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Exploring Wide Angle Lenses Part 2: Composition Techniques for Wide-Angle Lenses

 In Part 1, we learned about two concepts related to the perspective exaggeration effect of wide-angle lenses: 1. It causes lines to converge and 2. The perspective exaggeration effect is stronger at the edges of the image. Here in Part 2, we look at some more examples to better understand these characteristics and how we can apply them. (Edited by studio9)

Cloudy sky over city skyline

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/9.0/ 1/60 sec/ ISO 500


1. Capture the cloudy sky

When you shoot the sky with a wide-angle lens, perspective exaggeration results “downward stretching” effect that starts from the top of the image from the part of the sky nearer to you. Clouds create contrast in the sky, which makes this effect more obvious. That’s why a cloudy sky can appear more expansive than the sky on a clear day.

The shot above is of the Minato Mirai area in Yokohama, taken from a boat at sunset (FL: 24mm). For the strongest impact, try to capture much of the sky as you can. You don’t have to stick to the Rule of Thirds.

Clouds over New Mexico landscape

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/10/ 1/800 sec/ ISO 250

This was shot in New Mexico in the United States (FL: 16mm). It’s nice to have a camera on hand when you see nice clouds. The sky looks endless, doesn’t it? 


2. Shoot from a diagonal angle

To make full use of the perspective exaggeration effect of wide-angle lenses, try approaching your subject from the diagonal.

This is because of how perspective works:
- Shooting head-on results in no perspective effect because all parts of the subject appear the same distance from the camera (and the viewer).
- Shooting at an angle to the subject creates a stronger perspective effect because one end of the subject is closer to the camera/viewer than the other.

1. Compose your shot so that the subject appears to protrude into the frame from outside the image. This makes use of the stronger perspective exaggeration effect at the sides.
2. Shoot closer to the subject. The nearer the closest part of the subject to the camera, the stronger the perspective effect.

Factory at night with starbursts

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/16/ 20sec / ISO 800

A nightscape of a factory in Kawasaki City, shot at 23mm. I shot so close to the fence that it was almost at the tip of my lens. The perspective exaggeration effect that results is strong on the fence, but not as strong on the factory which is further away from the camera and near the centre of the image.


Oysters with wide-angle perspective exaggeration

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/2.8, 1/15 sec/ ISO 1600

I took a shot of a plate of oysters at an oyster bar (FL: 16mm). Here too, I got right up close until my lens was just about touching the shells in the foreground. The exaggerated perspective is stretched across the plate from the foreground into the background. It’s good for creative purposes, but it’s not good if you need shapes to be depicted faithfully!


3. Make things appear to cover a larger area than they really do

Creating perspective exaggeration with a wide-angle lens can make things appear vaster than they really are. Take a look at the following shots:

Flowers shot at 24mm

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L USM/ f/5.6/ 1/1250 sec/ ISO 200

This image was shot at 24mm, from close to the closest focusing distance (0.45m) of the lens. It looks like it was taken in an entire field of flowers, doesn’t it? Yet it was actually a cluster of small planters with a depth of around 30 to 40cm inside a park.


Flowers with starburst, high angle at 16mm

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/13/ 1/80 sec/ ISO 640

This is another close-up shot of the same flowers using a wide-angle zoom lens (FL: 16mm). The distance from the foreground towards the background is thoroughly exaggerated, giving the impression that the image was shot in a huge garden of flowers. 


But in actual fact, both of the images above were shot here:

Flowers in a park

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/5.0/ 1/100 sec/ ISO 100

This was also shot at 16mm, using the same lens as the previous image. However, I stood further back and shot from a higher angle than the previous shot. See what a difference this makes? Unlike the previous images, there’s no clear point of interest in this shot; it merely documents what the shooting scene looks like. It shows that it’s how you use the lens that matters.  


Here’s one more shot to show what a wide angle can do:

Close-up of sakura tree at wide-angle

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L USM/ f/5.6/ 1/5000 sec/ ISO 400

You don't have to capture am entire park to fill your frame with sakura. I got this shot by moving close to a single tree and shooting at 24mm.

You may also be interested in: Photographing Cherry Blossoms: Should I Shoot Wide-angle or Telephoto?


4. Try using a low shooting position

Shoot with your camera close to the ground. This is not only an interesting point-of-view, it is also a way to create a forced perspective where subjects in the foreground look huge, and those in the background look tiny in comparison.

Let’s recap: What is the Difference between Camera Position (Level) and Camera Angle?

Low angle: Shots that are taken with the camera tilted upward (as opposed to high angle where the camera is tilted downward)
Low position: Where the camera is in a position lower than eye level.

Shadows of passers-by on the street.

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L USM/ f/8.0/ 1/250 sec/ ISO 200

In the photo above, the camera is not only in a low position, but it is also pointing down towards the ground, making it a low-position, high-angle shot. The perspective effect draws attention to the shadows.

Advice: Be careful when you are shooting near the ground with your camera tilted upward—people might misunderstand your intentions, especially in busy areas! It's good practice to check that no one is nearby.


Low position shot with foregrounded floor

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM/ f/4.0/ 1/40 sec/ ISO 800

I took this shot with the camera placed on the ground (FL: 16mm). The foregrounded floor looks huge compared to the people in the background. You can use this effect to create interesting forced perspective images.


5. Make legs look longer

Remember how in Part 1, we saw how perspective exaggeration and the convergence effect made buildings taper and look taller? It applies to everything, including people. 

The following low-angle shot was taken from the same level of the feet of this standing toddler.

Giant standing toddler

EOS 5D Mark III/ f/4.0/ 1/160 sec/ ISO 1250

Giant baby on the loose! Shooting with a wide-angle lens from a low angle makes the toddler’s legs look larger and longer and his face look smaller than they actually are. The effect here so so exaggerated, it's almost like a caricature—good for creative expression, might not be ideal if you are on a portraiture assignment! But here's a secret: Fashion photographers often use this technique (in a much more subtle way) to better show off a subject’s figure and sense of style.

Tip: Be careful not to place the face in the edges of the image. The stronger perspective exaggeration effect there will result in distortion. Instead, place the face in the centre.


Recommended lenses

EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM: I love the large aperture and the beautiful starburst effects on its predecessor, the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, which is my go-to lens. This new, improved version promises even better edge-to-edge image quality.

EF-S10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: For APS-C cameras, this 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.


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