Wide Angle Lenses and the Art of Inclusion

(© Ian Plant) Although the fundamentals of good composition do not change with lens choice, different lenses can lead to significant differences in approach. In my last post, I discussed using telephoto lenses to isolate elements and simplify a scene. This approach requires one to think critically about which elements are important to a composition, and which elements distract from the composition—something I like to call the “art of exclusion.” In this post, I swing to the other side of the pendulum and discuss using wide angle lenses. Because wide angle lenses have a wider field of view, they make it considerably more difficult to exclude unwanted elements. Rather, it becomes much more critical for the photographer to make given elements in the scene relate to one another in a visually pleasing way—hence, I like to call wide-angle use the “art of inclusion.”

Hoh Rain Forest
Wide angle lenses require an inclusive approach, which can be difficult when working with chaotic scenes.

My fellow OP blogger Michael Frye wrote a great post a few months ago called The Third Dimension in Photography, in which he discussed wide angle versus telephoto use. Michael’s post actually talks about many of the themes I dealt with in my last post, and planned to deal with here. I must admit that I don’t always keep up with the writings of my fellow OP bloggers as well as I would like, so I only recently noticed the similarities between our topics and language. Since Michael has already ably covered a lot of ground on the subject, I’ll do my best to take the conversation in a different direction and deal with a few issues that he did not discuss in detail.

It is often said that telephoto lenses “flatten” or “compress” perspective, with the end result being that objects do not appear to get smaller with distance, and appear to be stacked one upon another. Wide angle lenses, on the other hand, are said to “extend” perspective—close objects appear larger than distant objects, and objects seem less bunched up. This is known as “perspective distortion,” as the apparent flattening or extension of perspective differs from the way the human eye naturally sees the scene. Neither of these characterizations is true in a technical sense, however, as the lenses themselves do not distort perspective. Rather, it is your position relative to the subject that actually changes the amount and character of perspective distortion. For example, if you take a photograph with a wide-angle lens and crop out a small portion of the scene, and then zoom in with a telephoto lens to frame a photograph exactly to match the crop, you’ll end up with virtually the same perspective result. Fill your frame with a cactus from a distance with a telephoto lens, on the other hand, and then walk up close to the cactus and fill the frame using a wide angle lens, and you will clearly end up with two very different perspective results.

It is the way these lenses are used, therefore, that creates the perspective distortion that Michael and many others have noted. Since telephoto lenses have a narrow field of view, they tend to be used from a distance, resulting in photos that have the appearance of flatter perspective. Wide angle lenses, with their wider fields of view, tend to be used much closer to their subject, resulting in photos with the appearance of extended perspective.

Because of perspective distortion, wide angle lenses have the advantage of more readily creating the illusion of depth in a photograph than longer focal lengths. When working with wide angle lenses, objects close to the lens appear abnormally large relative to more distant objects, and distant objects appear abnormally small. This characteristic of wide angle perspective distortion is very useful for creating the appearance of depth, and here’s why. One of the most important artistic innovations of the Renaissance was the realization that diminishing scale—essentially, the apparent reduction in size of objects as they recede into the distance—provides an important perspective cue that implies depth, thus creating the illusion of three dimensions in a two-dimensional piece of art. For the reasons discussed above, wide angle lenses make it relatively easy to create this sense of depth; telephoto lenses do not.

Arizona desert
Wide angle lenses exaggerate the size of foreground elements, helping to create depth.

The challenge of working with wide angle lenses is that, by taking in a broader view of a given scene, compositional complexity increases—simply put, working with six visual elements is easier than working with sixty. Good composition requires skill no matter what lens you use, but finding a way to successfully include elements rather than eliminating them is in some ways more challenging. Of course, working with longer lenses has its own unique challenges, and even telephoto isolated scenes can be extremely chaotic.

So, the trick to successful wide angle use, especially when working with a chaotic scene, is to find compelling ways to order and structure the often wildly disparate elements included within your composition. I previously discussed reducing the complexity of busy wide angle scenes in Create Order From Chaos. There, I talked about using “visual anchors”—essentially, bold, eye-catching, graphic shapes that attract the eye—to create order and compositional structure. Another strategy is to use the wide field of view to your advantage, and get close to foreground objects when creating compositions. Not only does this exaggerate scale differences and thus enhance the appearance of depth, it also helps simplify the composition: potentially distracting background elements, when reduced in scale, can often be effectively rendered less noticeable. See also my blog post Get Low and Close, which discusses the advantages of an "in your face" wide angle perspective.

I’m a bit of a wide angle junkie—in fact, I’m an ultra-wide junkie—I just love the way the world looks from behind a 14mm lens. I’ve noticed that many photographers tend to gravitate towards a preferred focal range (Michael notes in his post that he tends to use longer glass). Although this often happens, I tend to think that for beginners, relying too much on a particular focal range can limit artistic growth. For this reason I advocate experimenting with different focal lengths when working a scene. It is a lesson I take to heart myself, at least on occasion; I often realize that I am trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, as they say, and that it is time to reach for another piece of glass. Too often, however, my wide angle obsession leads to artistic myopia, and I don’t realize that I’ve missed a more successful, tighter composition until it is too late.

Different focal lengths can have a clear impact on photographic style, and can yield very different artistic results. No matter which end of the lens spectrum you end up on, solid compositional skills are necessary to create compelling images, and focal length is but one of many factors that may influence a composition. Even if you eventually develop a preference for a certain focal range, it is important to try to master both the arts of exclusion and inclusion.

Creative Vision eStore by Ian Plant


    Great Post 🙂 I just heard this being discussed the other week on a Creativelive Class and I had to figure out what they were trying to say 🙂 Perfect timing 🙂

    Thanks Ian for your article. If, as I believe, it’s purpose was to inspire and encourage readers to consider wide angle photography, it does a great job of doing so.

    I’ve only recently started using wide angle lenses having, in the past, not felt comfortable with or not being competent to control what I perceived to be “distortion” of the image. I now have a better sense of how to use the lens to capture the image/mood I’m after. That said, I wonder if there’s any correlation between age and comfort/use of wide angles. As a youth, I was always drawn to images that reflected the compression of telephotos or where there was shallow depth of field/bokeh, those images where you’re focus is driven to one element in the picture. Now I seem to be taken with images where both a prominent foreground object and the background are in focus. Query whether this creative/photographic “shift in focus” mirrors the “shift in focus” we experience in life as we mature; that is, remaining fully focussed by what’s in front of us yet being more aware of and keeping what’s on life’s horizon in clear view as well. Put another way, many wide angle images lead our attention from what in front of us (the present) to what’s off in the distance (the future) and, as we age, don’t we become more acutely aware of the future? Hmmm . . . .

    Hi John, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I find myself hardly qualified to opine on this very philosophical question you raise here. I do think that photographers often establish a focal length “comfort zone” and it is certainly never a bad thing to try different approaches. Thanks for chiming in!

    I try to add “drama” to my photographs and I feel that using a wide angle with a strong foreground adds drama. Looking at Ian’s two photos here I believe accentuate drama with his strong foreground subjects.

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