The Power of the Wide-angle Lens

Using wide-angle lenses to convert ordinary scenes into dramatic, high energy images

My summer online photography talk, The Power of the Wide-angle Lens, took place live on 21st June. In this talk I covered the principles of when and why to you should use a wide-angle lens, particularly in the context of aiming to create dramatic, powerful images that have an impact.

A recording of the talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch the recording below. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

So what is a wide-angle lens?

Before we can assess the power of the wide-angle lens, we must first establish what a wide-angle lens is! Put simply, it is any lens with a focal length (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor) less than about 50mm. The latter is defined as a ‘standard’ lens, which gives a field of view and perception similar to the the central field of vision of the human eye. It has a horizontal field of view of about 40o.

A wide-angle lens will then have a wider field of view, anything up to about 100o, resulting in distortion of the scene, generating for example strong diagonals. They will also have a very big depth of field (ie the amount of the image in focus), often stretching from just in front of the camera all the way to the horizon.

the power of the wide-angle lens

Why use a wide-angle lens?

There is a huge number of often overlapping reasons why you’d use a wide-angle lens. Here are just a few of them:

  • Maximising the image’s depth of field
  • Fitting more in the frame
  • Including a foreground that supports and leads the eye to the main subject
  • Creating a foreground that leads the eye into the image scene
  • Exaggeration of diagonals to increase a sense of energy/movement
  • Exaggerating diagonals to give an illusion of three dimensions
  • Exaggeration of diagonals that lead the eye to the main subject

The list could go on, but this will do as an introduction. More often than not, there will be several reasons to use a wide-angle lens in any situation. You may, for example, want to maximise depth of field, create a foreground, and exaggerate diagonals to create a sense of energy, all in the same image.

The use of a wide-angle lens simply to fit more into the image frame needs to be looked at carefully, as this can be double-edged. A lot of people do this, but without thinking of the consequences. Inevitably, using a wide-angle lens will allow more ‘stuff’ into the frame, which may actually mean more distracting clutter, which will weaken and draw attention away from the main subject. The latter will also become smaller, making it harder for it to dominate the frame, especially against all that additional clutter. In general, in such a situation, the photography must move forward, coming a lot closer to the subject: this will retain the subject’s relative size, reduce the clutter creeping into the frame, and help to exaggerate diagonals.

The one time when using a wide-angle lens simply to get more in is when your subject is really very big – too big to fit into the frame without either backing off a long way (which may not be possible) or using a wide-angle lens. This is the kind of thing you may find when photographing buildings or indeed large mountain scenes.

the power of the wide-angle lens

How wide is wide enough?

Not surprisingly, the less wide your wide-angle lens is (ie the longer its focal length), then the smaller are that lens’s drama-enhancing, depth of field-boosting effects. For many photographers, the widest lens they have is about 28mm (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor), but this is not really enough to generate the effects described here. For that you need to go to a 16 or 17mm lens (full frame), or if shooting with a cropped-sensor camera then a lens with a 10 or 12mm focal length. With that, you’re then fully kitted out for some seriously effective wide-angle photography.

The power of the wide-angle lens

In what genres of photography does wide-angle photography work well?

The power of the wide-angle lens can be felt in just about every genre of photography, whether it be landscapes, architecture, people or even nature.

Landscape photography: Wide-angle lenses are perhaps most widely used in landscape photography, where a large depth of field especially is hugely important much of the time. Couple this with the exaggeration of diagonals to put in the sense of dynamism in an otherwise static image, as well as a sense of three-dimensional depth, and you have a powerful tool for fantastic landscape imagery.

Architectural photography: Particularly when shooting large buildings you often need to use a wide-angle lens simply to be able to get the whole structure in the frame. Apart from this, there are two ways to use a wide-angle lens in this form of photography: a) to capture the building ‘correctly’, meaning that the building’s vertical lines are actually vertical and parallel to each other in the image, and b) for creative photography, in which those verticals are no longer parallel but converge sharply towards the highest, or at least most distant, part of the building.

In the ‘correct’ form of photography the building will end up in just the upper half of the image, with a huge amount of foreground in the lower half. So if shooting in this way, you’d better make damn sure that it is photographically a very interesting foreground that supports the building: for example, a calm and highly reflective piece of water, or a nicely patterned piazza.

In the creative version, anything goes – that’s why it’s creative. You embrace those converging parallels, and use them to create some funky angles and artistically distorted buildings. The architect might not be pleased, but everyone else will be!

People photography: I shoot people with a wide-angle lens when I don’t simply want to capture their portrait, but also want to show their environment and what they’re doing, perhaps some kind of work. I necessarily need to come in quite close (to cut out background clutter), so I will almost always need the subject’s cooperation. Of course there is a balance between coming in really close and being unable to fit both face and their environment/work into the frame, and there may also be a depth of field struggle (even with a wide-angle lens) to ensure that both the face and their environment/work are sharply in focus. There is also the risk that coming in close will result in an unflattering portrait: hands that are closer to the lens than the face will appear relatively much larger, and jaw and nose angles will be exaggerated, for example.

Nature photography: This may come as a bit of a surprise, as of course with nature photography we normally have to shoot with either telephoto or macro lenses, certainly not wide-angle. But even in this field the power of the wide-angle lens can be quite significant, in general in the photography of flowers/plants. Provided you have a wide-angle lens with a reasonably short minimum focussing distance, it can be possible to come in close – most especially to a cluster of flowers – and produce a nice portrait that also captures the background, and hence the plants’ environment. It’s kind of similar to the wide-angle portrait photography described above, only smaller and closer.

The Power of the wide-angle lens

The final word

Hopefully, this brief summary, coupled with the video at the top of this article, will give you everything you need to know to get stuck into some great wide-angle photography. The key, in summary, is to create drama, a single strong subject, not clutter, and some intense diagonals. Get cracking and enjoy!

My next free online photography talk will be on 20th September 2023. Click on the link below to sign up to receive the weblink.

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Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.