Introduction: Wide angle lenses are very versatile and are used extensively in photographing of interiors, architecture, landscapes, travel, family events, groups, candids, etc. In fact there are some very renowned photographers who used just one or two wide angle lenses for all their photography throughout their illustrious careers. Wide angle lenses are however, less conspicuous than their brethren – telephoto lenses, due to their smaller physical size. While telephoto lenses are difficult to handle physically due to their large size and weight they are easier to use artistically as they see a very narrow angle of view excluding a lot of unwanted surrounding elements. This makes composing easier. Wide angle lenses on the other hand are easier to handle physically but present a challenge when composing as they see a large area. Hence, a photographer might include, if not careful, lot of elements that are not essential thus spoiling the overall impact.
Before we go furthefurther rFirst  let us define what a wide angle lens is. As the name implies it is a lens that sees a large angle of view hence covers a large area in the frame. Since, it covers a large area the magnification will be low compared to an image taken from the same spot using a normal or a telephoto lens. Wide angle lenses will have shorter focal lengths but you cannot say that a lens is a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens by just looking at the focal length as the size of the sensor should also be taken into account. Thus, a lens with a focal length of 35mm will be a wide angle for 24 X 36 mm (full frame, also called FX) format, a normal for APS – C (also called DX or 16 X 24 mm) format and even a telephoto for a P&S camera with a small sensor. What is important is the angle of view (and hence area covered) which is dependent on both focal length and sensor size. The following table will help you understand this.
Also, note that this table is for wide angle rectilinear (not fisheye) lenses. The latter are designed and built deliberately with barrel distortion but cover 180°. These are not being considered in this article. Extreme wide angle lenses are sometime called ultra wide angle lenses and super wide angle lenses. There is however no fixed definition for this nomenclature.
Wide angle lenses are difficult to design and manufacture. However, advances in technology have brought excellent wide angle lenses now within the reach of many of us. You are also now able to buy some ultra wide zooms (e.g. 10-20mm for APS-C sensor cameras) at a very reasonable price.
The widest rectilinear (non-fisheye) lens that is commercially available in the world (for 24 X 36 mm format) is the Voigtlander Heliar. It has a focal length of 12mm and an angle of view of 121°. This fits only rangefinder (non-SLR) cameras. The widest lens ever made for a 35mm SLR is the 13mm f/5.6 Nikkor. This was introduced in 1975 and is no longer in production. It is now a collector’s item. The widest focal length you can get for APS-C format as we go to press is 8mm.
Before we go further you should be clear about a few concepts regarding perspective and distortion as these are often misunderstood.
Perplexing Perspective: Perspective is the relative size of foreground and background elements. Perspective contrary to what many think does not depend on the focal length. Yet most images with exaggerated perspective (very large difference in size between foreground and background elements) have indeed been created with wide angle lenses. So how do you explain the apparent contradiction as just now you read that focal length plays no role in perspective? Well there is really no contradiction.
This is because wide angle lenses permit short subject distances and cover a large area. The cause of the exaggerated perspective is due to this short subject distance and not due to focal length. Thus many photographers come to the right conclusion but for wrong reasons!
So, the question that will come to your mind is that, if you use a telephoto at the same subject distance will you get the same exaggerated perspective? The answer is an emphatic “yes”. Next, if this is indeed the case, why is that you don’t come across images with such exaggerated perspective but made with telephoto lenses? There are two reasons or perhaps, more appropriately hassles, that prevent you from doing this.
First, a normal telephoto lens does not focus as closely as the wide angle lens. Second, a telephoto lens covers a narrow angle and hence only small area is captured. Due to this much of the scene is not visible and hence you cannot compare the relative size of different elements. Theoretically if you find a telephoto lens that focuses as close as a wide angle lens, take a number of pictures to cover the area as seen by the wide angle lens, stitch the images together, then the resulting image will be identical to that of an image taken with a wide angle lens from the same distance. Unbelievable but true!
Perspective and distortion – these are different: These two are as different as chalk and cheese but unfortunately used interchangeably by many. Distortion is essentially a defect in the lens. It is a measure of faithfulness with which a lens forms an image. It is very similar to fidelity of a music system. In a lens distortion means that straight lines when reproduced by the lens on the sensor are no longer straight lens but are bent. In the case of wide angle lenses, the most commonly found distortion is called barrel distortion as it causes straight lines to be bent outwards like the sides of a barrel.
The exaggerated perspective exhibited when subject distance is small is not distortion as it is not a defect but an optical property. Unfortunately, many Internet sites, books, etc. refer to this as distortion which is incorrect. A related misconception results in a very commonly made statement that – “wide angle lenses (especially ultra wide lenses) inherently exhibit distortion”. This is wrong on two counts. First, the exaggerated perspective is being called distortion which it is not. Secondly it says that wide angle lenses inherently exhibit this, when really the exaggerated perspective is being caused by subject distance and not due to focal length.
