This is the second of two parts on using the wide-angle lens in landscape photography. The first part dealt with basic concepts like what makes a wide-angle lens, full-frame vs. crop-frame, etc. Now let’s dive into actually using these lenses to create good images.
Here are a few things the wide-angle lens allows you to do:
- Create a sense of space. This might seem obvious, but these lenses’ wide fields of view can really help to create the mood of freedom that wide-open spaces can give. Some viewers will be turned off or even frightened by wide-open spaces, but most will have a positive response. Images like the above tend to give the viewer a sense of the wild, lonely spaces of desert, mountain, ocean and more.
- Help to add a sense of depth to your image. Pictures are two-dimensional. Particularly with landscapes, if you give the viewer some sense of three-dimensionality, or depth, you can put them into the scene. Note that simply using a wide-angle lens will not add depth; it takes more than that. A while back, I did a post, Depth, where I described some of the other things you can do to add depth.
- Allow you to maximize depth of field, where more of the image is in focus. This will help you to tell a story with your image. In the picture at top, I wanted to highlight the side-lit sand ripples in the beautiful reddish dunes of the Namib desert. They form strong leading lines that help give the image impact and move the viewer into the image. Since the wider the angle the more depth of field, a wide angle (plus small aperture) will help you bring all the main elements into focus, from front to back.
- Include surrounding elements that support your main subject. Though this one comes in handy not as much with landscapes as with environmental portraits, where the frame includes not only the person or animal but surroundings that tell important things about it. But if you’re shooting landscapes with strong subjects, there is nothing preventing you from moving in close to that subject and shooting it as you would an environmental portrait.
- Give a sense of scale. Though you can certainly use other focal lengths to give a powerful sense of the different sizes of elements in your frame, the wide-angle lens makes it all the easier.
There are also a couple potential pitfalls to using a wide-angle lens:
- Distortion, while present in all lenses, is greatest in wide-angle lenses. I won’t go into the different types of distortion here. Suffice to say you’ll notice it when using a wide-angle. Of course, you may be going for a distorted look, at least to a moderate extent, but for most images it needs to be minimized. Distortion is fixable to a large extent on the computer afterwards, but it makes sense to be aware of it while shooting. Here are a couple tips to avoid problems related to distortion:
- Leave some space around the edges of your composition, especially when you’re going very wide (14-20 mm.) and when tilting the camera significantly. This will help during post-processing, when some cropping will take place during correction of distortion. You don’t want to cut off anything important.
- Avoid putting people or other important subjects along the edges, and especially in the corners, of a wide-angle frame. This is where distortion is greatest, and you don’t want people to see a picture of themselves stretched in strange ways, believe me.
- Wide-angles tend to make things appear small. This is probably the number one complaint that photographers have about wide angle lenses. While it is certainly true that the shorter focal lengths of wide-angle lenses come with smaller magnifications, once you learn to tap into their strengths, you’ll find this is not really a shortcoming at all. It’s all in the way you use the lens. Here are a couple examples to give you an idea how I use my wide-angle lenses to help me get past this “limitation” and unleash their potential to add impact to my images.
- Getting Close to Big Subjects: If you want to capture a wide part of your subject, whether that’s a swath of terrain, a tree or something else, you need to either pick a very large subject or get close to it, or both. These two factors are always going to matter when using the wide-angle lens. You don’t have much control over the size of your subject (other than picking a different one!), but you do have control over how close you get.
The cardon cactus (Baja’s largest) in the image below is quite large. When I shot it from 10 or 15 feet away, I wasn’t too happy. By switching to a wider angle and getting very close I prevented the wide-angle from making it look smaller than it is (1st image below). Then by getting so close I was basically inside it (ouch!) and shooting up at an even steeper angle, I finally got an image that tells the story of this species’ towering, “reaching for the sky” nature (2nd image below). Both of these were shot at 24 mm.
The pinyon pine in the above environmental portrait is a fascinating but not especially huge tree (at least to an Oregon boy!). Moving close to it with a wide-angle lens allowed me to fill the frame, emphasizing its form along with the color & texture of its bark. I wanted just enough background to show its surroundings while not making the tree look too small. A bonus of moving close was being able to get into the tree’s shade. During mid-morning’s intense sunshine, this kept exposure from becoming too much of a problem.
- Include Foreground, and Get Close! This is probably the most popular way to use wide-angle lenses in landscape photography. Getting close is usually a key strategy. Many times photographers will pick very interesting foregrounds, such as beautiful flower-fields, but then not get close enough. Foregrounds tend to get lost in many images.
Try this: Play around with your position. Find a great background, a mountain- or city-scape for example. Then look for some interesting foreground element, let’s say it’s flowers in bloom. Shoot at a single, wide focal length throughout, say 21 mm., and a small aperture (f/22). You’ll probably need a tripod as well. Start from 10-20 feet away at eye-level. Then try a lower position, say belt-level. Then get closer to it, say 5 feet. Shoot from eye level, chest-level, belt & knee level. Get as low as you can without blocking the main subject in the background. The angle that you tilt your camera downward will necessarily change as your camera position changes.
You’ll find that changing the camera’s position plus its tilt changes the relative impact of foreground and background. If you are a few inches from ground-level with your camera pointed upward, the background subject(s) will be smaller and sky might dominate the image. If you’re position is higher and camera pointed down or level, the background subject(s) will look bigger. Though I asked you to stick with one focal length for the exercise, in reality you may find yourself going to a wider focal length as you get very close to your foreground. Just realize that going wider also makes the background subject appear smaller.
You need to decide which position yields a picture that matches what you want to show about the scene. Do you want the foreground to be emphasized or the mountains? Do you want balance between the two? You’ll see that the nature and size of your background and foreground, plus your camera position, strongly influence the relative size of those things in your pictures.
In the image of Mt. Rainier above, I moved closer and lower to the flowers until they had some impact but didn’t quite out-compete Mt. Rainier for attention. Though it might not look like I was that close to the flowers, I was really only five feet or so from them. This is the great thing about grand background subjects. Their size means that in order to balance them with foreground, you need to move real close to that foreground. This is good because it adds depth and impact to your image, without taking away from the main subject.
Realize that you and you alone are in control of the overall feel and story in your image. You can pick your background, foreground, and (crucially) a suitable camera position that will emphasize different parts of the frame. These choices will in turn help to give an overall feel or mood to your image. They will help you tell the story you want to tell.
In the image above, I got very close to the foreground textures of the salty pan. I shot very wide at 16 mm. to emphasize the big landscape and skies, but stayed up at about belt level with the camera pointed slightly down. This was so that the Trout Creek Mtns. would not appear too short and so the foreground would take up roughly 2/3 of the image. I tried a lower position with more sky but ultimately decided that the sky would take care of itself without taking up most of the image (and making the mountains too small).
Hope you got something out of this. If you’re one of those who has become frustrated using a wide-angle lens, just keep at it. Play with angles and GET CLOSER! You’ll soon discover the true potential of the wide-angle.
If you’re interested in purchase options for any of these images, just click on them to be taken to the main part of my website. They are protected by U.S. copyright and not available for free download, sorry. Please contact me if you have any questions or want to order a print (framed or unframed) directly from me. I can also do signed limited edition prints. Take a look at the selection of limited edition prints on my site.
Thanks for your interest. Have a great weekend!