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Most photographers have a wide-angle lens in their kit bag, even if it’s the 18mm end of a kit zoom. Many end up buying at least one lens with a shorter focal length so they can experiment with the effect it has on perspective and composition.
But care is needed to get the most out of wide-angle lenses. It’s easy to fit too much in the frame and end up with a messy looking composition that doesn’t have a strong focal point.
Here are some of my favorite ways to use a wide-angle lens creatively (and make better photos).
1. Use wide-angle lenses in fog and mist
Mist and fog help you make moody photos full of atmosphere. They have a kind of mysterious feel created by the way most of the scene is obscured.
Wide-angle lenses let you move in close to the subject so you can see it clearly, and let the background fade away into the mist. Keep your composition as simple as possible to make the most of the graphic possibilities the atmospheric conditions give you.
I made the photo below using an 18mm lens on an APS-C camera. The background disappears into sea fog, simplifying the composition and adding mood. The red car is a stark contrast against the colorless background.
2. Simplify your composition
A common problem with wide-angle lenses is that photographers include too many things in the photo. The result is a messy composition with no clear subject. This is more likely to happen with a wide-angle lens than a standard lens or telephoto because the angle of view is wider.
That means you need to look for ways to simplify your composition. The idea is to remove distractions and make it as obvious as possible what the photo is trying to say.
Shooting in fog and mist, as in the first example, is one way you can do this. But there are other techniques you can use too.
Get in the habit of moving in close to your subject and framing it so that the background is as uncluttered as possible. You’re not going to get the same effect that you can with a longer focal length. But you should make sure that the main subject is clear and anything else that’s in the frame helps tell a story about it.
I made the portrait below with an 18mm lens, so it was impossible to blur the background. But that doesn’t matter because it tells a story about the subject – a friend of mine sitting in the doorway of her caravan playing her guitar.
3. Photograph the night sky with wide-angle lenses
Wide-angle lenses are essential for taking landscape photos at night. Shorter focal lengths help you capture more of the sky and, if it’s the right time of year, the Milky Way.
The same principles explored above apply. Aim to simplify the composition. Compose your night sky photos so they have a clear subject and a sky sparkling with stars.
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For this to work you need a tripod so you can set the shutter speed to around 20 seconds. That’s slow enough to get great detail in the sky (at around ISO 6400) but not so slow that you get trails of light as the stars move across the night sky.
Prime lenses with their wider apertures are ideal for this, as you can use lower ISOs for better image quality.
I made the photo below with an 18mm lens at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand.
4. Use people for scale
Another good technique you can use is to include people in the photo to create a sense of scale and a focal point. This mainly applies to landscape photos, but you can also use it in urban environments without many people. It wouldn’t work in a photo of a crowded street, for example. But it would work well if there was just one person in the frame, juxtaposed against buildings or structures like bridges and roads.
In this case you don’t need to get close to the person in question. This type of composition works better when the human figures are small in the frame so you get a sense of scale and distance.
5. Create documentary photos with wide-angle lenses
I’ve hinted at this already with some of the earlier ideas. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for including details that tell a story about your subject. Documentary photographers tell stories, and they often do it with wide-angles.
It’s the opposite approach to using a telephoto lens with a wide aperture to blur a distracting background. With a wide-angle lens you’re looking for something interesting to get in the background instead.
In the photo below the background tells you something about the man in the foreground working at the sewing machine. You can see that he’s in a workshop or shop, and that somebody else is with him. Behind the second man are shelves of material. All these elements tell a story about the man in the foreground.
6. Use wide-angle lenses to make photos of buildings
Wide-angle lenses are great for making photos of buildings. From the outside, you can get close and point the camera up, using the converging verticals effect to create dramatic compositions.
Or you can step back and show the building in its environment, in a way that isn’t possible with a longer focal length. Remember the earlier point about simplifying your composition if you try this technique.
You’ll also need a wide-angle lens for making photos inside most buildings due to space restrictions. Use this to your advantage and use the way that wide-angle lenses exaggerate perspective to create interesting compositions.
For example, in the photo below I framed the photo to create a symmetrical pattern using the archways at the bottom and the ornate holes in the ceiling at the top.