The first in an occasional series on ideas and observations about traveling with a camera
I was so excited when my wide angle lens showed up in the mail. It’s remarkably small light, but also, remarkably wide, with 100° field of view. Can’t get back far enough to fit the Eiffel Tower in the frame? No problem! This lens can practically look behind you.
My goal was to take environmental portraits where a merchant is surrounded by her wares. We see not only an interesting face, but enough of their world to see just why they were so damn interesting in the first place. Of course, I hoped to take in sweeping landscapes and impressive architecture shots as well. Unfortunately…
Taking wide angle shots is way harder than you might think.
When I am assessing a picture, hopefully before, but sometimes after, taking it, I think it’s helpful to ask “what are you taking a picture of?” With a telephoto lens, the answer to is nearly always obvious; you’ve zoomed right in on it. Whether it’s a portrait, or an architectural detail, or even an abstract texture, there is likely nothing else in the picture to distract the viewer. Look at a rack of arty postcards, telephoto is a simple trick for successful shots.
But with a wide angle there will almost definitely be something in the picture that you hadn’t planned on. A frequent mistake for most of us is to try to capture what we saw with own eyes. Seems logical enough, especially for travel photographers who want pretty pictures, and also want to document what they experienced, but you’ve still got be able to answer that question “what’s this shot of,” or you’ll even wonder yourself–just what was I taking a photograph of here? Wide angle shots encourage this documentation, because it’s so easy to take a picture of everything you see, all at once. Too bad, the result is often a cluttered mess. To make these work, there has to be some subject in the picture somewhere. Often, that means getting close to something in the frame–really close. You’ll have to stick the camera right in a person’s face to make them large enough in the photograph to be interesting. This is no lens for the faint of heart. Until I get a lot bolder, or perhaps just more rude, I won’t have too much success with my environmental portraits, but the lesson is clear, if unexpected: the wider the lens, the closer you need to get.
Or maybe you’d like to take advantage of your ultra-wide lens’ perspective distortion? There’s a good chance that you’ll get a few great shots this way, with crazy skewed angles criss-crossing the image and zooming off into infinity, but ask yourself–how long before all those tilted lines and falling over buildings will become tiresome? Not long, I can tell you! A useful solution to all the tiresome tilting lines is to ensure that the camera is perfectly centered in the geometry what you’re looking at, and perfectly level. This way, you’ll get a beautiful isometric shot that would make any architect proud and won’t make the people watching your slide show want to lose their lunch. Finding the perfect center of a converging row of columns is much harder than expected but you’ll sure notice later if you missed it, even by a tiny amount. Leveling the camera is easier, but you’ll wind up cropping half the shot out, unless you’re as tall as a building or you like the looks of the the ground in at least half of the shot. I hate cropping so much of my wide shots; it makes me feel like I threw away all that field of view I paid for in the first place. You can correct distortion in post-processing with many software tools, but honestly, stretching out all those pixels won’t bring most shots back. Better to watch where you put your camera in the first place and stop trying just to capture everything because you can.
An ultra-wide lens enables you to capture things that most everyone with a camera phone or a point-and-shoot will miss, but, get one long before your next trip–they take lots of practice.