Landscape photographers would be a bit stuck if they were banned from using wide-angle lenses. The wide-angle lens – and we’re talking about anything with a focal length of 24mm or less on a full-frame camera, or 16mm or less on an APS-C – is probably the go-to lens for most landscape photographers. After all, they’re ideal for capturing the epic sweep of a landscape and help to convey a sense of space. However, it’s all too easy to create boring, empty shots with a wide-angle lens, so they do take a bit of mastering. So, as a public service to the cause of good photography, here are five ways to use a wide-angle lens with confidence…
Get up Close and Personal
One important visual characteristic of wide-angle lenses is their distortion of space. Every element in a shot will be smaller, and appear further away and farther apart, than they looked to your eye. (With the effect increasing the wider the lens you use.) This is usually what causes those boring, empty shots mentioned above. The simple solution is to keep things simple, decide what the main subject of the shot is and get in close. In landscape this would be something in the foreground – an interesting rock, plant or tree stump. The background is just that, a background to your main subject. That doesn’t mean the background is unimportant but its main role is to give your subject a sense of place. Often you’ll need to get down low, way below eye-level, to get in close to your subject. Wide-angle lenses can be used for more than just landscape photography of course, but the ‘get in close’ rule still applies, with the possible exception of portraiture. Really, you don’t want to shoot your portrait subject up close with a wide-angle lens – they really won’t thank you for it. However, wide-angles can be used to show your portrait subject in the context of their surroundings.
Be Careful With Your Polariser
Polarisers are great for adding a bit of ooomph to a sky, deepening the blue of the sky and helping clouds to pleasingly pop out more. (With the camera pointing at the right angle of course, approximately at 90° to the sun.) The problem with using a polariser on a wide-angle lens is that you often get a lot of sky. And this often creates a banding effect, with part of the sky polarised and part well, not. It’s a weird visual effect that doesn’t look natural at all. The more cloud there is, the more you can hide the banding, but generally just take it easy with your polariser.
A Flare for Photography
Lens flare, seen as coloured blobs and a loss of contrast across an image, is a common problem when using wide-angles. The most common problem is flare from a point light source, from just outside the image frame, sneaking into shot. This problem is exacerbated by wide-angle lenses that have protruding front elements, particularly if they’re slightly dusty or have greasy fingerprints on the glass. By far the simplest solution is to use a lens hood, which often come with wide-angle lenses. However, lens hoods really aren’t compatible with filter holders and do make fitting screw-in filters a bit more tricky to put on or take off. Personally, I’m not keen on lens hoods for this reason. My solution, with the camera mounted on a tripod, is to shield the lens with my hand, or even body. It does mean being careful not to get hand/body in the shot, but it’s a quick solution that doesn’t interfere with filter holders or other accessories.
Another visual property of wide-angle lenses is the amount depth of field available even at relatively modest apertures. The one drawback to this is that it’s difficult to isolate your subject by throwing the background out-of-focus. Leave that to telephoto lenses and embrace sharpness. Generally, unless your subject is mere centimetres from your camera, you won’t need to use the smallest apertures on a lens. This is good as optical quality tends to drop off a cliff once you start to use the likes of f/18 or f/22. Careful focusing and using mid-range aperture (which is where a lens is at its best optically) is usually sufficient. Hyperfocal distance focusing is one technique to maximise depth of field for a given aperture. The old-fashioned way of doing this was to use the depth of field scale on a lens. Sadly, modern lenses, particularly zoom lenses, tend not to have depth of field scales. Fortunately, there are plenty of apps that you can use to calculate the hyperfocal distance and where you need to focus.
On the Straight and Level
Tip a wide-angle lens up or down and you’ll quickly see a visual effect known as converging verticals, particularly when shooting architecture. This is when your (vertical) subject appears to be falling forwards or backwards, rather than looking as though its parallel to the camera. One solution is keep your camera perfectly vertical and horizontal and therefore parallel to the subject. (Using a spirit level on your tripod head, or built-into the camera as an aid.) This avoids the problem of converging verticals, but may mean that a tall subject is no longer framed correctly. You could of course step back, but this means that your subject will then diminish is size. You could use a tilt/shift lens, but they’re expensive. Or, you could just embrace converging verticals and use them to create visually-interesting images. Oddly, there’s probably no in-between. You either avoid converging verticals altogether or just go for it. A bit of converging verticals will look odd and a bit half-hearted rather than striking.
David Taylor is a British award-winning landscape and travel photographer, who was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne and now lives in the ancient market town of Hexham, Northumberland. He took his first photograph at the age of 14, when his parents gave him a Kodak Instamatic for Christmas, and he has been taking photographs ever since.
His landscape photos have been used in publicity materials by local businesses, councils and tourism organisations, such as the Northumberland National Park Authority. He has also supplied images and articles to both regional and national magazines including Living North, Countryfile, Black & White Photography and Outdoor Photography.