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Take Pride in Your Wide

5 ways to make better use of your wide-angle lenses

There have been multiple launches of wide-angle lenses recently, including the Sony FE 12-24mm F2.8 GM, Samyang’s MF 14mm f2.8 Mk2, Fujifilm’s GF 30mm F3.5 and Tokina’s atx-i 11-20mm F2.8 CF. What’s more Nikon will soon reveal more details of its Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S, the spiritual successor to the 14-24mm f/2.8G, considered one of the best wide-angle zooms of all time. 

So, if you’re thinking of going wide, how about some tips on better using these kinds of lenses? But aren’t wide-angles easier to use? Not really. These lenses deal with extremes of focal length, and although people often buy them as a quick fix for landscape, travel and interior shots, if you don’t know how to get the best out of them, they can leave you with very dull looking images when they’re meant to do the opposite. Here are five tips for better wide-angle pics.

Wide lenses can be tricky to master, but get it right and you’ll have striking shots. © Kingsley Singleton

1. Fill the frame

One of the defining characteristics of a wide-angle lens is its large field of view – and a large field of view exaggerates depth. Compared to a standard lens, like a 50mm, objects close to you will look larger while those further away will look smaller. 

This is great for putting viewers in your shoes and letting them experience your surroundings, but it can also make scenes look very empty or foreground-heavy if not correctly framed. For instance, if you’re using very short focal lengths like 14mm on a full frame camera you may find that everything ends up in the centre of the frame. And you may need to move surprisingly close to the subject of your composition for it to appear large enough to balance the composition. 

Take control of the situation by switching to a slightly longer focal length if you’re using a wide-angle zoom lens, or by moving your feet if you have a prime fitted. Be brave and move closer until pictures have impact and the frame is filled.

Try to get close to the subject and fill the frame with detail in wide-angle shots. © Kingsley Singleton

2. Get close to reveal detail

Most wide-angle lenses can focus very close to the front element – some down to just a few centimetres, and this means you can make the most of small details and interesting textures in the scenes you’re shooting. Getting low to the ground will let you pick out the textures in rocks and ice, or turn blades of grass or small leaves into a striking foreground for your image. 

Be careful though. For one thing the closer you get the more chance you have of physically touching the subject with the lens, which could damage it. What’s more, the closer you focus, the more the depth-of-field in the image will shrink. So you could therefore have a sharp foreground, but a blurred background, even at the smallest apertures. That’s fine if it’s what you want, but if you want front-to-back sharpness try employing a focus stacking technique to give you sharpness in all areas.

Getting close to the ground with a wide-angle lens can make foregrounds more detailed. © Kingsley Singleton

3. Keep it on the level 

A wide field of view will also exaggerate any tilt to the lens away from horizontal. This can be seen in converging verticals, which look unnatural. For example, if you’re shooting in a forest, or a city street, tilt the lens up even a little and you’ll notice that any vertical lines, like the tree trunks and buildings, will seem to angle into the middle of the frame, almost as though they’re topping over. Tilt the lens down and the opposite will happen.

To fix this, and keep vertical lines looking normal, keep your lens on the level. If it compromises your composition, increase the height of your shooting position, or adjust the picture in editing.

Even a slight tilt upwards when framing at wide angle will make vertical lines seem to converge. © Kingsley Singleton

4. Deal with dynamic range

The greater the field of view, the more chance there is of light levels varying significantly across the frame. This can be a problem, especially in landscape photography, as one part of the picture might end up being over or underexposed in relation to the others. 

You can fix this in multiple ways. Try using bracketed exposures to cover the lighting, which will give you more options later in editing, either by exposure blending, using an HDR process, or simply picking the exposure that best works with the tones in the scene and then using Raw processing to balance the highlights and shadows. But the best best is to try to get the exposure as close to perfection at the time of shooting, and make use of graduated neutral density filters to balance the light across the frame. 

To control dynamic range in this picture it was shot in Raw at -1EV and then processed to lift the shadows. © Kingsley Singleton

5. Use the right filters 

When it comes to using filters, remember that a soft grad will look very different on a 24mm and a 50mm lens. The wider the view the less of the scene the transition will cover. Experiment with hard, medium and soft grads to see how they affect the filtration at your chosen focal length, then match it to the subject.

Polarising filters can also be an issue on wide-angle lenses. Because the level of polarising effect depends on your angle of view in relation to the sun, you can find on very wide lenses that it’s patchy, affecting only part of the frame. So it’s best used sparingly or not at all. 

When using graduated ND filters with wide-angle lenses, check the coverage of the filter to make sure it suits the scene.