Open wide

I have said it many times: wide angle lenses are under-rated. Few of my readers even have one.

I mean a wide angle lens in the range of 16-35mm if you have a full-frame camera like a 5D or a D700, or 10-20mm on a crop camera like a digital Rebel, D90, 60D, or D7000.

A wide lens, as I said yesterday, makes the scene wrap around you, or around the close by object.

Upstate New York (Photo: Michael Willems)

Upstate New York (Photo: Michael Willems)

Upstate New York (Photo: Michael Willems)

Boating in upstate New York (Photo: Michael Willems)

Frequent readers here will know the following:

  • Do include a close object (even the ground, as in picture #1 above)
  • Do not put people in the corners – they will be distorted, sinc eanything near the edges will look larger.

Use a wide lens and get close, and your pictures will look unlike others’.


Wide angle diffuser tip

Tip: if you use a wide angle lens – and I hope you are, because you will get pictures like this, that look very three-dimensional, with the scene “wrapping around you”:

Upstate New York (Photo: Michael Willems)

…then you need to know about your flash’s wide angle diffuser.

This is the piece of plastic that you can pull out, that looks like a diffuser:

It looks like a diffuser, but it is not. All it does is make the light go to a wider angle, when you are using a lens wider than the flash’s internal zoom mechanism can handle. Else, you would get vignetting.

When you shoot with a lens wider than around 24mm (on full frame), you need it to ensure the entire picture is lit. Like in this 16mm (on full frame) image, the sign would not be lit if I had not used the adapter.

Upstate New York (Photo: Michael Willems)

But here comes tip 2: you can also choose not not use it, when shooting with a wide lens. This might be a good choice if you want vignetting, or if you are short of power, like on a sunny day, and your subject is in the middle. Then why waste power lighting up the side?



Open wide

My friend Peter McKinnon, of, visited me tonight.

Peter is a very talented international photographer (and magician, as it happens: a skill that comes in handy during some of the wedding he shoots, I bet).

Peter and I share a love of wide angle lenses. Like the 14mm f/2.8 lens he shoots with – a lens that is on my wish list. Look at Peter here, holding that lens – all that glorious glass:

Peter shoots with this lens very often, even where others would shy from a wide lens – and I do not blame him: it is wonderful, rectilinear, and very, very sharp (especially when stopped down).

So – something to explain. Why do I say “some would shy away”?

Because some people think wide angle lenses distort.

So do they? Depends.

  • If you mean “make straight lines into curves” – a good lens is rectilinear. Meaning straight lines remain straight. So in that sense: no distortion.
  • Very wide lenses are, however, not entirely sharp at the very edge – in that sense, yes, some distortion, if you will.
  • What they do do is show perspective from the point of view. And if I get close to something, the scene will look dramatic in the corners and at the edges This is not, strictly speaking, distortion. It is showing me basic geometry. If I am one inch away from your nose, your nose will look extra big – that is not distortion, it is reality.

Regardless, for the last two reasons above you should avoid putting important objects at edges and in corners:

But provided you avoid that, a wide lens will work great:

That sense of space, of the subject being surrounded by his environment, is typical of extra wide angle lenses.

Another note. Prime lenses enforce discipline. Instead of zooming, you must move or turn.

And you have to get close. When people are reluctant to use wide lenses, it is because they are reluctant to get close to people. A wide lens forces you to get close – which is a good thing. Photographers need to interact with their subjects.

So I encourage you to go wide. Meaning as wide as 8-20 on a crop camera (equivalent to 14-35mm on a full-frame camera) – that sort of range.

And have fun!


Wide means deep

“Wide angle means deep depth of field”. Meaning, a wide angle lens makes everything sharp, from close to far.

That’s true, but as this image of my friend and colleague Joseph Marranca shows,  it is not quite all there is to be said:

Even with a 16mm lens you can create selective depth of field, by:

  1. Using the lens open (this was at f/4)
  2. Getting close to the subject that is closest.

You see, it is the ratio between close and far that counts. If the far subject is twice as far as the closest subject, then both will be sharp. But if the far subject is, say, twenty times as far as the closest subject, then it’s a different story: you can get the far subject blurred.

And getting it 20 times farther can be done in two ways: move it farther, or move the closest subject closer.  Or get closer to it. And that is why, and how, this works.

Open wide

Wide angle lenses tend to be under-appreciated by amateur photographers. “Surely to get a good photo you need to have a long lens: the longer the better!”

No, not so. A wide angle lens (say, a 10-20mm lens on a crop camera, or a 16-35mm lens on a full-frame camera) allows for interesting pictures.

Wide lenses are great for creative reasons:

  • You get depth, three-dimensionality – we call that “close-far” technique.
  • You get leading lines, strong diagonals.
  • You can make great “environmental” portraits, with a person surrounded; enveloped, as it were, by their environment.

And for technical reasons:

  • It is easy to focus “everywhere:”: depth of field is extensive.
  • It is easy to use slow shutter speeds without motion blur (rough guideline: a 15mm lens can be used at 1/15th second, while a 200mm lens needs 1/200th second).

If I were to have to choose one lens (admittedly this would have to be with a gun to my head: life is not that simple) – but if I had to choose one lens, then I would choose the wide angle zoom as my lens of choice.