Plenty of photographers love wide-angle lenses, and for good reason: Wide-angle lenses can capture breathtaking landscapes, stunning environmental portraiture, jaw-dropping architecture, and so much more.
But what exactly is a wide-angle lens? And how can you use a wide-angle lens to create consistently beautiful photos?
In this guide, I explain everything you need to know about working with wide-angle glass. I offer basic definitions, and I also share my favorite tips for wide-angle photography – so that, by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be ready to capture pro-level results.
Let’s dive right in!
What is a wide-angle lens?
A wide-angle lens provides a field of view wider than what you can see with your eyes. Wide-angle focal lengths sit in the 8mm to 45mm range.
Because of the wide-angle field of view, when you look through a wide-angle lens, you’ll encounter an expansive scene. For instance, if you’re standing on a beach at sunset, a wide-angle lens will show you the setting sun, but it’ll also show you the rocks at your feet and the clouds high in the sky:
Note that the smaller the focal length (i.e., the lower the focal length millimeter number), the wider the lens, and the more expansive the view. A 35mm lens is slightly wide, a 24mm lens is moderately wide, and a 10mm lens is insanely wide.
Most manufacturers sell many of the same wide-angle focal lengths. Here are a few common options:
- 24-70mm (here, the 70mm end starts to stretch into telephoto lens territory)
Why should you use a wide-angle lens?
Wide-angle lenses offer a few key benefits.
First, as I emphasized above, the wider your lens, the greater the scene that you’re capable of capturing.
So if you want to capture beautiful, sweeping landscape shots that include the foreground and the background and a beautiful sky, a wide-angle lens is essential. Standard and telephoto lenses will only capture a small slice of the scene, while a wide-angle lens will show it all.
Second, wide-angle lenses help you create shots that have a deep depth of field – that is, shots that are sharp from foreground to background.
The closer you are to your subject and the longer the focal length you use, the more blurred the background will appear. Wide-angle lenses, however, use short focal lengths, which means that your main subject will turn out sharp, as will key elements in both the foreground and the background. This deep-depth-of-field look is heavily favored by landscape and architectural photographers (and can look great in portrait and street shots, too!).
Third, wide-angle lenses exaggerate perspective. When you capture a sunset scene at, say, 16mm, the sand and water in the foreground will look unusually close to the lens, while the horizon line will look unusually far from the lens.
Take a look at this next shot; notice how the stones look huge in comparison to the background buildings?
While this type of perspective distortion isn’t always desirable, you can use it to emphasize foreground elements and create images with lots of depth. (For those reasons, the effect is used by landscape photographers all the time!)
When should you use a wide-angle lens?
Certain situations pretty much always make for great wide-angle photography. Landscape photographers use wide-angle glass almost exclusively, as do many architectural, street, and cityscape photographers. Here’s a more detailed list of the images you can capture with a wide-angle lens:
On the other hand, if you want to create tighter, intimate shots of a single subject, wide-angle lenses are generally best avoided. Here are images that are not easily captured with wide-angle glass:
- Half-body portraits
- Sports players in action
- Wildlife portraits
- Bird portraits
- Architectural detail shots
- Distant landscape detail shots
Of course, these lists aren’t exhaustive, and they’re not set in stone, either. Wildlife photographers do occasionally use wide-angle lenses to capture animal portraits, for instance – it just takes a lot of planning (and generally involves remote-controlled cameras and/or blinds). On the other hand, street photographers do occasionally use telephoto lenses to shoot wider scenes, but it requires a lot of distance (and can’t easily be done in congested, tightly packed areas).
So while you can use this section to guide your photography (and to decide whether a wide-angle lens is right for you), don’t let it restrict you. In fact, some of the best images are taken by going against the grain!
How to use a wide-angle lens: 4 quick tips
Wide-angle lenses are great, but it’s not always easy to get stunning wide shots. In this section, I offer my best tips, tricks, and techniques for working with wide-angle lenses, starting with:
1. Include foreground interest
Foreground interest refers to eye-catching elements in the foreground of your image – and if you can include a bit of foreground interest in your composition, it’ll look amazing.
Landscape photographers use this technique all the time. They’ll photograph a distant mountain, but they’ll add a river, a road, some flowers, or a fallen log in the foreground; that way, the viewer’s eye starts at the bottom of the frame, then slowly journeys through the scene toward the mountain in the background.
Of course, you can also use foreground interest to enhance urban landscapes, street scenes, and so much more. The sky is the limit!
2. Make sure the context tells a story
Wide-angle lenses are, well, wide, which means that they include tons of context in each scene.
And while context can be nice, it must contribute to the shot; otherwise, it’s just extraneous information.
My recommendation? Ensure that any context complements the main subject and helps tell the story. For instance, if you photograph a person in a park using a wide-angle lens, make sure that the surrounding trees and lake help convey the story of a peaceful spring day.
3. Add leading lines
Leading lines refer to lines that lead the eye through the frame, and they’re a great way to give your photos three-dimensionality.
Leading lines generally start toward the bottom of the frame – as foreground interest – then work their way up (and back), so that they push the viewer toward the main subject.
That said, you can really position leading lines anywhere throughout the frame; for instance, an outstretched arm can lead the eye toward a car (in a street photo), or a fallen pear can lead the eye toward a basket of fruit (in a still life photo).
So train yourself to look for lines. And then, when you find a line or two, use it to guide the viewer through the frame!
4. Don’t be afraid to go minimalist
Minimalistic photography features lots of negative (i.e., empty) space, such as broad expanses of sky, long stretches of untouched beach, plain white walls, and so on. The negative space occupies most of the composition, while a small portion of the image features an eye-catching subject (such as a person walking in the distance).
And wide-angle lenses are great for producing stunning minimalistic photos.
You see, the wide field of view will help you stuff your photos full of negative space. Simply find a subject, position yourself so the subject is surrounded by empty space, then zoom out to your widest focal length. The results will be gorgeous!
Wide-angle lenses: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about wide-angle lenses – and you know how to use them to create beautiful photos.
So pick the perfect wide-angle lens. Start practicing. And have fun!
Now over to you:
What kind of wide-angle lens do you plan to buy? What kind of wide-angle photography do you want to do? Share your thoughts in the comments below!