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Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use

John Duder explains the merits of adding a wide-angle lens to your camera bag while also issuing a word of caution about this useful bit of kit.

| General Photography
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Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: At their best, wide-angle lenses give a real sense of drama and involvement.

At their best, wide-angle lenses give a real sense of drama and involvement.

 

A telephoto lens may be harder to focus and hold still, but there are other challenges with a wide angle. The big thing is ‘wanting to get everything in’ – whether, with landscapes or architecture, there’s an enormous appeal to adding a wider view to your photographic toolkit. What I aim to do in this article is to add a few cautions, so that you understand what you need to take care of: you may decide to buy something different, or you may go in with your eyes open.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: ‘Getting everything in’ isn’t always such a great idea, especially if you end up with a horizon in the middle of the frame. Here, a foreground of more interest to town planners than photogrpahers is easy to lose, particularly with a good sky above. If you want to shoot this wide, and not edit down to a very wide and narrow widescreen shape, you’ll need to find plenty of interest in the foreground.

‘Getting everything in’ isn’t always such a great idea, especially if you end up with a horizon in the middle of the frame. Here, a foreground of more interest to town planners than photographers is easy to lose, particularly with a good sky above. If you want to shoot this wide, and not edit down to a very wide and narrow widescreen shape, you’ll need to find plenty of interest in the foreground.

 

The first sizeable downside is that by getting everything in, you include a lot of things that you don’t necessarily want. Acres of foreground and boundless blue sky – sometimes with a narrow band of interest straight across the middle.

Converging verticals are a real problem in some genres, unless you decide to make them an intentional part of your image: if you do that, then make sure that the convergence is obviously deliberate: subtlety has no part in such images. More usually, though, you will need to correct them very carefully indeed to avoid the image looking subtly wrong. That’s not quite the same as being completely corrected and parallel, though, because just a little bit of convergence looks more natural than none at all.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: A general shot of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle with just a hint of an inwards tilt on the right looks natural.

A general shot of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle with just a hint of an inwards tilt on the right looks natural.

 

Distortion comes naturally with a wide angle, and there are two kinds to consider. The first, which is easy to correct in software, is the result of how the lens works and will involve straight lines appearing in the picture as curves. Many lenses have a correction profile embedded in them, and you may never know just how much distortion there is if you use the profile automatically. I discovered that Lightroom can default towards correction when I shot some fisheye images – and my carefully-framed pictures emerged from RAW conversion with very wayward boundaries. The same correction profiles usually address vignetting and colour fringing.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: Another image of the steps leading up to the entrance of the Museum, with carefully corrected verticals (see the lines next to the edges of the frame) has a touch of ‘falling over backwards’ about it.

Another image of the steps leading up to the entrance of the Museum, with carefully corrected verticals (see the lines next to the edges of the frame) has a touch of ‘falling over backwards’ about it.

 

But fisheyes aside, automatic correction is mostly your friend - you just need to know that you have the choice to use it or not, and I’d suggest that you don’t enable it for importing images, but make a conscious choice when you process images for use. If you find that there is a noticeable cutoff when you correct the distortion a lens gives, make a note to shoot a little bit more of the scene than you need - take a few steps back, or zoom out a millimetre or two. Don’t throw options away before you need to...

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: The Millennium Bridge across the Tyne – first, as shot with a Minolta fisheye lens, uncorrected and carefully framed.

The Millennium Bridge across the Tyne – first, as shot with a Minolta fisheye lens, uncorrected and carefully framed.

 

But three’s a second sort of distortion which is simply the result of the big differential in distances that you end up with when using an extreme wideangle. Taking a portrait when the nose is half the distance from the lens of the ear gives a strange view, and while if you’re this close to someone in real life your eyes and brain correct the view, a camera is far less forgiving. This optical distortion is nothing to do with the lens, and everything to do with the position of the camera relative to the subject.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: The same shot, with optical correction accidentally set in Lightroom.

The same shot, with optical correction accidentally set in Lightroom.

 

Bill Brandt famously made use of a police scene of crime camera designed to record all four walls of a room from one corner for distorted nudes, and I’ve tried to emulate the idea over the last two years with Samyang 14mm lens. Learn more here: Art Blart and Anatomy Films

Such distortion can be an attention-grabbing device for more general photography: you need to balance the plus of visibility against the downside of making the effect more important than the subject matter. That’s not a good idea, generally… But excellence always involves risk.


Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: 14mm portrait – the background shows the zoomy perspective that an extreme wideangle gives, and the strong diverging verticals that pointing the camera downwards leads to. It also shows just how unflattering a 14mm lens is used too close to the subject.

14mm portrait – the background shows the zoomy perspective that an extreme wide-angle gives, and the strong diverging verticals that pointing the camera downwards leads to. It also shows just how unflattering a 14mm lens is used too close to the subject.

