Wide-angle lenses are incredibly useful for photographers, whether its in shooting expansive landscapes and city views, cramped interiors, or for capturing close-up details, exaggerating the sense of depth, and forcing perspective. But they come in many different shapes and sizes, so how do you know what you need? Check out the tips below and you’ll be able to choose the wide-angle lens that’s right for you.
It’s the obvious place to start. We all have a budget we can’t exceed but it’s generally good advice is to buy the best lenses you can afford – you’re likely keep it longer than your camera body. That said, there’s no point blowing all your cash on a lens you won’t use a lot, even if it’s cut price – a bargain is only a bargain if you need it. For wide angles, you won’t see much change out of £300 for even basic lenses, and while the top end will be in the £1000s, prices don’t get stratospheric like telephotos.
Zoom or prime?
The next question is, what level of versatility do you need? Do you need a range of wide-angle focal lengths, allowing you to frame with flexibility? Or are you happy to stick to one focal length and enjoy the benefits of that? A zoom or a prime? Zoom lenses are more adaptable in terms of composition, and with prime lenses you’ll need to move your feet to reframe. On the other hand, primes will usually offer a faster maximum apertures (more of which later) and improved image quality thanks to their simplified design.
The focal length of the lens is written in millimetres in its name, for instance 14mm or 10-20mm. There’s more science to it than is appropriate here, but essentially this relates to field of view, and broadly you can say the smaller the number, the greater the field of view you can expect. And the greater the field of view, the more you’ll be able to fit into the frame. So, while a 24mm lens might give you an field of view of 75º, a 14mm lens might give 100º. Broadly, wide-angle lenses are considered have a focal length of less than about 35mm or 40mm. Anything below about 20mm is termed ‘extreme’ or ‘ultra’ wide-angle.
The right lens for your sensor size?
The field of view generated by a particular focal length is also dictated by the size of sensor you’re using. Smaller sensors crop the view. So a 14mm lens on a full frame sensor will provide a greater field of view than it does on an APS-C sized sensor. On an APS-C sized sensor those 24mm and 14mm lenses’ field of views would drop, for example from 75º and 100º to 50º and 80º. Not as wide a view.
How wide a view do you need?
Once you understand about the view different focal lengths and sensor combinations will give you, the question is, how wide a view do you really need? As lenses get wider they distort perspective more readily, and this allows you to frame larger subjects much closer. But this shift in perspective can also leave the frame very empty looking. You have to be physically closer to the subject with a 14mm lens than with a 24mm lens for it to be the same size in the picture. For this reason, although ultra wide-angle lenses are exciting, they need to be handled with care.
Build quality and weather sealing?
If you’re planning to use a lens in all weathers, as most landscapers would expect to, make sure it has some form of weather sealing. Some manufacturers trumpet this in the lens’s name, with phrases like All Weather and Weather Resistant, while other don’t mention it until you get to the specs. Weather seals stop the ingress of moisture which can lend to mould and fogging in the lenses and dust, which can cause problems in the light path and impair the physical function. A metal lens mount is a good indication of quality, as is metal or high-quaility impact-resistant plastic used in the lens barrel. Many lenses also have water and oil-repellent coatings on the front element, which can make cleaning them easier.
Whether you need a lens with a wide maximum aperture depends on how you’re intending to use it. Wider apertures give the potential for shallower focus, but in wide-angle lenses they’re more useful for gathering light. The wider the maximum aperture, the more light the lens can take in, so focusing will be easier and exposures will be brighter, with faster shutter speeds or lower ISOs possible. On wide-angle zoom lenses, the aperture may be variable, getting smaller as you extend the focal length. More expenses lenses will offer the same aperture at all focal lengths in the zoom, but they’ll be heavier as a result. Wide-angle prime lenses will typically offer very fast apertures like f/1.8. These lenses are particularly important for shooting night landscapes with starry skies or aurora.
If the lens has a window or scale with focus distance information it can be very useful. Here you’ll be able to read the distance your focus is set in metres, and feet, between infinity and the lens’s closest focusing distance (which on a wide-angle lens should be well with 50cm). On some wide-angle lenses you’ll also get a depth-of-field scale, helping you judge what’s in focus and what isn’t. These can be useful for making sure the whole scene is in focus.
Some wide-angle lenses come with image stabilisation. You’ll find this useful when shooting handheld at slow shutter speeds. The amount of image stabilisation offered is important. The more there is, the slower the shutter speed you’ll be able to hold the camera at and still get sharp results on static parts of the scene. The camera shake experienced at wide angle is less noticeable than on standard and telephoto lenses, but image stabilisation still helps a great deal.
Polarisers, neutral density filters and neutral density graduate filters are all very useful, particularly if you’re using the lens for landscape photography, but you’ll need to know the filter size required. And some lenses, like those with very bulbous front elements and fixed lens hoods require special adapters.
Image quality and distortion?
Wide-angle lenses usually show some amount of barrel distortion (lines that should be straight bowing near the edge of the frame), but some now claim to feature ‘zero distortion’. The less the lens distorts, the less editing you’ll need to do in camera, keeping images at full resolution and free from defects.
Size and weight?
Finally, think about size and weight. The largest and heaviest wide-angle lenses tend to be those that are fast aperture zooms. Primes tend to be lighter as their construction needs fewer elements even if they have wide apertures.
The main thing to consider is practicality. It’s all well and good having a brilliant lens, but if it’s so big and heavy you don’t want to take it out with you, what’s the point? Smaller, slower, variable aperture lenses might be less versatile, and provide lower image quality, but if they’re easier to pack and shift you’re more likely to use them.