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You can get creative with any lens, but wide-angle lenses give you options you don’t get with longer focal lengths. Wide-angles are fun, and there are lots of ways you can use them creatively.
What is a wide-angle lens?
There’s no precise definition, but most photographers would consider a focal length of 35mm or shorter on a full-frame camera to be a wide-angle. That’s around 23mm on an APS-C camera and 17mm on a Micro Four-thirds camera.
Some lenses are multi-purpose. For example, if you have an 18-300mm lens, then it’s a wide-angle lens at 18mm and a telephoto lens at 300mm.
1. Use a wide-angle lens to increase the sense of space
A wide-angle lens fits more into the frame than a longer lens, thanks to its wide angle of view. This affects the perspective by pushing the horizon into the distance and making spaces seem bigger (one of the reasons that real-estate photographers love them). You can use this creatively in your photos.
For example, in the photo below I used a wide-angle lens (14mm, APS-C) to push the far jetty into the distance, making it look further away. It helped create a sense of depth and space in the photo by exaggerating the difference in size between the edge of the jetty in the foreground.
You can see the same idea at work in this photo, made with the same lens. I knelt down to get the camera close to the ground and used the wide-angle to exaggerate the length of the road.
2. Set the scene with foreground interest
A potential problem with using wide-angle lenses is that you can end up with an empty foreground. This leads to an empty foreground, with the most interesting part of the scene located in upper third of the frame.
You can avoid this by placing something interesting in the foreground that takes your eye through the frame towards the horizon.
Landscape photographers use this technique a lot. In the photo below, made with an 18mm lens (APS-C), I framed the scene to include rocks and grass in the foreground.
Foreground interest can be more subtle. I was drawn to the scene below by the quiet street, the old bus and the colored cards scattered across the road. I framed it so that the cards filled the foreground with an 18mm lens (APS-C).
3. Get in close to your subject
Alternatively, you can get in close to your subject so it fills the frame. Wide-angle lenses are great for this as they make the scene look dramatic.
When I was in South America I used this technique to make photos of old vehicles (18mm, APS-C for both photos).
4. Get creative with converging verticals
Photos made with wide-angle lenses are prone to converging verticals. So why not take advantage of this and use it creatively? One technique is to move in close and point the camera upwards (buildings are a common subject for this). Kneel down to get even lower, or even use the camera’s LCD screen and put the camera on the ground.
I used this technique to make the photos below of a monument in Shanghai. I worked in black and white and used the shape of the monument to make a bold, graphic composition (24mm, full-frame, both photos).
Don’t forget that tilting a lens down has a similar effect, but in the opposite direction, as you can see in the photo below (10mm, APS-C).
5. Use wide-angle lenses to add leading lines
Lines are a powerful compositional tool. A leading line takes the eye from the foreground through the photo. The way wide-angle lenses exaggerate scale makes the use of line even more dramatic. Training yourself to look for lines, and exploiting them in your photos with a wide-angle lens helps you create more dramatic images.
In the photo below I used the concrete wall to make a line that takes the eye straight to the lighthouse in the distance (18mm, APS-C).
6. Vary your point of view
As we’ve seen already one of the advantages of a wide-angle lens is that it lets you create a variety of images by changing your point of view. This is called working the subject and is a good way to create a varied set of photos.
I made the three photos below in the same street in Jodhpur, India. Varying my point of view and framing created three different photos (14mm, APS-C).
7. Use a wide-angle lens to make environmental portraits
Wide-angle lenses let you make portraits that include the subject’s surroundings. It’s a technique used by portrait, documentary and fashion photographers to tell a story. In this type of portrait photography the setting is as interesting as the person in the photo. It’s the opposite approach of using a telephoto lens and a wide aperture to blur the background.
You can see that idea in action in the portraits below. I made the first in Jodhpur India with a 14mm lens (APS-C). It’s not the first lens you might think of for a portrait, but it let me photograph the man where he was seated, and show the interior of the building behind him at the same time.
I made this portrait of a friend with a 24mm lens (full-frame). Few photographers would choose a 24mm for a portrait, but my friend was quite close to me so it let me get more of the background in the photo. The idea was to show her dreadlocks, and she wanted to make a portrait in water. This is the result.
Most photographers own at least one wide-angle lens and this tutorial should give you some ideas for using it more creatively. If you’d like to learn more, our ebook Mastering Lenses is a comprehensive guide to getting the most of your camera lenses. Click the link to learn more.