When I started getting serious about photography, I seemed to be erring on the telephoto side of the lens spectrum. I’m not sure why, maybe I felt more comfortable shooting from further away. Until recently, the widest lens I owned for the 7D was a 28mm. Bearing in mind it’s on an APS-C sensor, this isn’t massively wide. But this changed after I got the Fuji XF 10-24mm for my X-T1. Considering my favourite lens is a 35mm, seeing the world at 10mm through a viewfinder was a bit of a shock. This prompted me to start experimenting on how to best use wide and ultra-wide lenses.
All the photos in this post have been taken on the Fuji X-T1 with the XF10-24mm F/4 R OIS.
The first obvious challenge with wide angle lenses is wrangling the angle of view. You get an insane amount of stuff in the frame and it takes a while to get used to. If you don’t want something in the frame, you almost have to walk past it. And because there is so much information in the frame, it can be easy to forget about what’s going on at the edges. Using a lens like this is a lesson in careful framing.
Sometimes, getting a wide angle of view is useful, like in interiors and other narrow spaces, but at a price. Perspective distortion comes with the territory and has to be taken into account when composing your shot. The other effect of perspective distortion is that it expands space. Objects at different distances from the camera will appear much further away from each other than they actually are. This can also be used to your advantage if you choose to play with this property.
Wide angle lenses are also notorious for having a very deep depth of field. Which is nice in a way since it will be more difficult for your subject to go out of focus. It’s also one of the reasons wide angles tend to be recommended for video. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to rely on depth of field for subject isolation, you have to find other ways to emphasize your subject.
As I mentioned the other day, looking for lines and shapes helps make images more interesting by drawing the attention to a specific part of the frame. And wide angle lenses are especially good at turning parallel lines into converging (or diverging) ones, especially if the camera isn’t level.
An interesting and unexpected side effect of using lenses with such a big angle of view is that you get to pay a little more attention to the lighting of your environment when you’re shooting available light. Full frontal lighting becomes your worst enemy, causing your own shadow to photobomb your shot. Though I’d say it’s karma telling you to consider a different point of view (or a different lighting setup).
The most challenging use of those lenses in my opinion is the portrait orientation. Perspective distortion is even more prevalent, and there is a strong temptation to crop the image. I think it works best when you’re either really close to your subject or on higher ground.
Speaking of portrait, what about people? Because of the perspective distortion, a wide lens is usually a poor choice for a portrait. But it doesn’t mean you can’t take shots of people at all either. Actually, you can use the perspective to draw the viewer’s eye towards the subject.
In my day job, I’ve had to deal with a bit of cinematography, and in video games, cameras with a field of view equivalent to a 18mm (full frame) or wider are uncommon to say the least. I had a strong tendency to stick to 24mm and only go wider if that was the only way to get the framing I wanted. But after shooting with the 10-24mm for a while, I started to change my mind about this and become much more willing to use 20, 18 or even 16mm focal lengths, and actually use them for what they are, rather than as a way to shoehorn the scene into the frame.
Another interesting side effect that lens has had on me is that I am starting to move away from telephoto as a go-to style. As much as I love the images you can get out of telephoto street photography, I’m becoming less and less interested in having completely isolated subjects and am now looking to put them in context. Shooting ultra-wide is as challenging as it is rewarding when you manage to make it work but more importantly, it’s a good way to get out of your comfort zone and improve as a photographer.