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5 Strategies to Tame a Wide Angle Lens – Part 1

Here’s the confession of a wide angle lens addict:

Hi, my name is Ugo and I am addicted to wide angle and ultra-wide angle lenses.

While the wide angle lens is a staple of landscape and nature photography, I find that short focal lengths lend themselves well to a range of situations.

At the same time, the wide angle lens is a harsh mistress that is not easy to use properly and that can create a number of issues, including:

  • Converging verticals
  • Uneven polarization
  • Compositional clutter
  • Stretched corners

In this article, I present five strategies for dealing with the exaggerated perspective and distortion that can result from the use of a wide angle lens, especially when used with a certain class of subjects.

Keep the Camera Straight

Converging verticals in architectural shots are caused by the inclination of the camera on the vertical plane. When framing a building from a close distance, we’re often forced to tilt the camera upwards and the resulting perspective, which looks natural to our 3D vision, looks bad when projected onto the 2D frame. Using a wide angle lens, we tend to get closer to our subject and this enhances the perspective and its consequences.

As a countermeasure, try to keep the camera as straight as possible along all three spatial axes. This is not always possible, however, when the distance from the subject is small compared to its height. In this case, we are forced to point the camera upwards if we want to frame it all. At the very least, try to stand exactly opposite of the center of the building’s facade and be careful not to rotate the camera in the left-right direction. It is relatively easy to correct vertical distortion, but when we add horizontal distortion to the mix, fixing both can become quite complicated.

When taking the photo below, I was very careful to position myself perfectly in front of the entrance of the building and put the latter at the exact center of the photo. By putting the horizon close to the center, I was sure I had the plane of the sensor perfectly aligned, even though I couldn’t use a tripod or a spirit level. Consequently, the image didn’t require any perspective correction in post (though I couldn’t get rid of the tourists).

Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Choose Distant Subjects

Many beginners mistakenly believe that the main benefit of a wide angle lens is to “take it all in.” Because the field of view is so large, they think it’s a good thing to include as many elements of the landscape as possible. Seasoned photographers, however, know that the most effective use of wide-angle lenses is to exaggerate the perspective and make objects close to the lens look larger than they are. This is a well-known compositional technique that is sometimes carried too far, but that can be effective if used with moderation.

The problem again is that, by exaggerating the perspective (especially with geometrical subjects whose lines are supposed to be straight and parallel, like buildings), we introduce problems such as converging verticals.

As everyone should know, perspective depends exclusively on the relative distances between the camera and the subjects, not on the focal length, so it is definitely possible to maintain natural proportions and to avoid too much distortion, even when using a wide-angle lens, as long as you keep enough distance between the camera and the subject. If you do this you are definitely forsaking the possibility of having a strong foreground in most cases, but sometimes you have to adapt and bite the bullet. Use leading lines and curves, whenever possible, to guide the viewer’s eye towards the focal point of your composition.

Below are some examples, shot with focal lengths ranging from 18mm to 24mm (in 35mm-equivalent terms).

  • Mandraki, Nisyros, Greece

    Mandraki, Nisyros, Greece

  • Old Harry Rocks, Dorset, UK

    Old Harry Rocks, Dorset, UK

To be continued on 5 Strategies to Tame a Wide Angle Lens – Part 2

About Author Ugo Cei

Ugo Cei is a fine-art travel and landscape photographer from Italy. He believes this is really an amazing planet that we live on and every place and every culture possesses beauty that deserves to be shown, so he tries to catch every available opportunity to travel and to create new images of foreign cities, their inhabitants and of natural landscapes.

He is passionate about sharing his knowledge and his work has been published on magazines and exhibited in art galleries worldwide. He is also the host of the popular travel photography podcast, The Traveling Image Makers.