 

It makes sense to consider the depth of field carefully when you’re using extreme perspective effects: and a little care may be needed. Especially with landscape pictures, there’s often advice to stop down well, for front-to-rear sharpness. Certainly, you should always make sure there’s enough sharpness but beware of seeking more depth of field than you really need. If your nearest subject matter is fifteen feet away, beware stopping down so that you’ve got sharpness down to three feet from the camera.

The reason: diffraction. Wide-open, lenses give less sharpness than when stopped down a little to optimise corrections. But, as you stop down further, an optical problem called diffraction starts to have an effect. Light rays that pass next to the edge of the diaphragm are bent slightly, and at smaller diaphragm settings, there’s more edge in relation to the total area of the aperture. In other words, sharpness starts to fall. Because this effect’s related to the physical size of the aperture, it becomes greater with shorter focal lengths.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: The same view at f/2.8 and f/22, shot with a 12mm f/2 lens on an Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mk III camera. While the background’s softer in the shot on the left, the sign is noticeably soft in the stopped-down image.

The same view at f/2.8 and f/22 shot with a 12mm f/2 lens on an Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mk III camera. While the background’s softer in the shot on the left, the sign is noticeably soft in the stopped-down image.

 

Fortunately, the depth of field for any given aperture is greater for shorter focal lengths, and you can maximise the depth of field by using hyperfocal focusing so that you can keep the aperture reasonably wide. This means that if you’re photographing a subject that requires sharpness from ten feet to infinity, you should focus on a distance that falls between the close subject and the horizon. There are tables and apps that will help you work this out precisely, and with a chosen level of sharpness, and most older lenses have a depth of field scale marked on the barrel, but a rule of thumb is that the adequately-sharp zone extends twice as far behind the chosen focus point as it does in front of it, so that you should focus a third of the way into the zone that you want sharp.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: This East German Pancolar lens has made more than one appearance in my articles in the past. It’s nice to use, and has a no-nonsense style to it. More importantly, in this context, it illustrates both a depth of field scale, and hyperfocal focussing. There are two triangular markers just in front of the aperture scale, and as you alter the aperture, they move apart. Here, with the lens set to f/11 and focussed on 15 feet, they indicate adequate sharpness from infinity down to somewhere closer to eight feet than ten feet.

This East German Pancolar lens has made more than one appearance in my articles in the past. It’s nice to use and has a no-nonsense style to it. More importantly, in this context, it illustrates both a depth of field scale and hyperfocal focusing. There are two triangular markers just in front of the aperture scale, and as you alter the aperture, they move apart. Here, with the lens set to f/11 and focussed on 15 feet, they indicate adequate sharpness from infinity down to somewhere closer to eight feet than ten feet.

 

Please note that there’s an extension of this idea to the many different formats available: a micro four-thirds lens covering a given angle of view has more depth of field at any given aperture than a full-frame lens... If you use a compact camera with a really small sensor, you will find that the minimum aperture available is often restricted, and the familiar f/11, f/16 and f/22 may not be available. Reputable manufacturers know that even a very good lens will give rather soft results, and they set the minimum aperture accordingly.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: Also note the infrared focus spot, in orange, just above the 8 on the aperture ring. 10 The sensor in this Fuji X-10 is roughly a quarter of the size of a micro four thirds sensor: Fuji sensibly restrict the minimum aperture to f/11.

Also note the infrared focus spot, in orange, just above the 8 on the aperture ring. 10 The sensor in this Fuji X-10 is roughly a quarter of the size of a micro four-thirds sensor: Fuji sensibly restricts the minimum aperture to f/11.

 

But we’re into ‘never say never’ territory. If you need the extreme depth of field that stopping right down will give, do it, and sacrifice a little bit of peak sharpness for the sake of adequate sharpness everywhere. Although there are some perfectionists who insist on optimum everything in each shot they take, they’re missing out on a massive number of creative possibilities. ‘Never stop right down’ belongs in the same waste bin of useless adages as ‘always use 100 ISO’ and ‘never put the subject in the middle’ - advice that’s often useful, but is worth ignoring every so often!

The depth of field thing may also be a defining factor in choosing a camera system, because of the difference in DoF between different size sensors. All other things being equal, there is greater DoF with a smaller format than a larger one. So if you want shallow depth of field, it pushes you towards full-frame – not only because there’s less of it for a given aperture and angle of view, but also because the widest aperture lenses are generally those made for full-frame.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: Compare the background of these two images shot with a 12mm MFT lens (left) and a 24mm full frame (right).

Compare the background of these two images shot with a 12mm MFT lens (left) and a 24mm full-frame (right).

 

Fisheyes are amazing and particularly tricky beasties to use: you trade an ability to get close to a 180-degree view for massive distortion but of a different type from fully-corrected wide angles.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: Fisheye view from next to the New Walsall Art Gallery – note the distortion of straight lines near the edges.

Fisheye view from next to the New Walsall Art Gallery – note the distortion of straight lines near the edges.

