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Even if you get close to your subject with a wide-angle lens you will always end up including at least some of the background in the frame. Considering that wide-angles also give more depth-of-field than longer focal lengths (when camera to subject distance and aperture are equal) it becomes harder to select a wide aperture to defocus the background. The end result is that wide-angles naturally include the setting as well as the person you are taking a photo of.
From one point of view this is a good thing because it turns your street photos into environmental portraits that give the people in them context. But on the other hand, backgrounds tend to be messy. You have no control over what other people in the scene are doing. This is real life, not a movie set.
That’s where the conflict comes in. I like clean, simple compositions. This is simply much harder to achieve with a wide-angle lens than it is with a normal lens or short telephoto. The struggle usually drives me back to my normal lens.
However, there are always occasions where wide-angle lenses come in useful, and of course some photographers will be better than me at utilizing them, or not so bothered by the chaotic backgrounds that can result.
Let’s look at some ways in which you can use a wide-angle lens for street and travel photography.
To tell a story and show context
I took this photo on the banks of a river in the town of Puerto Aysen in southern Chile. The use of a wide-angle lens let me place myself in the scene and show the man painting the boat in context. You see him working in the environment that I found him in, surrounded by wooden boats, with tree covered hills in the distance, and low grey clouds that typify the climate in this region.
To capture atmosphere
I came across this scene in the city of La Plata in Argentina. The cards scattered across the road and pavement were from a (I think) a political campaign. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the green bus and the blue cards. It was a still, nearly silent scene, a little lonely, with no people around. Just the scattered cards and empty bus as signs of human activity.
To create a dynamic portrait
I took this photo on a tour to the silver mines in Potosi, Bolivia. The man in the photo is an ex-miner turned tour guide. I was standing close by while he was explaining how the miners bought coca leaves, soft drinks and dynamite to take with them on a shift down the mines. I raised my camera to take a photo, he saw me, and struck this pose.
The background is relatively uncluttered because the man is standing close to a wall, rather than on an open street with people behind him.
To make an environmental portrait
This is an interesting photo to show because I took it with a focal length that I now consider too wide for this portrait. If I was here again, I would use a standard lens. I am evolving as a photographer and my ideas and techniques have changed over the years.
However, the wide-angle lens has done a good job of including enough background to give the portrait context. The girls are standing in front of the house they live in, located close to Cafayate, a town in the Argentinian Andes.
To show something extraordinary
Now we move onto more recent photos. I took this one last year in the Muslim quarter in Xi’an, China. This was one of the few successful photos that I took with my 18mm prime lens. It works because it shows the extraordinary cooking apparatus the man is using. The more you look, the more you see – and it needed a wide-angle lens to capture all this detail.
To capture a way of life in another country
I took this photo on the same afternoon as the previous one. There had been a rain shower and it seems the woman was cleaning up some mess. The photo is interesting because it captures an ordinary part of life (cleaning), yet so many of the details are extraordinary to my western eyes. Look at the basket the woman is sweeping rubbish into, or the red cart powered by a motorbike, or the man in the distance preparing food. It’s exotic and I needed a wide-angle lens to fit it all in the frame.
To find a background and wait for somebody to enter the scene
A benefit of wide-angle lenses is that you can place people on a third or near the edge of the frame. Even if they see you taking the photo they tend to assume that you are taking a photo of something else. I was taking a photo of the church when people started leaving through the main door to my right. I could see from the corner of my eye that people were going to walk in front of the camera, so I stayed where I was, hoping to get somebody who would add to the scene. This gentleman did that perfectly. He probably never realized that he was in the frame.
Wide-angle lenses are perhaps the trickiest lenses of all to use for street and travel photography (at least I think so). One of the skills that photographers need to learn is how to choose the best lens to use. The ideas in this article should help you put your wide-angle lenses to good use next time you do a bit of street or travel photography. But if your compositions are too busy, or you need to blur the background, don’t forget that standard and short telephoto lenses are excellent for this.
What to read next
The Candid Portrait ebook
Learn how to take beautiful street and travel portraits with our popular ebook The Candid Portrait. The ebook has 20 easy to digest lessons, two case studies and hundreds of beautiful photos.