Wide Angle Lenses: The Ultimate Guide

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A wide angle lens is one of the most useful things you can own as a photographer. And landscape photographers swear by them; you can find a wide angle lens in pretty much every landscape photographer’s bag.

But what even is a wide angle lens? What makes a wide angle lens so great? And how do you use a wide angle lens to capture amazing photos?

These are just a few of the questions we’re going to answer in our ultimate guide to wide angle lenses.

Let’s dive right in.

What is a Wide Angle Lens?

First things first:

What actually is a wide angle lens?

A wide angle lens is any lens that has a field of view wider than the human eye. When you use a wide angle lens, you’ll fit a lot more in the frame than when you use a lens that approximates the human eye. For instance, this shot was taken with a wide angle lens, which is why it captured such a vast scene:

Wide angle shot of the Cathedral Valley in the Capitol Reef National Park

On a full-frame camera, a 50mm lens has the same field of view as a human eye. If you’re using a crop sensor (APS-C) camera, then a human-eye sees the equivalent of around a 35mm lens.

So a wide angle lens is wider than 50mm (or 35mm on a crop sensor camera).

Look at this wide angle photo:

Focal length 10mm on APS-C camera (Fujifilm XT2, Fujinon 10-22mm)

And compare it to a standard (50mm) lens (both photos were taken from exactly the same spot):

Focal length 35mm on APS-C camera (Fujifilm XT2, Fujinon 35mm)

Notice how the wide angle lens gives you a broader perspective.

That said, not all wide angle lenses are the same. Which brings me to the next section:

Types of Wide Angle Lenses

Remember that wide angle lens span from around a 5mm focal length to around a 45mm focal length. The smaller the number, the wider the lens appears.

Therefore, there are a few broad types of wide angle lenses, which depend on their field of view.

Standard Wide Angle Lenses

First, there are standard wide angle lenses, in the area of 20mm to 45mm. These will give you a decently wide field of view, but nothing that produces intense effects in your photos (see the fisheye category below).

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM Wide Angle Lens - Fixed

Ultra Wide Angle Lenses

Second, there are ultra-wide angle lenses. These span from around 10mm to 20mm. They’ll give you an extremely wide perspective, but lines will appear straight, in contrast to the next category:

Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC Ultra Wide Angle Fixed Lens w/ Built-in AE Chip for Nikon

Fisheye Lenses

Fisheye lenses are also ultra-wide, from about a 6mm to 14mm focal length. But fisheye lenses don’t give you the standard perspective you’ll find with other ultra-wide angle lenses. Instead, fisheye lenses produce a distorted, rounded look, like this:

Rokinon HD8M-C 8mm f/3.5 HD Fisheye Lens with Removeable Hood for Canon DSLR 8-8mm, Fixed-Non-Zoom Lens

You should also know the difference between prime and zoom wide angle lenses.

Prime Wide Angle Lenses

A prime wide angle lens has a fixed focal length. For instance, the Canon 24mm f/2.8 is a prime wide angle lens. Prime lenses tend to give you a lot of bang for your buck, optically speaking. In other words, they tend to offer great image quality at a surprisingly low price.

Meike 12mm F/2.8 Ultra Wide Angle Manual Foucs Prime Lens for Sony E Mount APS-C Mirrorless Cameras A7III A9 NEX 3 3N 5 NEX 5T NEX 5R NEX 6 7 A6400 A5000 A5100 A6000 A6100 A6300 A6500,etc

Unfortunately, prime lenses feature limited flexibility. You can only shoot at a single focal length, which can be restrictive. That’s where zoom lenses come in:

Related:

Zoom Wide Angle Lenses

A zoom wide angle lens lets you choose a focal length within a range. A Canon 10-20mm lens lets you work at 10mm, 20mm, or anywhere in between. Optically strong zoom lenses tend to cost a lot more than their prime counterparts, though there are plenty of cheap, lower-quality zoom lenses out there.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens

Zoom lenses offer increased flexibility, because you can work at multiple focal lengths. You can photograph at an ultra-wide focal length, then zoom in for a tighter shot.

Related: Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses – Which One Is Right for You?

Who Should Have a Wide Angle Lens?

You’re probably wondering:

Do I need a wide angle lens? Who uses wide angle lenses?

Landscape Photography

Wide angle lenses are used, first and foremost, by landscape photographers. First, because a wide angle lens allows you to capture a broad, sweeping scene, from stunning flowers in the foreground to a beautiful sky in the background.

Related: Best Low Light Lenses for Astrophotography

Plus, wide angle lenses offer an inviting perspective. Wide angle lenses make the viewer feel like they could step right into the photo. And this is exactly what you want as a photographer–you want people to engage with your images. Wide angle lenses will help you do that.

While landscape photographers work with all types of wide angle lenses, ultra-wide zooms tend to be a landscape photographer’s dream. For many landscape photographers, the wider the lens, the better. So it’s common to find landscape shooters with lenses in the 10-20mm range.