 

Instead of distortion of area, there is distortion of straight lines, and this is most acute for lines near and more or less parallel to the edges of the frame. You can use this for effect, and you can achieve fairly normal-looking pictures if there aren’t too many straight lines involved, or if you can put the lines through the centre of the frame.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: Software allows full correction of lens distortion (as opposed to perspective distortion) – Adobe Camera Raw corrected this using a standard profile for the lens, a 16mm Minolta fisheye. It’s the same image as the previous picture.

Software allows full correction of lens distortion (as opposed to perspective distortion) - Adobe Camera Raw corrected this using a standard profile for the lens, a 16mm Minolta fisheye. It’s the same image as the previous picture.

 

An important use of fisheye lenses is for whole-sky pictures, where the distortion doesn’t show, and the full coverage makes up for it! This offers creative possibilities in various fields, including architecture, providing you can put your camera with the lens pointing straight upwards. A mini tripod, a tilting screen and level indicators may be helpful, as may delayed action.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: Full-sky fisheye image – © Andy Carter

Full-sky fisheye image © Andy Carter

 

Above all, wide-angles are another tool in the box for interesting photographs and enable you to make positive creative choices, as Platon did for his chilling portrait of Vladimir Putin. This doesn’t mean that you need to use a wide-angle lens all the time: you will find that some subjects require the more distant and forensic view that a telephoto gives you, and – vitally – that many subjects benefit from a plain and straightforward look, where the lens simply records and doesn’t clamour to be the star. Reportage and much portraiture, particularly, benefit from a ‘penny plain’ approach to lenses.

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: A 14mm view of the same scene. Note how the view is narrower, despite the focal length being shorter.

A 14mm view of the same scene. Note how the view is narrower, despite the focal length being shorter.


 

But when the subject is right, go for it, and go as wide as you possibly can! And get close in for maximum impact. Distortion doesn’t necessarily look bad, even if a picture has something obviously wrong about it

 

Why Wide-Angle Lenses Are The Hardest Lenses To Use: Aimee_Is_Weirdd at SS Creative Studios with a 14mm lens on full frame.

Aimee_Is_Weirdd at SS Creative Studios with a 14mm lens on full-frame.

 

Many of the pictures for this article were shot at and around the new Walsall Art Gallery. Among other things, it houses the Garman-Ryman Collection, which is essentially Jacob Epstein’s personal art collection. It includes a remarkable range of paintings and sculptures, and I doubt if there are many permanent public exhibitions that include so many famous artists in such a small collection. Admission is free, and it’s a very good reason to visit Walsall – though I do feel that the five different shades of terracotta tiling on the exterior of the building is a bit overrated!

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been taking pictures more or less seriously since he was 14 and shot his first nudes around his 18th birthday. Although he maintains he’s actually a 17-year-old, he’s now retired from his day job, and now writes and does the occasional bit of photographic tuition.

He’s particularly pleased to have restarted lighting workshops in May, after a 26-month layoff due to the pandemic. He’s looking forward to running several series in different locations over the next few months.

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Comments


29 Jun 2022 6:03AM
Good morning John,
I have been experimenting shooting people with a 14-35mm zoom, interesting resultssome work, others dont.
I will be bringing along with me. 😊
dudler Plus
19 2.0k 2018 England
29 Jun 2022 7:58AM
Interesting area for portraits and nudes...
BobinAus Plus
8 3 14 Australia
29 Jun 2022 11:14AM
Thanks for a most interesting article John. It raised a couple of thorny points for me: Particularly with wide angle lenses, I'm often torn between emphasising the key subject and showing its context, usually being guilty of excessively favouring the context. (Truly It's not my fault - I was trained as a sociologist TongueTongue). I also have difficulty in correcting flaws of perspective like converging verticals and skewed horizontals - but at least I don't present streams flowing uphill as one famous early Renaissance painter did.
Bob
dudler Plus
19 2.0k 2018 England
30 Jun 2022 1:37PM
Bob, there are a few EPZ members who seem to be guilty of perverse river flows!

There are lots of ways to correct converging verticals - I like the Skew tool in Photoshop, and use it a lot: you need to unlock the frame (a padlock next to the background layer icon, bottom right in PS as it appears on my computer) and then it's Edit/Transform/Skew, and you can move the corners around with the cursor. I know there are auto functions - but they can lead to a shot LOOKING wrong, which is as bad as it being wrong!
BobinAus Plus
8 3 14 Australia
1 Jul 2022 10:13AM

Quote:Bob, there are a few EPZ members who seem to be guilty of perverse river flows!

There are lots of ways to correct converging verticals - I like the Skew tool in Photoshop, and use it a lot: you need to unlock the frame (a padlock next to the background layer icon, bottom right in PS as it appears on my computer) and then it's Edit/Transform/Skew, and you can move the corners around with the cursor. I know there are auto functions - but they can lead to a shot LOOKING wrong, which is as bad as it being wrong!



Thanks for the advice about the skew tool John. I've never used it and will try it with a couple of pictures of buildings that I'll be processing in a few days. Bob

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