Tips for wide angle lenses

Wide angle lenses, particularly ultra-wide angle, are great to use but require a little extra thought to get the best results from them.

Train

Olympus OMD-EM5 with Olympus 9-18mm ƒ4-5.6 lens at 9mm. This image was made with the camera held level. Note the vertical pole on the right of the image and the lack of distortion on the train

When talking in 35mm terms (‘full-frame’ digital), the film negative (or digital sensor) measures approximately 36mm x 24mm. A wide-angle lens is generally considered to be anything with a focal length less than the longest edge of the film plane, but equal to or longer than the shortest edge. So, on a 35mm film or ‘full-frame’ digital camera, a wide-angle lens would have a focal length of between 24 and 35mm inclusive. An ultra-wide angle lens is considered to be anything less than the shortest edge of the negative or sensor, so, again in 35mm or ‘full-frame’ terms, an ultra-wide angle lens has a focal length shorter than 24mm.

The following are the equivalent ultra-wide angle lenses for their respective formats –

  • Four Thirds & Micro Four Thirds – any lens with a focal length shorter than 13mm
  • APS-C – any lens with a focal length shorter than 15mm
  • 35mm (‘full-frame’) – any lens with a focal length shorter than 24mm
  • 6 x 4.5 – any lens with a focal length shorter than 41mm
  • 6 x 6 and 6 x 7 – any lens with a focal length shorter than 56mm

One of the things to remember when using an ultra-wide angle lens is the angle of the lens will greatly affect the resultant image. If you keep the lens level on a horizontal plane, there will be much less distortion. These lenses tend to ‘bend’ straight lines, particularly near the edges of the frame and especially if the lens is not held level. Pointing the lens either up or down, even slightly, will cause the vertical lines to distort even more.

The images in this post were all made using an Olympus OMD-EM5 with an Olympus 9-18mm ƒ4-5.6 lens at 9mm. Bear in mind that Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lenses have their correction data built into the lens firmware and that information is applied automatically when you import MFT images into programs like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. While corrections are made automatically on import, it is still important to keep the lens level if you want to minimise distortion.

Train, camera tilted downwards

Olympus OMD-EM5 with Olympus 9-18mm ƒ4-5.6 lens at 9mm. This image was made with the camera tilted down slightly. Note the vertical pole on the right of the image is now leaning towards the outside of the frame as is the train on the left.

Train, camera tilted upwards

Olympus OMD-EM5 with Olympus 9-18mm ƒ4-5.6 lens at 9mm. This image was made with the camera tilted up slightly. Note the vertical pole on the right of the image and the train on the left are now both leaning towards the centre of the frame.

Wide-angle and ultra-wide angle lenses also have a greater depth of field than a ‘normal’ or ‘telephoto’ lens and tend to exaggerate the size of anything that is close to the lens. Getting really close to a foreground object can make for a really dramatic image, whereas photographing from further away can result in an image with an empty and somewhat uninteresting foreground.

These lenses are great for getting close to a subject and making images that still show a large swathe of the background.

Tips –

  • DO keep the lens level if you want to minimise distortion
  • DO get close to your subject
  • DON’T use ultra-wide angle lenses for portraits – unless you are deliberately trying to distort the person’s features
  • DON’T have people near the far edges of the frame – they will be distorted
  • DO break the Rule of Thirds by having the horizon run straight across the centre of the frame – this will keep the horizon straight. Tilting up or down will cause the horizon to bend

Enjoy shooting!

About Ken

Photography is about vision; I love making photographs that tell a location’s story – the place, the people and the culture. I'm a photographer with a relaxed approach. I'm an experienced traveller and love teaching others about photography. Images can be made anywhere - right in your back yard or in exotic overseas locations. I can teach you not only to look at your surroundings, but also to really "see" what's there. Photography is more than just pressing a button. It's also about vision. Let me show you how to explore your world.
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