Close-Up Wide-Angle

Get stunning results with this technique for creating powerful, graphic scenic images

Wide-angle lenses can be employed when shooting close-ups for a unique approach to working with foreground elements, unusual perspectives and extended depth of field. These combinations can create some of your most dynamic landscape images. Above: In Big Pine, California, the perspective of a wide-angle plays with the leading lines and interesting composition of this tree in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Very early on in my career, I heard a "rule" in photography: "Don't use wide-angles up close." The conventional wisdom was that you shouldn't use a wide-angle lens up close because it would distort the subject or make it unflattering. At first, I paid attention to that alleged rule. I certainly didn't want to go against photographers who seemed to know a lot more than I did. And, to be honest, I couldn't afford very wide-angle lenses because, in that pre-zoom era, you had to buy a separate lens for every focal length you wanted to shoot with.


In Point Dume, Malibu, California, the close-up wide-angle technique and a low angle of view make a field of giant coreopsis flowers pop against a cloudless sky.

When I first bought a 24mm wide-angle lens, I was excited with what I saw. It gave me pictures that were amazing. It offered a perspective that was better and far more interesting than what I had seen with a 28mm lens. That seemingly small difference of 4mm translates to a substantial 14% wider lens. Suddenly, I had sweeping landscapes with extensive foregrounds and big skies. The images floored me. I started photographing more close-ups, and I thought what I really needed was a macro lens. It never occurred to me that I should use my 24mm lens for close-ups. Shooting with the macro did get me in very close, but I was missing context and environment around my subjects. I decided to try my 24mm up close instead of the macro. In those days, most wide-angle lenses didn't focus very close, so I had to get an ultrathin extension tube. (Such tubes don't work with modern lenses, nor are they available anymore.) I got some wild and crazy results.

Ever since then, I've always wanted to push what can be done with wide-angle lenses up close. I'm not talking simply about true close-up and macro shooting, though that's part of it. I'm interested in any shot that brings me close to a subject, whether I'm shooting a flower or a landscape.

Yes, wide-angles up close can give a look that appears distorted, but technically that's usually not true distortion. What you're seeing is an extreme rendition of perspective because of how close you are to the subject, and that extreme look can be dramatic.


Paintbrush flowers in Zion National Park, Utah, are separated from the background thanks to the close-up wide-angle method combined with a fill-flash.

Now I love to shoot up close with wide-angle lenses. For 35mm full-frame format, that would be less than 35mm; for APS-C format, that's about 20mm to 25mm and less; for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds, that's any focal length less than 17mm. And the shorter the focal length becomes, the stronger the wide-angle effect you see. I've experimented with every wide-angle focal length from full-frame fisheye to standard wide-angle, and they all do interesting things up close. Here are some reasons why you might want to shoot with a wide-angle lens up close.

1 Perspective. Perspective is the way that objects change size as they recede in distance from you. The classic example is a line of telephone poles going off into the distance. The poles get smaller with distance, and that's perspective. Perspective changes when those size relationships start changing, and that occurs when you get close with a wide-angle lens. It's not the lens that's causing the perspective change, but your position relative to the subject or other objects in your photo. The lens allows you to see a wider view from that position, which changes how we perceive perspective.

The foreground gets big and the background gets small. This allows you to change the size relationships of objects in your photo. Photographers often think about using less depth of field to make a background softer so it doesn't compete with the subject. With a wide-angle lens up close, you can make the background much smaller, which may help the subject stand out better, and you can also make it so small that you can get a big area of sky to put behind your subject, also helping the subject stand out.


A motion blur and the close-up wide-angle technique highlight the dynamic quality of moving rapids on the Cascade River in northern Minnesota.

2 Environment And Setting. As nature photographers, we often want to get close to a subject or part of a scene in order to show it off in our photos. While close-up and macro photography does exactly that, what macro photography doesn't do is show the environment and setting of that subject. Natural subjects don't exist in a vacuum. They always have a specific place and environment. It's only by using a wide-angle up close to them that we can feature and highlight the subject while still showing it has a place to live.

You gain what is, in a sense, an environmental portrait. If all we see are close shots that totally isolate the subject from its surroundings, we get an impression of nature that's a bit misleading. Nothing in nature is actually isolated from its surroundings, so it's good to include those surroundings at times to ground the subject in the real world.

3 Depth Of Field. Wide-angle lenses give more depth of field than telephoto lenses. In fact, a great technique to use for isolating a subject out of the chaos of the world is to use a telephoto shot wide-open. That offers a terrific shallow depth of field with simple, beautiful backgrounds.

But sometimes you want to connect your subject with a larger part of the world, such as a flower with mountains or trees behind it. The wide-angle lets you hold focus with much deeper depth of field at all ƒ-stops, allowing you to get both a very close object and a distant background in focus.


Thanks to short focal lengths, depth of field on wide-angle lenses is very large, as you can see in this sharp image of lupine along Turnagain Arm near Anchorage, Alaska.

4 Amazing Foreground To Background Compositions. Combine perspective with depth of field, and you can create some amazing foreground to background compositions. You can get in close to something in the foreground to show it off in your photograph, then create this striking perspective from the foreground to the background, and still hold focus throughout. This is a very specific and dramatic effect. It can look too much like an effect for the effect's sake, and it can get tiresome, if used all the time. But when used sparingly, this is a high-impact shot that gets a viewer's attention.

One thing you'll quickly learn is that getting close with a wide-angle usually means getting low. When shot from eye-level, the wide-angle makes a large area of foreground, but usually doesn't emphasize anything. By getting low to your subject, you can emphasize it and make it show up better against the background.


