Looking at Lenses: Wide Angle
by Taylor Slattery | July 15, 2019
Of all the different metrics that are used to differentiate camera lenses, when it comes to the photos they produce, the most noticeable is its angle of view. How much or how little of a scene is captured onto the picture plane is determined by a lens’ focal length. Lenses with short focal lengths offer an angle of view wider than that of the human eye, which is where they get their name.
You can spot a photo that was shot with one in a couple of ways. Most obviously, the shot will be wide. Wide angle lenses excel at capturing large amounts of information, which makes them the go-to lens for those who shoot landscapes or cityscapes. Another calling card of wide angle lenses is distortion. As with any lens, when a subject is too close, perspective distortion is introduced, affecting the subject’s proportions and size relation to the background. With a wide angle lens, its short focal length causes an additional type, called “barrel distortion”. This type of distortion causes objects to curve inwards towards the center of the frame at a rate that increases proportionally to the distance from its center. This effect is exaggerated to a great degree by fisheye lenses.
One of the greatest strengths of wide angle lenses is their ability to communicate scale. This makes them a great choice for not only landscape and cityscape photography, but also for certain types of narrative portrait photography when context is important. In contrast to a telephoto lens, which is great for shooting tightly framed portraits in a controlled environment, a wide angle lens allows the photographer to include some environmental context. While the resulting photos might sacrifice a clear focal point, they capture a better sense of time and place, providing more narrative information for viewers to construct a story. 35mm lenses are a popular choice amongst street photographers and photojournalists.
Wide angle lenses have also found fans amongst interior designers, real estate agents, and food bloggers, all of which for whom space is a premium. Without a wide angle of view, shooting flattering shots in tight interior spaces would be impossible, and top-down shots of food would require the photographer to stand on the table. As an added bonus, the large amount of information captured also means that photographers have a greater degree of freedom to try different crops later.
On the flip side of the coin, any non-zoom lens will be somewhat limited in application. The two biggest weaknesses of this type of lens are its barrel distortion and deep depth of field. The former will make for unflattering portraits at close range, and the latter can result in too much of the background being in focus, distracting from your focal point.
These are, of course, only weaknesses for portrait photography, and depending on your level of optimism, you might see these as opportunities for creative exploration rather than shortcomings. If you’re looking to try one for yourself, wide angle lenses range in focal length from 35mm down to the more extreme fisheye lenses which produce shots like the ones below.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.