Get Your Wide Angle On: 4 Tips for Using Your Wide Angle Lens More Effectively

Wide Angle Portrait-Helo PilotGet Closer to Your Subject

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Getting close to your subject, filling the frame with what you want your viewer to focus on, creates interest.  We’re naturally drawn to whatever is closest in the frame: the assumption being that if it’s close and large, it must be important. Getting close also helps to isolate your subject from the background, either by throwing the background out of focus (the “depth of field” concept), or cropping away distracting background elements.

Getting close is pretty easy with a telephoto lens. In fact, getting close with a telephoto lens has the added benefit of creating a pleasing proportion and compression of the apparent distance between subject and background. Plus, with a long enough telephoto, you can stand off at a distance – handy when your “bipedal zoom” can’t get you near enough to the action.

Getting close with a wide angle lens, though, presents a couple difficulties…

Excuse Me, But You’re Sort of in My Personal Space…

Try this experiment.  Ask a friend to sit for two portraits.  Using your longest telephoto setting, frame your subject for a head and shoulders portrait. Make note of how large their head is in your frame and how far away you are from your subject. Take your picture.

Now, zoom out to your widest wide angle setting. Move closer to your subject so that their head is the same size in the frame as your previous telephoto portrait. How close do you have to get?  Is your subject’s breath now fogging up your lens? Take your picture…quickly…your friend is probably getting a little antsy by now… (Sorry, Cat – thanks for sacrificing style for the benefit of education…).

The point is, to get “close” with a wide angle–close enough, that is, to make a difference–you typically have to get really close…uncomfortably close in some cases. Did I mention it’s important to get close?

That proximity to your subject, though, can introduce some drama by virtue of the natural distortion of the wide angle lens settings.  Close proximity to your subject with a wide angle lens also tends to exaggerate the size / proportion of the subject, and the distance between the subject and the background – again, emphasizing the importance of your subject.

Wide angle lenses (generally, in the 11-35mm focal length) introduce some “barrel” distortion – particularly evident at the wider angles, and nearer the edges of the frame. If you think of the shape of a wine cask, you know what barrel distortion looks like. Moving in closer to your subject with the wide angle makes that effect even more apparent – more so if your subject is nearer the edges of the image. In the chopper pilot portrait above, and the gun collector portrait at right, I was within about 2-3 feet of the subject, shooting at 12mm focal length.

The distortion associated with wide angle lenses can create a more imposing presence, as in the case of this Boeing B-1B bomber:

Because of their inherent distortion, wide angle lenses are not typically great for portraiture, unless you’re going for that dramatic distortion. (Think of those cute pet portraits where the critter appears to have a huge head and little, teeny, tiny body – or high school homecoming spirit week nerd day portraits…I’m just sayin’).


A Pretty Background in Search of a Subject

Having a clearly-defined subject in the foreground of a landscape image adds interest and impact to the photograph. Including a prominent foreground element also provides context and a sense of scale, and an anchor for your viewer:


It’s a Matter of Perspective

Changing your point of view with a wide angle lens can also add drama and impact to your image. In the following examples, shooting from flat on the ground, angled upward gives us a different perspective than we’re used to seeing (unless, of course, you make a habit of lying on the ground looking up…)


Hope this gives you a few things to think about as you experiment with your wide angle lens.  So, this week, get yer wide angle on, and get in close….really close.


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1 thought on “Get Your Wide Angle On: 4 Tips for Using Your Wide Angle Lens More Effectively

  • Jon,

    What a wonderful and helpful article. I have not tried to work with a wide angle like you described. But I am going to! You are always so generous with your talent and experience, and I greatly appreciate it!

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