Ultra-wide Lenses

With today’s advanced cameras, you can switch lenses to fit your situation, your taste, and your artistic intentions. And in the last few years I’ve noticed myself reaching more and more often for the ultra-wide lenses. That’s why I’d like to share a few tips and tricks for working with these “extreme” lenses.

Ultra-wide lenses are a subclass of wide lenses. Ultra-wides range from 20-24 mm and downwards. (All measured in 35mm—you could also call it “full-frame.”) Fisheye lenses are a separate topic, so our article today will discuss only rectilinear (“normal”) lenses, with no spherical distortion.

Rectilinear ultra-wide lenses emphasize perspective, and they make the real world’s parallel lines merge quickly in pictures. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/125 s, F2.8, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Rectilinear ultra-wide lenses emphasize perspective, and they make the real world’s parallel lines merge quickly in pictures. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/125 s, F2.8, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Rectilinear ultra-wide lenses emphasize perspective, and they make the real world’s parallel lines merge quickly in pictures. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/125 s, F2.8, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Rectilinear ultra-wide lenses emphasize perspective, and they make the real world’s parallel lines merge quickly in pictures. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/125 s, F2.8, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Capture Width And Depth

Ultra-wide lenses are of course notable for how their low focal distance enables them to capture an enormously wide angle in any scene. When you start out with them, this ability can be almost shocking, but even depicting, for example, a whole mountain range in a single photo still doesn’t show off all the power of an ultra-wide. That’s because these low focal distances also bring with them a second advantage: an enormous depth of focus. And that in turn lets you present scenes in an unusual way that captures both the background and the foreground.

A wide angle has enabled me to fit all 234 meters of this tower into the picture... as well as the symbol on the sidewalk. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/100 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

A wide angle has enabled me to fit all 234 meters of this tower into the picture… as well as the symbol on the sidewalk. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/100 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

Good composition helps ultra-wide pictures like it helps every picture, so take advantage of e.g. guidelines. The wide angle will make it easy for you to fit those guidelines in! Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/100 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

Good composition helps ultra-wide pictures like it helps every picture, so take advantage of e.g. guidelines. The wide angle will make it easy for you to fit those guidelines in! Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/100 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

It can be very useful to pick some interesting element in the scene, stand close to it, and put it in the foreground. This emphasizes the depth of the scene. Ultra-wide lenses excel here, and so they can create photos that you can’t get with “normal” equipment.

A classic way of presenting a landscape: some element that you’re standing very close to, and behind it, the landscape itself. This photo was taken at F14, so that both the background and the foreground would be sharp. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/60 s, F14, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

A classic way of presenting a landscape: some element that you’re standing very close to, and behind it, the landscape itself. This photo was taken at F14, so that both the background and the foreground would be sharp. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/60 s, F14, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

For comparison, a picture with a low f-stop and from extremely close up. (Any closer and it would not have been possible to focus the picture.) The blurred background is here thanks to a full frame sensor. On APS-C cameras, blurring like this is practically impossible. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/200 s, F3.5, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

For comparison, a picture with a low f-stop and from extremely close up. (Any closer and it would not have been possible to focus the picture.) The blurred background is here thanks to a full frame sensor. On APS-C cameras, blurring like this is practically impossible. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/200 s, F3.5, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Prepare for Trouble

But taking pictures with an ultra-wide lens can bring problems, too. You need to be aware of and prepared for them. For example, pictures’ edges suffer significant distortion due to optical correction. That’s no real problem for landscape photos, but once there’s a person in front of the lens, an ultra-wide will make him look wider, which isn’t very flattering.

You should also be careful with any filters that you screw onto a flange at the end of a lens. If you try to use a filter not specifically made for wide-angle lenses, it may extend slightly into the corners of each photograph, darkening it. To avoid this problem, use the special thin versions of photo filters out there on the market.

Polarizing filters are basically a chapter all their own. If this effect is a concern for you, then you want to use polarizing filters especially sparingly, or avoid them completely.

The effect of the polarizing filter is most visible in the top left corner. Its effect weakens towards the right. Because of this it gives the sky a very inconsistent color. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/400 s, F8.0, ISO 200, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm full frame equivalent)

The effect of the polarizing filter is most visible in the top left corner. Its effect weakens towards the right. Because of this it gives the sky a very inconsistent color. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/400 s, F8.0, ISO 200, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm full frame equivalent)

Another classic problem in wide-angle lenses is “chromatic aberration.” Different wavelengths of light are refracted in lenses differently, and they can arrive at the sensor a few pixels away from where they should be. This leads to the green or purple contours near picture edges that are the hallmark of chromatic aberration. Fortunately, nowadays these defects can be corrected via software methods.

Chromatic aberration. On the left: the whole picture. On the right: a close-up of the green- and purple-tinted contours. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/50 s, F3.5, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

Chromatic aberration. On the left: the whole picture. On the right: a close-up of the green- and purple-tinted contours. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/50 s, F3.5, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

The last common, and usually undesirable, side effect of ultra-wide lenses is “vignetting,” i.e. darkening of a picture’s edges (even without filters). But vignetting isn’t always treated as a defect. Sometimes vignetting can also have positive side-effects, because it naturally highlights a subject located in the middle of the picture. Still, it’s good to be aware of it and to keep in mind that you can easily correct it during digital post-editing.

Top: a picture with visible vignetting. Bottom: a corrected version. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/2500 s, F2.8, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Top: a picture with visible vignetting. Bottom: a corrected version. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16–35 mm F2.8 II USM, 1/2500 s, F2.8, ISO 100, focus 16 mm

Used Correctly, It Pays Off

The potential problems with ultra-wides are small compared to their potential benefits. A good ultra-wide shot makes a great photo, one that both you and everyone else will appreciate for a long time to come.

A fountain and statue in downtown Paris. The wide angle made it possible to get up close and capture the whole reflection. From a greater distance, the edge of the basin would be a distraction. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/80 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

A fountain and statue in downtown Paris. The wide angle made it possible to get up close and capture the whole reflection. From a greater distance, the edge of the basin would be a distraction. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/80 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

With a little patience, you can pre-arrange a scene and then take a picture that includes e.g. a random passerby. The St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/100 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

With a little patience, you can pre-arrange a scene and then take a picture that includes e.g. a random passerby. The St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10–22 mm F3.5–4.5 USM, 1/100 s, F8.0, ISO 100, focus 10 mm (= 16 mm 35mm equivalent)

Last updated 16. June 2014

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Author: Vit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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