An exaggerated perspective of California poppies in Montaña de Oro State Park, Los Osos, California.

Lenses And Adapters. You'll have to check to see how your lenses focus close up. Most newer lenses offer much closer focusing capabilities than in the past. A number of full-frame fish-eye lenses now focus as close as five inches, which is impressive for such a lens. (A full-frame fisheye fills the entire frame, while a regular fisheye gives a circular image that vignettes the corners of the frame.)

If your lens doesn't focus close enough, try an accessory achromatic close-up lens. These accessory lenses act like filters and can be screwed onto the front of your lens. Achromatic means the lens is highly corrected and will give you very sharp results, although extreme wide-angle lenses will have trouble along the edges.

Get the next-size larger lens than the filter size of your lens, then use a step-up ring to adapt it to your lens. The reason for this is that an achromatic close-up lens is fairly thick and can cause vignetting around the corners. Canon makes these lenses large enough to fit nearly any standard wide-angle lens. You can use the Canon 500D and 250D achromatic close-up lenses on any brand of camera or lens you have. These lenses attach to the front of the lens, and as long as the filter adapter rings are correct, they will work great. Century Optics and Hoya also make close-up achromatic lenses in a range of sizes.


In low angle places the emphasis on California buckwheat against a muted background in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California.

Extension tubes don't work with most wide-angle lenses. Even the shortest ones add too much extension so that sharp focus actually will be at a point inside the lens, not on the subject in front of it.

A Note Of Caution: When getting really close, watch out for the front of the wide-angle lens. It's easy to move toward the subject too quickly because the wide-angle makes it look small at first, and you may strike the front element of your lens with twigs or other objects. Don't assume a UV filter will help because it can easily get scratched and damaged.

No matter how you achieve it, going close with a wide-angle lens will offer a new way of looking at nature. Your images will gain a new sense of energy because such close-ups tend to be dynamic. While you'll have to watch your backgrounds very closely because they're sharper, you'll also get a fresh and unique perspective on nature.

See more of Rob Sheppard's photography, find his books and learn about his workshops at robsheppardphoto.com.

Fisheyes Vs. Ultrawides

Many people confuse the terms "fisheye" and "ultrawide" when looking at lenses with very short focal lengths. One of the reasons why it's so confusing is that a manufacturer might produce lenses with very similar focal lengths with one labeled fisheye and the other just called a wide-angle. Some people declare that any lens with a focal length wider than 15mm is a fisheye, but this is incorrect. For example, Canon makes the EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 Fisheye and the EF 14mm ƒ/2.8L II USM. In this case, the wider 14mm lens isn't a fisheye while the 15mm is. The real difference between a fisheye and an ultrawide is in the level of correction for curvature distortion. Ultra-wide-angle lenses are corrected to be as close to rectilinear as possible so that straight lines in the frame will look straight in the photo. Fisheye lenses, on the other hand, aren't corrected to be rectilinear so straight lines will appear curved. The farther from the central axis of the lens, the more curvature there is.

7 Comments

    Thanks for the very informative article. The wide angle lens for me is the most difficult to tame. I quit using mine because I didn’t get results that impressed me or my friends. They just didn’t have the punch I was looking for. I’ll try the techniques you mention and see if I change my mind about this group of lenses.

    Rob, Thanks for sharing, great article, but I’d like to know more details about how you consistently obtain foreground to background sharp focus with close-ups like this. I’ve been having some difficulties with similar shots, whether shooting my 17-40 zoom or my 24mm prime. I usually use live-view at narrow depths of field (16-22), focusing at approximately 1/3 of the way into the shot, but sometimes experience defraction, resulting in less-than-sharp images. Could you possible explain in more detail just what your camera settings are, where in an image is your focus point, what f-stop(s) you usually shoot at, etc. The only way I’ve been able to guarantee focus throughout an entire close-up landscape image is to take several shots and combine them with a software program such as Helicon Focus; do you use a similar technique or are all your close-ups done with one click?

    I agree with Richard, I was hoping your article was more about camera settings. I look forward to your next installment of this topic. Yesterday I ordered a wide angle lens and can’t wait to apply your advice! Thank you.

    I’m an amateur, but remember Richard Ansley: at shorter focal lengths, even a fairly low aperature (low f-stop number with a large opening in the lens) will give better depth of field than a longer focal length lens. With your mid and long zooms, you need to stop down to 16-22 f-stop like you stated to get good depth of field; with these wide lenses, you just don’t need to go that far. Try an aperature MUCH more in the middle of the lenses capability (8-11 I’m guessing) and see what you get. In short, I think you’re stopping down too far with such a wide lens and it’s creating part of your issue.

    Thanks for sharing the wonder full insight into your perspective of wide angle photography. But I too would like to Know how to keep closest part of flower/subject tack sharp without compromising depth for far object. Tech info about focusing and aperture would help us a lot.
    Thanks

    I really like the look of the wide angle used close up and have tried it rather unsuccessfully to date. But my biggest problem is with the sky. In order to get the deep blue shown in many of Rob’s images, I used to use a polarizer. But the sweep of a wide angle produces a blue sky that changes intensity dramatically as the angle deviates from 90 degrees to the sun. I’d like to know how to lick that problem.

    Use a graduated neutral density filter to properly expose the sky and the foreground. There are quite a few option, Lee Filter and Singh-Ray are the most common. Although, shooting in Raw, you could easily do the same thing with most editing software.

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