“Getting Your Zen on” with a Wide-Angle Lens

Get to Know the Short Lens to Unlock its Creative Potential

Photography is a creative process. As such, it requires a balance of knowledge, skill, talent and imagination to excel. An expanded field of view introduces an element that affects that creative balance more than you may realize. In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways that happens and how to make the adjustments that will help you perfect the art of wide-angle capture. Let’s say we’re going to help you “become one” with your wide angle lens.

Understanding Perspective Distortion

One of the first things to realize about a wide-angle lens is how it changes the perspective in a shot. In reality, it doesn’t. To test this, shoot the same scene from the same spot with a telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens. Crop the wider shot to the same field of view as the telephoto and you’ll find that the perceived distances between objects are the same.

…getting closer is often the key to maximizing the impact of your shots.

The misconception that focal lengths compress or extend distances between objects actually comes from changes in lens-to-subject distance. With a wider field of view, you tend to move in closer to your subjects and vice-versa. It’s this change that causes compressed or extended perspective. How does knowing that help improve your wide-angle images? Because you’ll know that getting closer is often the key to maximizing the impact of your shots.

Understanding Radial Distortion

There are three types of radial distortion most affected by focal length. Two of these are more often associated with wide angle lenses.

Barrel distortion is the most common type at short focal lengths. It appears because objects farther from the optical center are magnified less than those closer to it. 

Barrel Distortion by Superduchess Rivera on 500px.com

Barrel distortion can be deliberately emphasized for visual effect. It can also be a problem that requires fixing in post processing, so you should keep it in mind when shooting with a wide-angle lens.

Pincushion distortion is the opposite of barrel distortion and tends to create elongated points at the outer corners of an image. It’s more prevalent in longer focal lengths.

Mustache distortion occurs when a lens exhibits both of the above anomalies, usually resulting in a handlebar mustache-like warp in lines along the outer edges of a photo. This is usually found in lenses with less-than-optimum distortion correction and can be difficult to correct in post processing. You can see it in the horizon line of the photo below.

New Lens Test

Knowing the distortion characteristics of your lens is important. Experimentation is the best way to discover them.

Rectilinear Projection

Even the most high-end wide angle lenses will exhibit some degree of distortion. Rectilinear lenses, however, include elements to correct the effects. The Irix 15mm lens is an example, with almost no visible distortion. Shooting with this type of lens makes two major differences:

1. These lenses won’t produce “fisheye” effects, so they’re not intended for those whimsical shots many photographers like to take with a wide-angle lens.
2. These lenses are ideal for landscapes, architectural shots, real estate photos and other applications in which they’ll minimize unwanted curvature of lines.

Knowing the distortion characteristics of your lens is important. Experimentation is the best way to discover them.

Distortion Isn’t Uniform

The Night Kim Found My Marbles
Another important thing to know about distortion is that it it varies according to the position of an object in the frame. The farther from the center an object is, the more pronounced the effect will be. In other words, to minimize distortion, you’ll want to place an object as close to the center of the frame as possible.

Camera Angle Matters

The effects of various viewing angles are quite pronounced with a short focal length. This makes it important to pay attention to leveling if you want to avoid convergence. On the other hand, that convergence can be used to add depth and drama to your images.

Positioning your camera low and angling it upward can make any clouds appear to radiate outward from a central point on the horizon:

Sunset in Ashalim Power Station by Angel Diego on 500px.com

A low camera angle can also emphasize the height of structures in architectural shots:

To Look Up by The Pixel Hobo on 500px.com

Of course, you can also point the camera down to use converging lines to lead your viewers into the frame:

Nags Head, NC Jetty by Jtaylor Colton on 500px.com

With or without radial distortion, camera angle is one of the most powerful factors in wide-angle photos.

Extended Depth of Field

A trait that comes with a wide field of view is an equally deep field of focus. Wide angle lenses simply give you great depth of field, even at wide apertures. That doesn’t mean that you should just point and shoot blindly; in fact it can actually make some things more challenging. For instance, getting nice bokeh effects will take a little more work than with a telephoto lens. How much more work depends on the lens. Here’s an example of the nice, round bokeh effects you can achieve with the Irix 15mm’s 9 curved diaphragm blades:
El Olivo

Focus, Grasshopper! (Daniel-San? Padawan?)

If you didn’t “get” any of those references, you’re obviously not on the cusp of geekdom and you have my sympathy. If that applies to you, please see Kung Fu the series, Karate Kid, and the Star Wars trilogies, respectively.

…getting sharp photos with a wide angle is easy, but only if know and you take the proper steps.

The point is, while we’re discussing depth of field, getting sharp photos with a wide angle is easy, but only if know and you take the proper steps. That extended depth of field can drop off in the wrong place if your point of focus isn’t right. What’s more, judging the focus in your shots can be difficult, because distant objects are going to be very small in your viewfinder or LCD.

To maximize the sharpness in your wide angle shots, I highly recommend learning about hyperfocal distance and how to use a depth of field scale. A good working knowledge of both will be invaluable.

Balance is Sensitive

Stob Dearg (Explored)
If you’ve studied the practice of Zen, martial arts or using “The Force” at all, you know that balance is key. It’s also a critical component in photo composition. I’m referring to visual balance, of course, but like physical balance, it becomes more sensitive in a wider frame. If you’d like to master wide angle photography, learn to place elements of your composition strategically to distribute visual weight properly. We’ll go into depth on that in a future article.

Be the Photo

Okay, that’s the last cheesy reference, I promise. All kidding aside, wide-angle photography requires engagement with the process of creating the image. The expanded field of view means there’s more to study in each exposure. Keep your technical mind involved in the process along with the creative side. Above all, practice.

I hope you’ll find these tips helpful in improving your wide-angle shots. Have fun!

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