Buying and shooting tips for different types of wide angle lenses.

Wide angle lenses range from a very modest increase in the angle of view through to so-called ‘fisheye’ lenses that encompass angles of view as wide as 180 degrees.

Popular wide-angle focal lengths for cameras with full-frame 35mm sensors range from a modest 35mm through 28mm and 24mm to 21mm, 20mm, 18mm and 14 mm, which are usually classed as ultra-wide. Ultra wide angle lenses have a focal length shorter than the short side of the image sensor.

Wide angle lenses let you get close to the action when shooting video. They are also popular with landscape photographers and useful when you need to shoot in restricted places. (Source: Sony.)

Lenses with moderately wide angles of view (35mm to 24mm, inclusive) can always produce images that are rectilinear on the sensor, with very little distortion. Wider angles of view can be prone to distortion and should always be used with care (see below).

Lenses with focal lengths of 8mm to 16mm are also prone to barrel distortion, where horizontal and vertical lines in the scene appear to bow outwards towards the edges of the frame. Chinese manufacturer, Venus Optics, makes a number of ‘zero distortion’ Laowa wide angle lenses in this range for most popular lens mounts.

Most of these lenses are manual focus lenses, which isn’t a major issue as wide angle lenses are easy to focus. If you close the aperture by a couple of stops, the depth of field will be so wide that the entire scene should be acceptably sharp.

An example of a diagonal fisheye shot showing the canopy structure in a pine forest. Note the six-pointed sunstar produced by the sun behind the leaves, which indicates the camera used for the image had a three-bladed iris diaphragm. (Source: Camera House.)

Fisheye lenses are a special class of ultra-wide angle lenses that are often used for scientific applications like recording the night sky and studying plant canopy geometry. They come in two types: diagonal fisheyes, which capture a field of view of roughly 180 degrees across the diagonal of the film frame and circular fisheyes which reproduce the entire image circle of the lens. There are also digital fisheye effects available both in-camera and through software applications, but they can’t replicate the wide angles of view of true fisheye lenses.

Circular fisheye lenses are usually selected for their eye-catching effect. (Source: Venus Optics.)

Rectilinear distortion

Wide angle lenses are prone to barrel distortion because their fields of view are wider than the image sensor. This means the image has to be ‘squeezed’ to fit into the frame, making straight lines appear to bend inwards towards the edges and corners of the frame while remaining straight at its centre.

This example of uncorrected barrel distortion shows how the lines at the centre of the frame remain relatively straight but they become curved inwards towards the edges and corners of the frame.

The amount of distortion varies, depending on the focal length of the lens (shorter focal lengths are more distortion prone) and the camera to subject distance (it shows up more at closer distances). Compensating optical elements in the lens design can reduce distortion but which also increase both the weight and the size of the lens. Software in modern cameras can correct all but the most severe distortion.

An example of the angular distortion that causes vertical lines to converge inwards when the camera is tilted up.

Wide-angle lenses can also produce angular distortion when the camera is tilted up or down with respect to the subject. Parallel lines converge more while the parts of the image nearest to the photographer seem to be ‘stretched’, changing the apparent relative size of the subject and foreground, as shown in the illustration on this page.

Note the way the angular distortion in this 14mm lens seems to ‘stretch’ objects in the foreground of this vertical shot.

Most consumer-level cameras correct barrel distortion automatically when JPEG files are recorded. Many cameras come with a database of lens corrections built into their firmware for this purpose and these corrections can often be switched off if you want to retain the characteristics of the lens.

If you’re shooting raw files, the raw file conversion software also corrects it automatically, provided the lens has a supporting profile in the database. Since every lens is different, each lens profile is specific to that lens and it can sometimes take several months for firmware to be updated to support the latest lenses.

Wide angle lens use

Wide angle lenses are popular for landscape, architectural and interior photography where you need to capture a wide view but may not be able to step back far enough to photograph it. They are also used to emphasise differences in size between objects in a scene or for increasing the perceived distance between objects in the foreground and background.

Wide angle lenses differ from standard or normal lenses in three important ways, each of which can be used by photographers to achieve different effects;

  • If you stand in the same place with respect to the subject and take the same picture with a wide angle and normal lens,the wider angle of view takes in more things at the sides of the image without changing the overall perspective.
  • If you stand closer to the subject with a wide angle lens than you do with a normal lens, you get a different perspective that exaggerates the near/far depth relationships in the subject.
  • If you stand further away from the subject with a wide angle lens than you do with a normal lens, the flatter perspective removes depth relationships.

Objects closer to the camera appear larger than more distant ones that are the same size in reality. Subjects with straight lines appear to converge faster than the eye perceives normally. You can use these characteristics creatively when shooting with a wide angle lens.

Shooting tips

Knowing when and how to use a wide angle lens is the key to creating successful images:

1. Framing is important because you include much more in the shot. Shoot close to your main subject and include the foreground and background to give it context.

Close-up shooting with moderate wide angle lenses is great for documentary and street photography because it conveys a sense of inclusion and context.

2. Use leading lines created by converging horizontals and verticals to draw viewers’ eyes into the scene. This gives your image depth and makes people want to examine it more closely.

Creative use of leading lines to draw the viewer’s eyes into and around the scene makes this 24mm wide angle shot more interesting than a ‘flat’ shot that draws attention to nothing.

3. Stop the lens down to at least f/5.6 to make sure as much as possible of the scene is sharp.

4. Keep the camera level if you want to minimise distortion. The wider the angle of view, the faster the lens begins to show distortion if the camera is tilted even a little bit up or down.

5. Take advantage of inherent angular distortion by tilting the lens down to include something really close to the lens within the frame with enough of the foreground to give the viewer a sense of place.

6. Make the most of the extreme distortions in ultra-wide-angle lenses. They can be the main reason the photograph is actually interesting. Even mundane objects can acquire ‘heroic’ proportions when framed close up to the lens.

The extreme distortions of ultra wide angle lenses (in this case a 16mm equivalent focal length lens) can be used creatively to make otherwise banal subjects visually interesting.

7. Wide angle lenses can emphasise a sense of emptiness and distance but you may need to pull the viewer’s eyes into the scene with something in the foreground. You can frame the scene with branches or a built or natural structure or use a line of trees or fence line to direct attention into the scene.

8. Ultra-wide lenses are popular for astrophotography, especially for shooting time-lapse sequences where you want to capture the Milky Way.

9. It can be difficult to compose backlit shots without stray light getting in. Make sure your lens hood is in place and watch out for lens flare when shooting landscapes.

To prevent lens flare you should use a lens hood and keep bright light sources well outside of the image frame.

Another way to avoid lens flare is to shoot with the sun behind your main subject, as shown in this backlit shot.

10. Wide angle lenses seldom need stabilisation in normal lighting conditions and can be used hand-held at slower shutter speeds than longer lenses. They are also easier to focus and often focus faster than other types of lenses.

Useful links

When to use a wide-angle lens

Angular distortion

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Lenses 2nd Edn pocket guide

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House