Architectural Photography

Architecture photographers also gravitate toward wide angle lenses. If you like to photograph architecture, you probably want to capture some broad shots that set the scene. With a wide angle lens, you can show an entire building or the interior of a whole room.

Architecture photographers tend to use a combination of ultra-wide and standard wide angle lenses. Here, it’s more a matter of preference. Do you like vast, sweeping photos of architecture? Or are you more interested in isolating certain aspects of the scene?

Street Photography

Some street photographers like to use wide angle lenses, as well. In general, 35mm is a popular wide focal length among street photographers. This standard wide perspective allows you to create a more inviting photo, while still isolating aspects of the scene (after all, streets can get pretty chaotic!).

Portrait Photography

Finally, portrait photographers use wide angle lenses on occasion. The wider the lens, the more unusual the perspective- so you can use a wide angle to create a more unique portrait, one that really captivates the viewer.

Portrait shot with the ultra-wide lens

However, portrait photographers tend to avoid the ultra-wide focal lengths, and stick to lenses in the 35-80mm focal length range.

Challenges of Using a Wide Angle Lens

Wide angle lenses offer amazing capabilities. You can use them to capture magnificent photos. But there are a few unique challenges that come with wide angle lenses.

Optical Distortion

First, wide angle lenses come with optical distortion. Optical distortion is when straight objects curve, especially at the edges of the frame, and can result in an unnatural-looking photo.

Pretty much all wide angle lenses have some distortion, but there are methods of correcting this in post-processing. But if you want to minimize distortion right out of the box, the best wide angle lenses are manufactured so as to have very little distortion.

Extreme optical distortion produced by a fisheye lens.

Perspective Distortion

Wide angle lenses also have another type of distortion: perspective distortion, where closer objects seem much larger than distant objects.

This can be problematic for architectural photographers because it results in buildings appearing much smaller than in reality and at the same time exaggerating the foreground elements.

But if you want to achieve a truly dramatic effect, use a wide-angle lens to achieve perspective distortion to maximize the importance of the foreground, capturing it from a short distance.

Ultra wide angle of Eiffel Tower where foreground elements were purposely exaggerated

Perspective distortion can not be fixed in post-processing.

Achieving Sharpness

Finally, wide angle lenses come with one more big problem: Achieving sharpness throughout the entire photo.

In general, you want your wide angle photos to be sharp throughout, from the foreground to the background. This is difficult; you have choose both your point of focus and aperture very carefully.

This topic requires a lot of space to address. But a good rule of thumb is to note the distance between you and the nearest subject in the scene. Then set your point of focus twice that distance into the frame.

Everything, from the rocks in the background to the distant mountains, is in focus.

Also, note that the closer your nearest subject is to the lens, the narrower your aperture should be. If you’re shooting a distant mountain with a wide angle lens, you’ll only need an aperture of f/8 or below to get everything in focus. But if you’re shooting a deep scene, with flowers in the foreground and a mountain in the background, you’ll need a much smaller aperture.

Related: Mastering Depth of Field in Photography

Tips for Taking Stunning Wide Angle Photos

How do you capture amazing wide angle photos?

In this section, I’ll give you a couple of tips–that will ensure you can get amazing images the next time you go out with your wide angle lens.

Tip 1: Include a Focal Point in the Foreground to Add Depth

One of the best ways to produce a really stunning wide-angle photo…

…is to create a scene with depth.

Depth invites the viewer into the scene. It draws them in.

And to create depth, you should include a strong foreground element–something that really catches the viewer’s eye.

This can be anything:

A patch of grass. A flower. A rock.

The key things to keep in mind is that it should be a standalone object, and it should fit the scene as a whole.

That way, it will draw the viewer into the photo, and it will keep them there.

Tip 2: Use Leading Lines for Engaging Wide Angle Photos

Leading lines are simply lines that lead the viewer into the frame.

In landscape photography, they’re often rivers and streams. In architectural photography, they’re often railings and stairways.

But what makes leading lines so valuable?

Leading lines are perfect for engaging the viewer. Because they lead the eye through the frame–ideally toward your main subject.

That’s the power of leading lines. So here’s what I suggest:

Whenever you’re using a wide angle lens, look around the scene. See if you can find a leading line you can use in the foreground of your photo.

That way, you can capture an especially compelling photo.

Wide Angle Lenses: Conclusion

Now that you’ve got a good understanding of wide angle lenses, you should be able to get out and shoot some amazing wide angle shots of your own.

Just remember to watch out for distortion–and to use foreground objects and leading lines to create as much depth as possible.

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Happy shooting!

Jaymes Dempsey

Jaymes Dempsey is a photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s obsessed with nature, and loves teaching people new photography tips and tricks. To see more of Jaymes’s work, check out his portfolio website (https://www.jaymesdempsey.com/) or his photography tutorial blog (https://www.jaymesdempsey.com/blog/).
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