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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wide-Angle Zooms

The ins and outs of a landscape photographer’s most used lens

Labels: LensesGear
This Article Features Photo Zoom

LEFT: Pentax DA 12-24mm ƒ/4.0 ED AL (IF); RIGHT: Olympus Zuiko Digital 7-14mm ƒ/4.0 ED
Another type of wide-angle "distortion" actually isn't distortion; it's just the effects of perspective. When you move very close to an object with a wide-angle lens, in the resulting image and in the viewfinder, the object will appear huge compared to more distant objects in the frame. The nearby object itself can appear elongated. In both cases, this isn't distortion; it's simply the way things look at such close range.

If you have two equal-height statues 10 feet apart and photograph them from 100 feet away, the distance to the near statue is 100 feet and the distance to the far one is 110 feet, a difference of 10%. Thus, the closer one will appear 10% closer and 10% larger in the image. If you move to 10 feet from the near statue, it now will be 10 feet away and the far one will be 20 feet away—twice as far. In the resulting image, the near object will appear half as far and twice as large as the distant statue. Move to two feet from the near statue, and it now will be 2 feet away and the distant statue will be 12 feet away—six times as far. In the resulting photo, the near statue will be six times as large as the far one and appear six times closer. That's not distortion; that's the way it really is. (It's why portrait subjects' noses appear pointy when you shoot at very close range with a wide-angle lens and why headshots are best done from farther away with short tele lenses.)

"Wide-angle distortion" is really due to the close shooting distance. You just notice it more with wide-angle shots because you're generally shooting from closer range with a wide-angle lens, and longer lenses crop the image more tightly, cropping out some of the "distortion."

You can put these effects to good use in your landscape images, emphasizing a foreground object and the distance between it and more distant elements in the scene.

Controlling The Horizon
There's a general rule of thumb for landscapes that says you shouldn't put the horizon line across the middle of the frame. If the land is the most important part of the scene, place the horizon high in the frame to emphasize it; if a spectacular sky is most important, place the horizon low in the frame to emphasize the sky.

Placing the horizon high or low in the frame will tend to curve it, especially with lower-cost wide-angle primes and wide-angle zooms. When contemplating a potential wide-angle zoom purchase, shoot a few frames with the horizon high and low in the frame, and see how much curvature there is. If you do wind up with a lens that curves the horizon a lot, you can minimize the effect by composing with the horizon a bit closer to the center of the frame.

Filters And Matching Lens Diameters
If you tend to use filters and you have or are planning to buy several lenses, most people will recommend that you choose lenses that all take the same-size filters. That way, any filter you buy will work on all of your lenses. While that's sound advice, your wide-angle zoom is one lens where you can consider breaking this rule. First, as we mention in the article, filters can be problematic on wide-angle zooms, so you're apt to use them less often. Second, you can use a step-up/step-down ring to give you some flexibility with your filters. Third, the most useful and most expensive filter for landscape photography is the polarizer, and polarizers are decidedly less useful on wide-angle lenses. So if your other lenses all take the same-size filters, you still can get by with just a single polarizer. If you feel a need to own other filters to use on your wide-angle lenses, the cost of doubling up isn't too terrible.


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