Remember that there are top quality ultra wide angle lenses that are free from distortions. These lenses will produce the same exaggerated perspective when used close to the subject but will have no distortion – which means that straight lines will be reproduced as straight lines.
Correcting Distortion: Once up on a time, photographers had to live with distortion but fortunately that is the not the case anymore. Many editing software packages allow the distortion to be corrected later during the post-processing of the images. You need to input the lens type and the software can calculate the correction needed based on the lens characteristics that it has stored. It can then produce a distortionless image! Some cameras can also do this all by themselves.
How to use a wide angle lens
Most photographers think that the primary use of wide angle lenses is to use them in cramped situations like taking a group photo (think of a birthday party) in a small room with your back to the wall. Yes, wide angle lenses can be and are used this way. But doing this would be like buying a Ferrari and driving it at 50 kmph. Alright for a start but the lens’ potential is hardly being exploited.
Go close, go very close: The real power of a wide angle lens comes when you exploit its wide angle of view with a very close foreground element. This gives a dramatic and exaggerated perspective especially if you photograph from a low level. The result is a strong composition and the foreground element will act as an anchor to the photograph. You can say that the magic will start appearing now! If you use an ultra super wide angle lens very close to the subject, then the perspective will be even more dramatic perhaps even a bit wacky! You will get a view that is just not possible (at least easily) with anything else. You will be virtually propelled into the scene!
You should to keep a foreground element say a rock or a plant in a scene and then a background element like a mountain or building in the background. As a wide angle lens expands the distance (as opposed to a telephoto lens) this will create a strong sense of depth. This technique is very widely used with landscape photographers to create depth.
Issue of DOF (Depth of Field): When you are going close to the foreground element and at the same time you want to keep the background too in sharp focus (as demanded in landscape photographs for e.g.) you need to have adequate DOF. Fortunately, this is not very difficult in these cases if you use small apertures. This in turn will need slow shutter speeds and you hence you will need to use a tripod. In fact when using wide angle lenses a tripod is a must as not only does it steady your camera but also helps you to compose and align the camera carefully (more of it shortly). Also you can set your camera to the hyperfocal distance to get maximum DOF.
Portraits with wide angle lenses: You must have been advised many times not to use a wide angle lens for a tight (face only) portrait (unless you want to make that person your enemyJ). This is because such a portrait will exaggerate the protruding features (for e.g. the nose of person) which will be closer to the lens than the other parts of the face. Believe it or not if you move away from the subject and take a portrait, this effect will vanish!
If that is the case, how do you use a wide angle lens for a portrait? While you will not get a tight pleasing portrait, you can move back and take what is called an “environmental portrait” that includes the surrounding scene to give a flavor of the environment.
Camera Alignment: Alignment is important when you are using any lens, not just wide angle lenses. However, the way you would generally use a wide angle lens will make the misalignment prominently visible. Also, wide angle lenses are often used for photographing architecture and any misalignment is very easily detectable in this genre of photography. The table below gives the effect of misalignment in different axes (directions).
Take the help of a spirit! An easy way to make sure that your camera is aligned properly (at least in two directions) is to use a spirit (or bubble) level. These are quite economical and will do an excellent job when used carefully. While the principle of operation is same as that of a masonry level, those meant for photography come with two feet that allows you to slide it in your camera’s accessory shoe. Good ones (like the one made by Manfrotto) have two bubbles, one for each axes. This will help you to level in two of the three axes. Some modern cameras have built in electronic levels but these are generally accurate to half a degree. This is generally inadequate as even a misalignment of 0.25° is easily noticeable. Of course it goes without saying that you have to mount your camera on a tripod to use the level properly.
Some cameras (e.g. Nikon D90, 300s, Canon 7D, etc.) offer a switchable graph (called grid lines) in the viewfinder. Alternatively, high end professional D-SLR cameras offer interchangeable focusing screens. Here you will be able to get an optional focusing screen with grid lines (often called an “architectural” screen). Whichever feature your camera may support, grid lines are very helpful in aligning and leveling your camera.
Viewing a wide angle photograph: To view and feel the full impact of a wide angle photograph you need to print it large or view it on a large monitor. There is no point in capturing a scene with some dramatic perspective and then print it or see it on a monitor at the post card size. If you are printing it you should use minimum dimensions of 10 X 12 in or when viewing you must view it full screen on a 19 in monitor.
To conclude, wide angle lenses are a challenge to use. Extreme care must be taken when you are photographing subjects with lines (like buildings) where any mis-alignment will be easily detectable. Same is the case with horizons and water bodies which look very bad if they are inclined. However, once you have mastered using wide angle lenses they give a drama and a punch to the picture that no other lens can give. And, for best results don’t forget to take the help of your three legged friend (the tripod)!