Super wide angle lenses are amongst the most desirable pieces of kit for many photographers. Their immense fields of view can make images seem dramatic, even awe-inspiring. But they need to be handled with care; not only physically, but in the thought processes that go into using them. In this article, we are going to take a look at getting the best out of your super wide angle.
Until a few short years ago, the super wides were the preserve of professional, full frame photographers. The choices for enthusiasts using APS-C sensors were fairly limited. Lens manufacturers, however, saw there was a niche in this market that could be exploited, and in recent times there has been a plethora of good-value super wide lenses for the smaller-sensor camera.
Before we look at how to use the super wides, let’s try to define them a little. On a full frame camera, a super wide can be defined as anything from just above a fisheye – 12mm or so – up to around 24mm. For an APS-C sensor, because of the crop factor, the super wide range starts at about 8mm, and goes all the way up to about 20mm. There are now many lenses that fall into this category, but as with many things in life, you get what you pay for. The lenses at the cheaper end of the scale may well have a lot of edge softness and distortion.
Perspective and composition
As I said at the top, using the super wides requires some care and consideration. The first thing that you are going to notice is the extreme, exaggerated perspective. This manifests itself through the viewfinder with the appearance that your foreground and background seem stretched apart. Subjects in the background seem a long way away, whilst foreground subjects seem to be disproportionately large.
You will also notice that, in order to fill the frame with a foreground subject, you will need to be very close to it, sometimes within a few centimetres. Because of this exaggerated perspective, your composition becomes all-important. The rule of thirds really rules when using a super wide. Positioning something of interest on one of the “side” thirds can lead the viewer’s eye through the picture and toward the main subject matter beyond.
Another compositional rule that often works well with the rule of thirds is leading lines. Get down low and use the leading lines to bring your eye through the lower two-thirds of the shot to a subject sitting on the upper third. Railway lines and straight roads work great for this purpose.
The exaggerated perspective of the Nikon 14-24mm
One of the hardest things to master with super wide angle lenses is converging verticals. As with all other types of lens, when you shoot straight lines with the camera pointing either up or down (for example, when photographing a tall building), those sides appear to be converging at some distant point. In architectural photography this should generally be avoided. However, for a more abstract type of shot, using a super wide can create impressive and creative-looking shots if you in close to a building and shoot upwards. If you are looking to avoid the converging verticals, then you will need to either step back to a point where you can fill the frame without pointing the camera up or, alternatively, find an elevated position, allowing you to point straight at the subject.
Depth of field and focus
One of the prime advantages of super wide angle lenses is their immense depth of field, even at wider apertures. For the landscape photographer, this is a massive bonus. When using a small aperture combined with the extreme field of view, a low angle, and some leading lines, super wide landscapes can be used to create dramatic sweeping images that draw the viewer’s eye deep into the shot.
Even with the deep depth of field, care must be taken with the focus. Autofocus systems may lock onto a foreground subject, losing valuable sharpness in the background. A better option is to focus manually using the hyperfocal distance, a point approximately two-thirds of the way to the horizon line. Sometimes when using a wider aperture, we can unfocus the foreground, effectively using it as a frame to draw the viewer’s eye to the background.
Super wides can have immense depth of field
Issues with flare and damage
Physically, one of the main things that will strike you about a super wide lens is the huge convex front element. This in itself can be problematic. Wide angles are extremely prone to lens flare. Most lenses will come with some form of lens hood, but to avoid vignetting, the hood is often very short and stubby, barely cutting out the flare at all. When shooting, you will need to think carefully about your position in relation to the light source, and monitor your images for flare. If you are getting flare, you can set the camera on a tripod, step away and try to limit flare by shielding the light with your body.
Another issue with that huge lens element is the potential for damage. Be careful with that curved glass.
Issues with filters
Filters can pose yet another issue. The front element of some ultra wides is so convex that it is impossible to attach filters to the front. The Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 is a classic example of this. Other lenses may have filter threads, but with some filters, you may well see vignetting in your images. This will be more noticeable at the smaller apertures. Using polarizers can also be a tricky issue. Depending on the position of the sun, a polarizer can turn your sky so deep a blue, it is verging on black. If this happens, back the polarization off a little.
An ice halo captured with a 14mm lens on full frame
Ultimately, super wide lenses are tricky lenses to get to grips with, but by learning and understanding their potential issues, you can overcome these difficulties to create some stunningly evocative shots.