Ultra-wide angle (UWA) lenses can offer a unique, sometimes challenging, often rewarding view of the world for photographers. Many of us have faced that limitation where we can’t quite fit a whole subject into our frame – we’ve backed up as far as we could, but we’re stuck with a cropped subject or a stitched panorama to try to get the whole scene in. A wide angle lens can give us those extra few feet on either side we need. But a UWA lens takes it in the other direction. You can find yourself surprised, even shocked, at how wide the view is. Instead of being backed up against a fence trying to squeeze everything into the shot, you keep inching closer and closer to your subject, thinking that you can’t get any closer without bumping into it, yet it’s all still comfortably in your frame. In one way, it’s like a whole new kind of photography, and requires some rethinking and relearning to accommodate the unique perspective of the lens.
UWAs are generally those that provide a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 24mm or less. On an APS-C crop-sensor camera, generally this would be 16mm or less. There are two types of lenses in this focal range – rectilinear and fisheye. For this article, I’m referring to rectilinear lenses, which renders straight lines without the curvature familiar to the fisheye look.
I am far from an expert on the subject, and experimentation and practice are strongly encouraged to discover the potential of such a lens in your hands, and with your vision. My own experimentations have given me some ideas of how to get fun or interesting results from these lenses, and hopefully by sharing them with you, might spark your creative juices or give you a starting point if you’re new to UWA lenses.
Here are my 10 favorite UWA shooting tips:
1. Shoot level with the horizon –
Rectilinear UWAs are very good at keeping vertical and horizontal lines straight, but only when the camera is pointed straight ahead. Any slight downward or upward angle can result in very distorted lines and strange perspectives. Keeping the camera level with the horizon, and perpendicular, will provide nice, straight lines that require little or no correction in post processing.
2. Shoot unlevel with the horizon –
Once you know how lines get distorted when not perpendicular and level, you can learn how to use it for desired effect. Curved vertical lines can make structures look large or imposing, or small and distant; curved lines can create movement in a composition, and add visual interest and artistic style, or create forced perspectives and skewed scale.
3. Be cognizant of leading lines –
With UWAs, compositions can work out very nicely when you can get a nice long line or two to lead the eye from the corner of the frame into the shot, or out from the center, providing visual interest and walking the viewer’s eyes through a scene. Watch for rooflines, curbs, branches, roadway edges, sidewalks, or any other objects that can be used for leading lines.
4. Stop down and get close –
UWAs are particularly effective in putting foreground objects right up close, and still show lots of background. You can put yourself right up on top of signs, statues, lights, etc so they fill a big chunk of the frame, and the UWA will still pull in a big sweeping background like buildings, trees, or landscapes. UWAs have a larger depth of field already, so stopping down the aperture will allow you to get it all in focus. And UWAs are particularly sensitive to large expanses of nothing. Foreground subjects fill in the dead space in the composition and provide greater depth and dimension to the scene.
5. Don’t put people in the corners –
f you want to keep people as your friends, watch that you don’t put them into the far right or left edges of a UWA shot. Because of the rectilinear design – UWAs are relatively straight throughout the middle of the frame, then drastically curve at the far ends. So things in the middle are appropriate proportions, but as you get near the ends, things stretch and get wider. It’s hardly noticeable with landscapes, buildings, etc – but with people, it’s VERY noticeable. And not too many people like to look wider and shorter than they are!
6. Watch out for invaders –
Because of the extremely wide perspective of UWA lenses, it’s very easy to inadvertently include something in the composition you didn’t intend. You have to be very aware of the corners and ends of your shot when setting up, and give yourself a wide berth. People you thought would be out of the frame can sometimes end up in a UWA shot, as can pets, your camera bag, your shadow, tripod legs, roof eaves, overhanging branches, etc. A little extra vigilance can prevent unwanted invaders.
7. Get low –
UWA compositions can be particularly effective when they are shot from a low angle – you can include much of the ground in front of you to guide you up to the subject. With a garden as a foreground, or a fountain or small pond…you have an interesting subject to lead you back to the horizon, or you force perspective. Because of the extreme width of a UWA lens, you can shoot from very low, close-to-the-ground angles and still fit tall subjects and skies into the frame.
8. Take advantage of big skies –
When the sky has clouds in it, UWAs really shine. Get close to your subject, fill 1/3 or 1/2 of the frame with it, and shooting with a nice sky backdrop, let those cloudy skies fill up the rest of the frame. Shooting upwards can work really well with these…the clouds take on a dimensionality, streaking out and around your subject dramatically. And because of the curvature in the corners, clouds often seem to be in motion in your shots.
9. Don’t be afraid of the dark –
UWAs can be quite a lot of fun to shoot with at night. When used on a tripod, they can give long-exposure night scenes a lot of pop with that great wide perspective and catch quite a bit of scenery, starry sky, or landscape to enhance your shot. However, even though these lenses are rarely much faster than F2.8-4, the small focal length tends to lessen the affect of shake or movement, allowing these lenses to be handheld at fairly long exposures compared to longer lenses. That means dusk or evening handheld shots, or wide interiors, are surprisingly possible even without stabilization or a tripod.
10. Go vertical –
UWA lenses can be particularly useful for portrait orientation shots – when dealing with very tall subjects, or wanting a feet-to-sky perspective. For example, a 10mm lens in the vertical orientation will still be providing a horizontal field of view of around 77 degrees, roughly the same as a 24mm lens in landscape orientation. In other words, an ultra-wide angle lens is still a wide angle lens vertically.
There are plenty of rectilinear UWA lenses to choose from, including models by most major manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax & Sony all have at least one) as well as third party players Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina for most mounts. They can be a lot of fun, open up new styles of photography, and help get the shot in tight spaces or large subjects. Some of these tips may help, some you may already know…but most importantly, get out there and experiment!
Click on any of the following thumbnails to see larger examples!
(Ed. note: Justin Miller is a major supporter and contributor to The Magic in Pixels and is one of the original members. His contributions are very much appreciated by the TMIP community. This article was originally posted 5/21/2010 at Views Infinitum and is published here with permission.)