How to Use Your Wide Angle Lens

Wide Angle (12mm, f2.8, ISO 200)

Wide Angle (12mm, f2.8, ISO 200)

What it’s for

When you reach into your back to grab one of your many lenses you typically come back out with a lens ranging from 12mm to 50mm or the like.  You have your wide angle at the 12mm end and your zoom at the 50mm end.  That’s all well and good but once you start to get serious about photography and invest in a wide angle lens your going to be able to explore a new type of photography.  The up close and personal type.  Wide angle lenses are great for putting the viewer of your photo right smack in the middle of what you’re photographing.  Think of it this way… you know how we always try to frame shots?  Really get the subject right into the frame just right?  Well the wide angle flips that process, instead of zooming in until your subject is right where you want them the wide angle lets you bring your viewer right into the photo.

Learning to use your wide angle may be a love hate relationship at first, the quality and dynamic of your photo will change with ever centimeter you move.  You will be forced to get up close and personal like never before.  No longer will you be able to stand hundreds of feet away and zoom in like you were standing right next to it.  The trade-off is going to be a spectacular, crisp, vivid, encompassing photograph.  You are able to get some really interesting distortion while still keeping straight lines straight.

WIDE ANGLE LENSES ARE NOT FISHEYE LENSES.  WIDE ANGLE KEEPS STRAIGHT LINES STRAIGHT WHILE FISHEYE LENSES CURVE EVERYTHING.

Contrary to popular belief, the wide angle lens is not for “getting it all in.”  If you approach your wide angle with that attitude you will have some really crappy pictures with a lot of distracting crap on the sides (landscape photography can be the exception).

How to Use

The big change with the wide angle is how you frame your subject, what makes a good photograph great remains the same regardless of the lens you choose.  Watch your edges.  If people or inanimate objects on the outsides of your frame aren’t adding to the composition they are taking away from it.  Simple as that.  Now when I said get close, I really meant get close.  Lean in, reach out, stretch to really get your camera nice and close to get a really spectacular image.  The photo’s below show the difference in quality when you get in nice and close to your foreground versus just popping off a shot at eye level.

Wide Angle at Eye Level

Now a photo when you compose with the camera up close and personal to something in your foreground…

Wide Angle Shot Up Close and Personal

Now here is the tough part… you don’t have a zoom lens (and if you do, zooming will take you out of wide angle focal length) so your going to have to zoom the old fashion way, with your feet.  That’s right, no more standing hundreds of yards away and zooming in to frame your picture.  I shoot with prime lenses (we will do a post on what a prime lens is and why you should use them at a later date and I’ll link to it here) almost exclusively because I believe the prime lens is a master at its particular focal length and gives superior photos at the length while the zoom lenses tend to be a jack of all lengths and master of none (most zoom lenses have a ‘sweet spot’ focal length even though they go from 12 to 55mm or 14 to 48mm, etc.).  At first this will seem daunting because your going to surprise yourself how close you will have to get to things like doorways or windows when you want to get them in the frame and cut everything else out.  What you will find though is much more sharp and vibrant photos and once your up close you can see shadows and highlights where you may not have seen them from hundreds of yards away allowing you to compose your photo on camera with more accuracy.

The photo below was shot with the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 Lens for Micro Four Thirds Cameras on the OMD and I had to walk a hundred or so yards closer to cut out a major highway on the left and the lights of a distant town on the right.  It was worth it though.

If you’re using a prime lens then you will probably have a very quick lens (meaning your aperture can be opened wider than on a zoom) and be able to take some great photos in darker areas without having to raise your ISO to levels where noise will be an issue.  You can also get some great bokeh (blurring the background of your image by rendering it out of focus).  Contrary to a lot of blogs out there the prime lens does not have a huge advantage over zoom lenses in this respect (other than the faster lens) but the added effect (bokeh) that some see from the prime lens is due to the photographer actually getting closer to their subject since they can not just zoom in.

Composition

I could do an entire article on this subject, and probably have, so I will keep this very short with one idea for you.  Use your lines.  Whether you use horizontal, vertical, diagonal or circular lines.  Does not matter, each type of lines portrays a different feeling to your viewers.  If you shoot a landscape and in the distance there is an awesome mountain you’d like people to look at you’ll need to compose your photo in such a way where there is a road going from the camera across the photo towards the bottom of the mountain and you will naturally lead people’s eyes towards the mountain.  Clever right?  Ya, I stole that idea from every professional photographer in the world.  If your shooting a couple and they are holding hands but their hands are down by their sides you just inadvertently directed people’s eyes towards their feet… Woops.  Try having them hold hands but bend at the elbows so their hands are towards their faces.  When you photograph a sunset with a road going across your photo from left to right horizontally you just added visual pollution (pretty sure I just made that term up) to your photo.  Try finding a road that goes from the bottom left of your picture to the top right and fades just below the right of the sun setting, this will take the viewers eyes naturally right to the sunset.

Adding lines to your photograph can give a photo some needed depth when your shooting landscaping.  That’s the great thing about the wide angle lenses, they exaggerate your lines.  The photo above is given more depth by following the natural lines in the canyon to draw the viewers eyes towards the other side of the canyon.  Give it a try.

Conclusion

Wide angle lenses are a great tool to get familiar with, they are also one of the most difficult lenses to use because you are forced to spend more time composing your photograph than you would with a normal zoom.  Wide angle lenses can take what would be a poor photo and make it worse because of the exaggeration of lines and distance that happens within the lens.  Some photographers will exploit this to get some really interesting photos that look as though they defy modern physics.  As with any photography rules or guide lines these are all open to creative judgement.  Ultimately you are the one making the art and rules are meant to be challenged and broken in photography.  Grab your camera and experiment, take some awesome shots any way your little heart desires.

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