for the subject of the photo when working with a wide angle lens, the background is also incredibly important when it comes to the overall appearance of the photograph. For this reason, don’t neglect carefully inspecting the border of your composition when you take photographs with a wide angle lens.
Use a Tripod to Achieve Complex Compositions
As mentioned previously, when you use a wide angle lens, a small amount of movement can drastically alter the composition of your scene due to the distortion inherent in the design of the lens. If you are trying to capture a very delicate arrangement of elements in your photograph, your best option is usually to use a tripod.
A tripod will allow you to stabilize the camera as well as ensure there is no unwanted tilt. You can take your time getting the scene focused in the viewfinder of the camera and be confident that you will capture the scene exactly as you intend it, without any risk of losing an element or ruining the composition at the last moment due to an unsteady hand.
Use a Shallow Depth of Field, Especially for Photos of People
Later in this post, we will go over why we tend to sometimes love using a wide angle lens for portraits, but a lot of that success is dependent upon using the wide angle lens correctly. In the wrong hands, a wide angle lens can create very unflattering, creepy looking portraits.
Because of the design of the lens, using a wide angle lens for portraits will result in a distorted looking face. Often, the head will look disproportionately large, the nose and jaw will bulge out, and, overall, the person will not have a very flattering appearance. For those who are attempting studio portraits or headshots, this usually isn’t the desired effect.
However, if the aim is to create a certain sense of caricature or humor, a wide angle lens can be great for photographing people. Using a shallow depth of field will slightly obscure the background and allow the focus to be drawn to the person.
In compositions where you want to capture people but also give a good sense of the environment they are in, a wide angle lens can help you capture the entire scene. This doesn’t isolate the subject as much as when using a shallow depth of field, but it allows you to keep the person within the context of the scene, which can result in some great photographs.
When to Use a Wide Angle Lens
Even if you know how to use a wide angle lens, you may be unsure of when it is advantageous to use one. It is true that there are certain situations in which a wide angle lens will be more of a hindrance than a help, so knowing what sort of photography benefits from its use can help you avoid future headaches.
Use Wide Angle Lenses for Sweeping Landscape Photography
One of perhaps the most obvious advantages of using a wide angle lens is for capturing the full extent of a landscape scene. For landscapes where you wish to have both the sky and the land itself, a wide angle lens can allow you to photograph both without the photo looking cramped or limited.
Keep in mind, however, that if you use a wide angle lens, it is still important to consider the composition of the photograph. Especially with landscape photography, a wide angle lens can accidentally give a landscape a bleak, desolate appearance without any clear subject. If you are using a wide angle lens, you still need to make sure there is something of interest in every part of the frame in order to keep the image visually interesting.
Because of this, your best use of a wide angle lens for landscape photography is when your landscape features a number of points of interest. A sweeping, stark grassland and an empty sky will end up looking insignificant and dull with a wide angle lens. But a rocky terrain with scattered puddles and scruffy brush set against a sunset will keep the eyes moving across the image and make a much more evocative photograph.
One exception to this idea is when you utilize negative space effectively in your photograph. Negative space refers to the parts of your photograph that don’t attract the eye, such as a uniform, cloudless sky. It is important to have a good balance of negative space in your photograph, and often it can result in a powerful feeling in your images when used effectively.
When dealing with an isolated subject surrounded by negative space, a wide angle lens can truly emphasize the feeling or smallness or isolation in a landscape. Think of a single, barren tree in the middle of a snow-covered field. Seen through the stretch of the wide angle lens, the tree can look incredibly lonely when set against the expanse of seemingly endless snow.
Use a Wide Angle Lens for Street Photography
While a wide angle lens may not be the first choice for those shooting studio portraits or headshots, for those trying to capture street photography involving people, a wide angle lens might be incredibly useful when photographing people.
A wide angle lens allows you to capture the overall sense of a scene, which is often the goal in street photography. While a portrait of a man playing checkers might be a fine photograph, it can become instantly more interesting through a wide angle lens by capturing both the checker player, the milk crate he’s sitting on, the stretch of the brick alley wall behind him, and the expression of eager onlookers. A wide angle lets you fit more of the scene.
A wide angle lens can help give a photograph some visual context. Isolating a subject from its setting often results in the photo losing its sense of meaning, and the story of the photograph is lost. It may be an aesthetically pleasing result, but it is often not the goal in street photography, which emphasizes documenting what is actually going on.
While a wide angle lens can create a shallow depth of field and blur out the background to draw attention onto a singular subject, it can lose the sense of the message in a photograph. Since wide angle lenses will draw more of a scene into a frame, you need to be very attentive to the overall composition and may need to take steps to find the best framing possible in a scene.
If you want to give a sense of the relationship between the people you are photographing and their surroundings, a wide angle lens is a great way to achieve this.
Use a Wide Angle Lens for Architectural Photography
When shooting architecture, the goal is often to fit a very large subject, i.e., a skyscraper or a cathedral interior, into a single frame. For this reason, a wide angle lens is nearly invaluable. Often, architectural photographers have a small working space and aren’t able to continue to back up in order to fit all the desired elements into the frame. A wide angle lens allows you to fit more into the frame without having to drastically back away from the subject.
