How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens for Best Effect

by Robin WhalleyApr 8, 2022Photography Tutorials

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How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens for Best Effect

Using a wide angle lens for landscape photography is something most photographers take for granted. If this is you, you need to give it more thought. Often a wide angle lens is one of the first lenses a new photographer tries when they become interested in landscape photography. Enthused by the dramatic landscape images that are possible, this initial enthusiasm can quickly give way to frustration and even despair.

I remember my own early attempts well, having purchased a wide angle lens for my Canon 35mm film camera. I wanted this lens for a winter holiday in Iceland having read that any serious landscape photographer used a wide angle lens.

I remember vividly climbing the rim or a frozen, snow covered volcano and thinking wow, this field of view is incredible. I could see so many mountains around me. This lens was amazing, and I thought it must make a huge difference to my photography.

It didn’t. When I received my film from the processing lab, those amazing and dramatic landscapes I remembered appeared almost flat and featureless. That’s because I didn’t know how to use my wide angle lens properly and I made several common mistakes.

But before we discuss how to use a wide angle lens for best effect, I would like to ask you to watch this short video. In it I explain the secret to making a wide angle photograph appear much more dramatic. Using this technique, you will be able to make even moderate wide angle lenses look much wider than they are.

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Now that you’ve watched the video, let’s discuss a few important points you need to remember when photographing with a wide angle lens.

Control the Tilt of the Camera

Remember that when using a wide angle lens, tilting the camera, even slightly introduces distortion. Sometimes this can enhance your image whilst at other times you might not want it. The effect is most obviously when photographing buildings or architecture. Here’s an example of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York which I shot using a wide angle lens.

Brooklyn Bridge showing converging verticals caused by using a wide angle lens

In this first photograph you can see the vertical sides of the bridge and the wires converge inwards. Tilting the camera backwards in order to position the bridge in the frame properly has exaggerated the effect. If it had been possible to position the bridge correctly whilst keeping the back of the camera perfectly vertical the image would have looked like the one below.

Brooklyn Bridge with corrected converging verticals

Notice how the verticals of the bridge and the cables are now upright rather than converging. Whilst this distortion is neither good nor bad, it can change how people perceive the image. If you don’t deliberately control this in your photography, you might not capture the shot you are imagining.

Let’s look at another example where I deliberately tilted the camera to create a feeling of drama. Here  the pier seems to loom large overhead because of the camera angle. Without this title the scene would be quite boring.

wide angle shot of blackpool pier with camera titled back

An alternative to tilting the camera and wide angle lens up is to tilt them down. Then by moving in close to objects you can make them dominant the foreground.

Make the Foreground Dominant the Frame

When using a wide angle lens to photograph landscapes, it’s often important to create a strong foreground. Without a strong foreground the viewers eye and attention wanders around the scene without focus. Take the following example photo which was captured with an Olympus EM5 and 12-40mm lens at 12mm.

Rock and beach taken using a 24mm wide angle lens

Here I’ve angled the camera downward making it possible to move much closer the rock, so that it fills the frame. This rock was only around 12-15 inches across, yet it fills the lower part of the image. Making the rock so dominant helps to hold the viewers’ attention in the frame. The eye can then follow the receding water down to the sea, before being drawn back by the rock.

Of course, to make this technique work well you do need to be close to the subject. This usually means that you also need to get low and close to the ground.

Get Low

Getting low when using a wide angle lens should be a priority when taking most photos. The wide angle lens will distort distance making an object that’s only a couple of feet from the camera appear much further away. If you have your camera mounted on a tripod at eye level, objects will appear much further from the camera. In the previous shot I had to collapse my tripod to its lowest level to achieve the shot. The same is true with the following image.

borth-y-gest beach with a wide angle lens at dawn

In this image, tripod was at minimum height to get low enough. Notice though that there is little distortion as the camera was level. This causes the perspective from the lens to appear quite natural despite the lens being the equivalent of a 24mm on a full frame camera.

You can see another example using a much wider lens below.

Using a Wide Angle Lens Main Image

Here I was handholding the camera only a few inches from the floor whilst shooting using a wide angle lens. The lens was set to 11mm on a Fuji X-T2 which equates to around 17mm on a full frame camera. Again, the back of the camera was vertical to prevent distortion. It was also necessary to get very low and close to the small pool of water in the foreground otherwise it would have become completely lost in the scene. It’s no where near as large as it looks in this photo.

Avoid Using Minimum Aperture

A final point to remember when using a wide angle lens is not to be lazy. A lot of photographers I talk to like to close the aperture of the lens to its minimum. Their thinking is that it will achieve the maximum depth of field which is necessary to keep the entire scene in focus. It’s also the advice you often see published in magazines and even books. This is what I call lazy shooting as it avoids selecting a good aperture and focus point.

When you select a good point of focus using a wide angle lens, you can achieve a much greater depth of field than you might imagine. Star by selecting a focus point and aperture and then take a test shot. Now you can zoom in on the back of your camera to check the depth of field.

If you haven’t achieved enough depth of field to keep the foreground and distant objects sharp, change the point of focus. If the foreground appears soft move the point of focus nearer to the camera otherwise move it away from the camera for the next shot. Only when you know you can’t achieve the required depth of field by changing the focus point should you increase the aperture. That’s how I captured this image with full depth of field at f/13.0 even though I was only inches from the ground.

How to use a wide angle lens and achieve full depth of field

Avoid using the smallest aperture your lens supports or even within a couple of stops of this. This can cause diffraction which will soften or ruin the image.

Summary

When you are learning how to use a wide angle lens, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Be deliberate about tilting or not tilting the camera and lens to control the convergence effect.
  2. If your image has interesting foreground, move in close to make the most of it. Also consider tilting the camera down slightly to emphasise the elements in the frame.
  3. Get low to help you move in close. Wide Angle lenses can distort distances even making the height of your tripod appear much greater than it is.
  4. Avoid using very small apertures which can damage image quality.

Follow these few simple steps and you will find using a wide angle lens much more rewarding.

For detailed advice on ways to improve your landscape photography consider my by book “Landscape Photography: Shoot Like a Pro”.

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