Wide angles of view and why I think they are so hard to use well

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I find it hard to make good pictures with wide angle lenses. Therefore, I mainly stuck with wide angles deliberately when I was out photographing during Easter, both at home and while abroad. When I was taking pictures at dusk on a nearby beach early in the Easter week, I put on my Panasonic Lumix G 14 mm f/2.5 prime at first. I changed to a longer lens later on for a few pictures, but went back to the 14 mm to see if I was able to make any decent photos with it. When on holiday in Dubrovnik with my sisters a few days later, I had my Lumix 12-32 f/3.5-5.6 on, both because it is so incredibly small and light and because in tighter streets and for pictures of large buildings, wider focal lengths seems the obvious choice.

Clock tower and street scene
The main street in the Old Town of Dubrovnik photographed at 14 mm on MFT (=28 mm FF).

Wide angle lenses fit a lot into the frame which is very useful at times. Large buildings in tight spaces and even street photography and travel photos in tight streets seems to yell out for wide lenses. What wide angle lenses also do is exaggerate the perspective by making the things further away seem smaller in the frame than what they look with the naked eye.

I thought I would use this exaggerated perspective together with leading lines to drag the viewers’ attention towards the main subject of my photo when using a wide angle lens as in the picture above where I use the gutter, the end of the shadow in the street and the end of the roofs on the building to the left and right to point towards the clock tower. It works, but since the lens is quite wide, the clock tower itself becomes very small and we get quite a lot of sky in the top of the frame and empty street in the bottom of it.

The picture would probably have been better if I stood closer to the Asian girl in the middle of the frame so the lower part would not be so empty and there would be less wasted space on top of the frame. Even if I achieved what I wanted with the leading lines and using the exaggerated wide angle perspective to my advantage, I still feel the picture is too unclear as to what is actually the main subject. Was I trying to get a picture of the clock tower, the buildings of the street, the street itself or maybe the Asian girl? It’s not very clear. With a longer lens, I would have had to choose between the girl, the street, the clock tower or the buildings and the picture would probably have been better at communicating its idea.

Another picture shot at 14 mm on MFT (=28 FF). This time a landscape at home at dusk.

The temptation when you walk around in a landscape is to try to convey the beauty of it all through a picture to your audience. If you are at a mountain top looking down and use a wide angle lens, you might be able to fill most of the frame with the actual landscape, but if you are, like I was above, no higher than the surrounding landscape, it is hard to not waste quite a lot of space on top of the picture with the sky because the exaggerated perspective makes whatever is in the background smaller.

In the above picture, I was trying to make the poetic puddle close to my feet with the stones and the sea-weed contrast with the long D-shape of the beach and the trees and mountains in the background in colour, mood and shapes. It was slightly successful, but the wide angle perspective made the shapes of the mountains and trees and the line of the beach smaller and less significant in the frame and the top seems a bit empty since the sky is dominating the upper third instead of just gracing the top of the mountains with a little bit of warm evening sky.

These are just two pictures of many, but they show quite clearly why using wide angles of view is actually quite hard. The general advice people often give is to use leading lines and/or large objects that lead the viewer into the frame when shooting with wide angle lenses. I tried to have a row boat leading the eye into a landscape when I was out shooting at the beach above, but the picture had the same problems as the Dubrovnik picture where it seemed like I was uncertain about whether I was actually shooting a landscape or a macro of a boat, so I did not even upload it to Flickr.

The thought of getting a lot of landscape into the frame is enticing people to use wide angle lenses for landscapes, and the same thought makes us grab wide zooms and primes for travel, architectural and street photography. I think this is a mistake. As shown above, often using a wider lens means wasting much of the top of the frame to negative space in form of sky since the background becomes smaller in size with a wide angle lens. At the same time, depending on how you compose the shot, it might be unclear what the actual subject is.

Maybe I think this because my skills as a photographer is lacking, but even after thinking a lot about how to use short focal lengths effectively and forcing myself to use them for a period of time where I took a lot of photos, I still feel that wide angles of view are better avoided except for special effects where the exaggerated perspective might be useful and you really want to convey something about the distance between yourself and something, maybe with the help of leading lines.

Sail boat and question mark
This was shot at 17 mm which yields a less exaggerated perspective.

There are also degrees of wide angles. At 14 or 12 mm or wider on a micro four thirds camera (=28 mm or 24 mm on full frame) the exaggerated perspective is very noticeable. At 15 mm or 17 mm (= 30 or 34 FF) it is less so, and the perspective is more similar to what you would get with a standard lens of 20 or 25 mm (= 40 or 50 FF). I see a lot of good photos taken with the Panasonic Leica 15 mm f/1.7, the Olympus M. Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8 and zooms and primes of equivalent focal lengths on Flickr. I also see good pictures made with wider lenses occasionally, but I am seldom able to make good photos with wide angle lenses myself.

I am quite happy with the image above which I took at 17 mm. I used the stones at the end of the pavement as a leading line in the shape of a question mark towards the sail boat. In retrospect, I would have preferred if I could have used a stool or something to get a bit higher, to make the composition even clearer in the frame, but that wasn’t really possible there and then. The photo still has the typical wide angle problem of making the actual main subject, the sailboat, quite small, but less so than if it was shot with an even shorter focal length. I could have shot this with a slightly longer focal length, maybe a step or two back to fit the whole question mark leading line into the frame, and the picture might have been more clear in its intention.

Beach and old town of Dubrovnik
This picture was not taken with a wide angle lens, but with a standard lens.

On my last day in Dubrovnik, I put my beloved Panasonic Leica 25 mm f/1.4 standard lens on my camera and took a few pictures. Those were the best pictures I took during the whole trip, even if I had taken lots of pictures with wider angles on the 12-32 in the days before and only took four or five shots with the 25 mm. If you want to get more of a landscape into a scene, you just have to stand further away, like in the picture above where I got most of the Old Town as well as a beautiful beach which also functions as a leading line towards the Old Town, into the frame.

With a longer lens, you have to think more about your composition to get everything you want into the frame. You might have to shoot a building askew from the side instead of straight ahead if you want to fit the whole thing into a frame, and you might have to choose to limit yourself to only parts of the scene you are in even if you want to convey the whole atmosphere and scene. I think choosing what to photograph and how to compose the shot are two of the main tasks a photographer has. You cannot convey the whole scene unless you shoot 360 degree VR imagery anyway. You have to choose. The skill is to convey what you want to convey without having to include absolutely everything.

My sister, Ã…slaug, is chief of information at the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre and has journalistic education. While in Dubrovnik, she told me about how journalists would use observations of details as part of their stories. By observing details and focusing on them in their writing, they can say a lot about a place or a person, a mood or an atmosphere that would be harder to convey in other ways. I think longer lenses forces photographers towards the same approach and that it can make our photos better than if we try to use a wider lens to get more into the frame (and at the same time get problems with an exaggerated perspective).

In the picture below, I was able to get the very characteristic skyline of the Old Town with the tower of the city wall in the distance in the higher middle left and in the lower middle right and one of the many church towers as well as some diagonal movement with the red submarine heading out to sea into the frame just by choosing the right place to shoot from. I think I captured some of the essence of what this place is about.

Dubrovnik and submarine
This picture was also shot with a standard lens.

As I am very aware off my lack of photographic skills, I realize that my trouble making good pictures with wide angle lenses might just be a result of those. If you are able to make good photos with wide angle lenses, feel free to give me a hint in the comments about how you think and what you do. I would love to learn and improve my photography.

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