Exploring Wide Angle Lenses Part 1: Photo Effects of Wide-Angle Lenses
Ultra wide-angle lenses are wonderful for capturing grand landscapes, interiors and any other shot where you need a large angle-of-view. However, they also have the tendency to amplify distances, which means that things and parts of objects might look further away than they really are. This ability to exaggerate perspectives can be a rather useful creative tool, but it also can be challenging to master. Find out more about it in this 2-part series. (Edited by studio9)
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/13/ 1/80 sec/ ISO 640
Recap: What is a wide-angle lens?
Wide-angle lenses generally have a full-frame (35mm film) equivalent focal length in the region of 35mm or less. (24mm or less on cameras with APS-C sensors)
Ultra wide-angle lenses generally refer to wide-angle lenses with a full-frame equivalent focal length of 24mm or less (16mm or less on cameras with APS-C sensors)
The benefits of a wide-angle lens that we will explore here are more obvious the shorter the focal length, which is why they work best on ultra-wide angle lenses. However, you can also experience them using the wide-angle end of a standard zoom lens (usually 24mm or 28mm equivalent).
Key characteristic 1: Large angle-of-view
Because of their large angle-of-view, wide-angle lenses capture a large part of a scene, which is why landscape photographers love them. (See: Canon’s Best Lenses for Landscape Photography)
However, this characteristic also means that objects that you don’t want to capture might also be included in the frame, making it harder to control what is included in your composition.
Key characteristic 2: Plays a part in exaggerating perspective
On images shot with a wide-angle lens, perspective appears to be exaggerated: Nearby objects may look much bigger (and hence nearer) than they really are, and faraway objects look even smaller and further away.
This effect also amplifies distances between objects, i.e., things look further away from each other. The shorter the focal length, the bigger the perspective exaggeration effect.
The perspective exaggeration effect is why wide-angle lenses are not ideal for shooting portraits or any other subject where it is important for the shape of the subject to be faithfully captured. But the effect has its uses, and we hope that this article helps you to harness it better.
*Further reading: Focal length, lens compression and perspective distortion
In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether lenses really cause perspective distortion, or if it is an illusion caused by shooting distance.
Read more about here: How Lens Compression and Perspective Distortion Work
Concept #1: Perspective makes lines converge towards each other
The rules of perspective dictate the following:
The further away an object, the smaller it looks.
The nearer an object, the larger it looks.
Have you ever thought of what it does to lines?
Take a look at the following shot of a simple hallway, captured with an ultra wide-angle lens at 16mm. What do you notice about the lines formed by the floor?
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/4.5/ 1/20 sec/ ISO 1600
In real life, the lines on both sides of the hallway are parallel. But in the shot, the lines come towards each other (converge) in a way that makes the end of the hallway seem to vanish into the centre. The point where the lines finally meet and “vanish” is called the “vanishing point”.
This “convergence effect” is not unique to wide-angle lenses. You might also see it in shots taken with other types of lenses. However, the shorter the focal length, the stronger the effect, and the closer the vanishing point will appear.
Lines converging towards the top
When the subject appears closest to us at the bottom of the image.
EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ f/8/ 1/800 sec/ ISO 200
The lines of the tower taper towards the top because the bottom of the tower is closer to the camera (appears bigger), whereas the top is further away (appears smaller). It's something many people don't think that much about when they look through the viewfinder, but that's perspective in action!
Lines converging from the side/corners
When the subject appears the closest to us on the left side of the image.
When the subject appears closest to us in the corner of the image.
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/5.6/ 1/320 sec/ ISO 3200
A: Top and bottom corners of the image (on the near end)
The train in the photo above is closer to us on the left side of the image, so the lines converge toward the right.
How to apply this
It’s a lot about playing with perceived distances: How near or far a subject (or a certain part of it) appears to you compared to the rest of the image. Tilt your camera, change your camera angle, or position the subject differently. Observe how this changes the gradient of the lines, the position of the vanishing point and the impact of your final image.
Concept #2: The perspective effect is less obvious on objects in the centre of the frame
Here's one seldom-noticed fact: When using a wide-angle lens, objects on the edge of the image appear larger due to perspective exaggeration, while objects in the centre are less affected.
This is because objects on the edges of the image converge more, while objects in the centre converge less.
Objects on the edges converge more.
Objects in the centre converge less.
Here are two examples to illustrate.
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/16/ 1/125 sec/ ISO 500
I took this shot standing amid the tall buildings of Manhattan. As I was standing quite close to the subjects and looking up at them, there is strong perspective effect that screams “wide-angle!”: The buildings all seem to lean towards the top-centre. But even then, the building in the middle appears to taper relatively less.
EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/5.6/ 1/500 sec/ ISO 250
This is also of Manhattan, and was taken with the same lens, this time from a distance over the water.
As the buildings are placed near the image centre, the perspective exaggeration effect on them is not as strong as in the previous image. However, notice how the buildings at the sides seem to lean slightly towards the centre, while those in the centre look more upright. There is also a strong perspective effect in the sea and the sky, which both extend all the way to the edges of the frame.
How to apply this
To prevent objects from looking distorted due to perspective exaggeration, place them in the centre of the frame.
To emphasise the perspective exaggeration effect, place the subject near the edges.
To photograph tall buildings without perspective distortion, you will need to use a tilt-shift lens. Find out how they work here:
What You Didn’t Know About the Shift Function on Tilt-Shift Lenses
Click here to go to Exploring Wide Angle Lenses Part 2: Composition Techniques for Wide-Angle Lenses
The lens that I usually use is the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. I really love this lens due to the beautiful starburst effect that I can create with the sun or street lights when I narrow the aperture. The large aperture means it can also be used for taking shots of stars.
If you are using an APS-C camera, I recommend the EF-S10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM, which is currently the EF-S lens with the widest angle-of-view. The 1.6x APS-C crop factor means that at the wide-angle end of 10mm, you also get a 35mm film-equivalent angle-of-view of 16mm.
The EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM has been updated! Find out more about the EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and what it can do in these articles:
Announcing the EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM Ultra-wide Angle Zoom Lens: Coated with Both SWC & ASC
EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM: Vastly Improved Peripheral Image Resolution
How I Nailed this Shot: Adding Impact to a Grand Forest Landscape
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A photography website established in Japan in 2011. With the slogan “Bringing photography closer to you”, the site provides content that is useful for everyone who enjoys photography. Besides web content, studio9 also conducts seminars and workshops.