Don’t Use Your Wide Angle

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received as a photographer has been given to me by my friend Eduardo Soteras. We were drinking warm tea at the chilly high-altitude village of Kyanjin Gompa, Nepal, chatting about our photographic experiences when he told me about a bad habit that a lot of us tend to have: framing with the widest angle available.

We probably all have had this habit, some of us still have it, and it is totally natural. I mean, there is so much information you can capture in one single shot using a wide angle lens, why wouldn’t you use it? Actually, more often than not it will make your photograph look messy. There will be so much distractions on the resulting photograph that the viewer will have no idea where to focus nor will she understand the story within it. Yes, sure, they kinda have a wow effect, but that’s not really what I am after when I’m making photographs. Are you also feeling the same? Then let’s see how we can deal with that.

After receiving this advice, I started to work on it. This first shot of a man cooking at Kyanjin Gompa village has been shot at 16mm. As you can see, this focal length is in this case far too wide. There are so many distracting elements that we're not even sure which is the subject...

After receiving this advice, I started to work on it. This first picture of a man cooking at Kyanjin Gompa village has been shot at 16mm. As you can see, this focal length is in this case far too wide. There are so many distracting elements that we’re not even sure which is the subject…

For this second shot, I zoomed to 26mm. Still wide, but as the room was quite small, it was quite hard to zoom even more. Still, I still find there are disturbing elements than can be removed with a better framing: the eggs box, the pans, ...

For this second shot, I zoomed to 26mm. Still wide, but as the room was quite small, it was a bit hard to zoom even more. Still, some disturbing elements remain and can be removed with a better framing like the eggs box on the left side.

Finally, I managed to capture this man cooking on the fire without all the distracting elements with a focal length of 27mm and by getting a little closer. The sparkles are not here anymore, removing an important aspect of the photograph, however, that's not the point here :-)

Finally, I managed to frame this man cooking on the fire without all the distracting elements by using a focal length of 27mm and by getting a little closer. The sparkles are not here anymore, removing an important aspect of the photograph. However, that’s not the point here :-)

 

If you’re working with prime lenses, then maybe should you attach a lens of more than 28mm[1] by default on your camera and work with it as much as possible. If you’re using a zoom, then an idea would be to set it at its longest focal length by default and think about setting it again like this after each series of photographs. For instance, when I had to work with a 16–35mm zoom, I’d make sure it is set to 35mm before shooting and back up only when necessary. Then, if you really need — I mean REALLY — to get widest, it is up to you. But having the longest focal length set by default will inherently force your vision to focus towards details. Then you’ll learn to frame in such a way that only the strict necessary will be part of the resulting shots. If this is not enough, then get rid of this (ultra-) wide angle lens — keeping in mind that a wide angle lens can still be useful in some situations. That’s actually what I did and 24mm is the widest angle I have now.

Shot at 16mm, this picture looks pretty uninteresting. Not only the space at the top and the bottom dilutes the interest of the photograph, but the strange circles produced by the polarizing filter look really weird...

Shot at 16mm, this picture looks pretty uninteresting. Not only the space around the subject dilutes the interest of the photograph, but the strange circles produced by the polarizing filter on the water look really weird…

The same shot framed at 28mm already looks better. The empty space has been cropped by the lens and now the focus of the photograph is more clear.

The same shot framed at 28mm already looks better. The empty space has been cropped by the lens and now the focus of the photograph is more clear.

 

Get close, get close, get close. — Robert Capa

Another approach is to keep using your wide angle and fill the frame by getting even closer to your subject. This is a great way to give your photograph a sense of proximity, especially when photographing people. But it requires your being confident with your subject — more to come on this topic — and also being very careful at the distortion implied by such lenses, especially on the edges: you don’t want to get a stretched face, do you?

Ending marmelade

The misfits of the wide angle distortion. Shot at 19mm, this image shows the grotesque effect produced by the distortion of wide angle lenses. The closer you get to the angles, the worst it becomes.

 

Also, by combining these two approaches you can really get the best of each by getting close without having to worry too much about the lens distortion. Why don’t you try, for example, to work for a while with a 35mm and try to get as close to your subject as you can? You would probably be astonished by what can be achieved with one single lens.

This portrait has been shot at 35mm. As you can see, distortion disappears at this focal length. Moreover, using such a "wide" angle for a portrait creates a certain feeling of proximity with the person you photograph.

This portrait has been shot at 35mm. As you can see, distortion disappears at this focal length. Moreover, using such a “wide” angle for a portrait creates a certain feeling of proximity with the person you photograph.

 

So, in order to make sure this is clear: unless it is your primary intention, like getting very close to your subject, don’t use your wide angle! Look for the details.

I’d be happy to learn from your experiences with wide and ultra-wide angle lenses. Do you often use them successfully? Or maybe do you think they should be avoided in most cases? Don’t be shy and please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

If you’re not familiar with the concept of #MakePhotographs or feel outraged by what’s written here, please read this.


  1. Here I’m implicitly thinking of the 24x36mm format, also called full-frame, meaning that if you’re using a different type of camera you need to apply the underlying coefficient to get the equivalent focal length of your lens.

Post a Comment