When to go Wide

Wide angle lenses, roughly speaking, are lenses that for a given image size, provide a wider than “normal” field of view in the final picture. For 35mm cameras, we generally consider lenses with a focal length of 35mm or less to be wide. Back in the day, I asked my photo expert buddy whether I should buy a 24mm lens or a 20mm lens for my wider-than-35 wide angle needs. He said if I knew what I was doing, I should get the 20, otherwise, I should get the 24. This was very wise advice.

Generally, you should not buy a lens unless you have some idea what you are going to do with it. If you are considering buying a wide angle, you should ask yourself why you need to go wide.

If you ask a beginning photographer this question, they will sometimes answer “I need the wide angle for those huge vistas in the landscape.” Sadly, this answer is almost always wrong.

If you really want to isolate a huge vista and get that grand Ansel Adams feeling, the best thing to do is to be a few miles away from the subject and use a telephoto lens to get the picture. For example, consider this shot:

I made this picture while standing in a parking lot that was right next to the great expanse of desert and rock. If I had shot it with a wide angle, the mesa would be a little dot in the distance and the foreground would be all parking lot. You never want that.

Here is a good example of shot where the wide lens has been used to “get the whole picture”, with the end result being that there is nothing of interest in the frame:

Notice how everything that might be interesting in this picture (the building, presumably) is tiny and in the background. Meanwhile, your eyes immediately focus on the foreground which is nothing but an empty green blob. There is basically nothing to look at in this picture.

This sort of mistake is easy to make because wide lenses distort front to back perspective. You must remember this: wide angle lenses make stuff close to the lens really big and stuff far away from the lens really small. It’s like those rear view mirrors on cars, only a lot worse.

You use wide lenses when you want to take advantage of this distortion. For example, you might want to show the viewer something small and intimate in the foreground and but lead her eye to the background where there is a familiar setting:

Or, you might have figured out how to arrange a shot where the foreground and the background are interesting:

Finding an interesting subject and an interesting background is twice as hard as just isolating your subject against a blown out background. This is why wide angle lenses are challenging to use. Whenever you are trying to control more than one main element in a picture, you will have a harder time.

The wide angle perspective also comes in handy when you are indoors. You might be trying to take a picture of a group of people at your house for dinner. They are all sitting around the table. You grab your trusty normal lens and start backing up to get the whole table into the shot. You have about half the people in the viewfinder when you find that you have walked into the stove and your pants are on fire.

This is when you need that super-wide angle zoom:

Of course, all the standard wide angle challenges apply. Watch out for empty foregrounds, and remember that since you will be placing so many different elements into the frame, you have to be careful to arrange them in a way that is pleasing rather than just confusing. I don’t have any great insight on how to do this. I might say that in my pictures, I tend to try to maintain a strong front to back perspective with lines that lead the eye from one side of the frame to the other, but that would just be self-concious wanking. The truth is that I fool around with a lot of different things and then I attempt to remember what worked well and what didn’t. Over time, you get better at doing the stuff that works and avoiding the stuff that doesn’t.

Finally, here are a few other random tips:

1. Don’t take close up portaits with a wide angle, unless you like making the person look like a distended freak.

2. Do take portraits with wide angle lenses if you want the background environment to be part of the portrait.

3. Remember that with wider lenses things that you place at the edges of the frame will look distorted. This can be a bit disturbing when you put your Aunt Betty in the wrong part of the picture and she gets all stretched out.

4. Be careful whenever you tilt a wide angle lens up or down. It makes the world look funny.

5. Practice, practice, practice. Edit, edit, edit.