How to Choose and Use Wide Angle Lenses

July 6, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment | |

Main Image: A field of sainfoin beneath the village of Campi Vechio, the Valnerina, Monti Sibillini National Park, Umbria, Italy. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24mm TS-E lens, 10x ND filter + 0.9ND grad, ISO 50, 6 mins @ f16

In Part One and Two of this occasional series on how we use and choose our precious lenses we looked at medium and long lenses; now it's time to get wide. All through this discussion the big debates of zooms vs primes, speed vs weight and performance vs cost have been the Big Issues. Now that we're considering bulging wide optics with curvy front elements nothing changes. Or does it?

Well, yes. For a start we can pretty much discount the speed vs. weight issue. Generally speaking the weight and bulk of wide angles isn't really something to lose sleep over, by definition short lenses are all fairly portable. The difference between a 300mm f4 and it's f2.8 stable mate is felt immediately as the load is shouldered; some 1.5 kg of considerable bulk and aching shoulders is the price to be paid for one extra stop of speed.

In the world of wide angles it's not such a factor, yes a 24mm f1.4 is beefier then an f2.8 but compared to all the other stuff we have to lug about an extra 380gm is not a Big Deal. So, the choices are simpler, right? Not for me, because at these focal lengths of less then 35mm other factors come into play to muddy the waters; and that's all down to how I and I suspect many of you use your wide angles. So before we go any further let's look at how, when and why wide angles are used in the field.

Sometimes it's a case of just getting it all in. As long lenses let us pull in the frame filling detail of an elusive prowling cheetah extreme wide angles let us include everything around us, the village square, the sky above and your feet below, not to mention the odd stray Lowepro, the rubbish bins and regrettable tourists. But of course choice of appropriate focal length is far more then that, it's a decision based on perspective and what we want to emphasise in the composition.

Standard lenses replicate our natural view and record a pleasingly balanced perspective between foreground and background. Long lenses compress perspective and reveal the true scale of distant subjects, whilst wide-angle views emphasise the foreground and make near objects big and bold in the frame at the expense of the background. When contemplating how I'm going to compose a picture I like to weigh up these choices before the camera bag is opened. I'm often asked what's my most used lens, to which I answer the 24-70mm, predictably, but when it comes to what's my most used focal length I don't know, there's a time and a place for all of them.

But there's no doubt in landscape photography in particular a wide-angle perspective with strong foreground interest is a tried and tested formula that is almost a default setting, you can't beat it. And nine times out of ten that perspective and composition requires crisp sharp detail from the poppies in the foreground to the hills in the far distance. With long lenses the minimal depth of field is part of the attraction, with wide angles ultimate depth of field is often the required look.

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