Keep in mind, however, that if you are too close to the intended architectural subject, there will be a higher chance of distortion. For the best perspective appearance, you will need to find the combination of the right lens and the right working distance to allow you to include the full extent of the desired subject without a significant amount of distortion.
If used incorrectly, a wide angle lens can introduce a specific type of distortion referred to as keystone distortion, which is incredibly distracting in architectural photography and can be the difference between an amateur photograph and a professional photograph. To learn more about keystone distortion and how to avoid it, read on below.
How to Avoid Keystone Distortion
Keystone distortion, also called the keystone effect, is the distortion in perspective that occurs when photographing a subject at an angle that results in converging vertical and horizontal lines when it is undesirable. For architectural photography, this often means that vertical lines won’t seem straight, so a room or building may seem to shrink and tilt as it approaches the edge of the frame.
While keystone distortion may occasionally be desired for a certain stylistic effect, it is often a nuisance, and many photographers using a wide angle lens wish to avoid it. There are a few key ways to limit keystone distortion:
- Change your perspective, either by altering your distance from the subject or raising or lowering the level you are photographing from.
- Use a tilt-shift lens to correct any vertical distortion while shooting.
- Correct keystone distortion with photo editing software.
Typically, if you are able to get further away from the desired subject, the less distortion you will note in the image. The largest areas of distortion are at the edges of the frame, so if you are able to comfortably fit your subject well within your image space, you are less likely to see distortion. If you cannot fit an entire subject into the frame without distortion, it may be better to crop your subject rather than inducing a significant amount of distortion.
A tilt-shift lens can be a helpful piece of equipment for anyone who regularly runs into difficulties with keystone distortion while using a wide angle lens. However, tilt-shift lenses are expensive and require a certain level of skill to operate, so they may not always be the best option.
Instead, many photographers choose to correct keystone distortion long after the photo has actually been taken. By using photo editing software like Photoshop or Lightroom, you can utilize built-in lens correction tools to counteract any distortion that was induced by the wide angle lens.
Are Wide Angle Lenses Good for Portraits?
Contrary to some schools of thought, wide angle lenses can be used for portraits. However, it is true that wide angle lenses typically aren’t the lens of choice for anyone attempting to take headshots or glamor portraits. The wide angle will create distortions, and for your subject to be big enough to fill the frame, it will result in a caricature-like appearance of the subject.
The wide angle lens will make the face seem disproportionately larger than the rest of the scene, with a protruding nose and elongated jawline. This usually isn’t the type of look that people desire for professional portraits.
However, the distortion created by a wide angle lens can actually be advantageous to create a comical effect in certain scenes. The wide angle lens can create a fun, humorous result, and in certain environments, it can help capture a sense of novelty or chaotic entertainment.
If the person you are trying to photograph is also part of a larger scene you wish to capture, a wide angle lens can make this possible. With a narrower lens, you may be able to photograph the person in a way that emphasizes them as the subject and is more flattering, but you will lose the background and surrounding scene that you may wish to include.
For example, you may be trying to photograph a street vendor in a busy marketplace. While it can be appealing to photograph the vendor on his own, you lose the colorful chaos of the market and isolate him from his environment. If you are wanting to maintain the feel of the scene while photographing humans, a wide angle lens can allow you to capture more of the background without losing the emphasis on the human subject.
Common Mistakes Beginning Photographers Make Using Wide Angle Lenses
Wide angle lenses have a lot of advantages and are a great addition to any photographer’s bag, but there are some common mistakes many photographers make early on when learning to use a wide angle lens.
- Not having a dynamic scene: for a wide angle lens to be beneficial, there need to be clear points of visual interest throughout the scene. This is accomplished by staggering the distances of various elements within the frame, making careful use of negative space, and getting very close to the desired subject.
- Trying to use a wide angle lens for traditional portraits: if you are attempting to take headshots or serious portraits, a wide angle lens is usually not the best choice. In order to center the attention on the person’s face, you will need to get up close and fill the frame with his or her head. With a wide angle lens, this will result in a comical distortion that is usually unflattering. Instead, use a wide angle to capture people in their environment from a further distance away.
- Overloading the image: while it is important to make sure the photograph is visually interesting, wide angle lenses can also make it tempting to try to cram too much into a single frame. Unless your goal is to capture an intentionally busy, chaotic photograph, this can be undesirable. Concentrate on capturing only the elements you desire within the frame rather than trying to fit in so much that it becomes visually overwhelming.
- Forgetting about distorted perspective: the closer you are to a subject, the more noticeable the distortion in perspective will be. Keep this in mind, or else you will end up with many photographs that don’t coincide with your intended view.
With a bit of practice and patience, you can easily overcome these common mistakes and be well on your way to capturing beautiful photographs using a wide angle lens.
Wide angle lenses can be a very advantageous lens to have in your gear bag. It can help you fit more into a frame, letting you truly capture an entire scene or give a sense of a wide expanse of space.
For photographing people, a wide angle lens isn’t necessarily suitable for serious portraits, but it can give a playful, creative twist to your photographs that may be the stylistic intention you are looking for.
Wide angle lenses are perhaps most advantageous when photographing architecture and landscapes. For landscapes, it can help you photograph the entire sweeping horizon and the stretch of the sky. With architectural photography, a wide angle lens can let you fit the entire building into the frame and capture the full sense of scale.