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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.