When it comes to landscape photography, don’t just think big, think wide! Ultrawide-angle zoom lenses allow you to capture a scene with a unique, expansive perspective. With a good ultrawide-angle lens and some simple techniques, you’ll be taking your landscape photos to new heights.
If you’ve never shot with an ultrawide-angle before, you’ll likely be hooked after trying it. The way you can capture the world through such immensely wide fields of view will change your life. It did mine when I got my first ultrawide zoom!
Put It In Perspective
Using an ultrawide zoom isn’t just about capturing more stuff in the frame; it’s about capturing the drama and beauty of a unique view on the world that only ultrawides can provide.
Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM
|Tokina AT-X 17-35 F4 PRO FX|
With an ultrawide lens, you can make small features in the foreground seem much larger and more dramatic against the background. Picture yourself at a waterfall, standing in a stream with some interesting rapids around rocks in the foreground, but the rocks are very small in comparison to the waterfall, and framing them with a 24mm or so wide-angle lens doesn’t capture the energy that you feel while standing there. With a superwide-angle lens on your camera (something in the range of 14-17mm for a full-frame camera), you can zoom out and get down really low and right in front of the rocks, putting them front and center, and making them larger than life, while still capturing the dramatic waterfall behind them.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to use your wide-angle zoom. If the grand scene in front of you has enough interesting features and light going on through the frame at 14mm when you’re standing up straight, there’s no reason you can’t shoot that angle. Just make sure you get that foreground anchored well.
Foreground Is King
Don’t fall into the trap of using your ultrawide lens to take in that amazing, sky-filling sunset glow while forgetting about the foreground. An amazing background usually needs to be anchored by something to draw the viewer’s attention through the image. In the realm of wide-angle landscapes, this can often be rocks getting washed over in waves at the seacoast with a sunrise/sunset backdrop, rapids in a stream with a waterfall behind them, delicate wildflowers juxtaposed against rugged mountains or even lobster boats in a harbor with dramatic light—the list goes on.
Tamron SP 15-30mm F/2.8 Di VC USD
Get It In Focus
One of the handy things about ultrawides is their ability to capture everything in focus in a single shot, from a few feet in front of you to infinity. Take care to focus the correct distance away for your focal length at ƒ/11 and you’ll often get the entire scene in focus (unless some part of the foreground is very close to the lens). Take a look at the iPhone app OptimumCS-Pro for determining focus distances that are much more accurate than hyperfocal marks.
Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS
For those cases where you’re extremely close to foreground objects that force you into really small apertures, where diffraction takes a toll on sharpness, you can take multiple exposures at different focus distances and blend them together in Photoshop to create an image that has sharp focus across the entire frame. This technique is called focus stacking. Photoshop’s Auto-Blend tool can often do the work for you, but sometimes you’ll need to manually blend the layers together using layer masks.
Landscape photography wouldn’t be complete without some extra pieces of equipment. Filters are incredibly useful tools, and when it comes to wide-angle zooms, they come with some “gotchas.” For one, a polarizer can be your best friend at a waterfall in the woods, where it cuts down glare on wet rocks and increases the saturation of the foliage. On an ultrawide-angle lens, however, it can cause problems when shooting a scene with lots of blue sky. An ultrawide lens has such a large field of view that, when using a polarizer, one side of the sky can turn dark blue while the other side is lighter blue, depending on how you have the polarizer rotated. This looks really unnatural and distracting, so take care when using polarizers on your ultrawide with a blue sky.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED
Another “gotcha”—some ultrawide zooms have permanently affixed lens hoods and very large front lens elements, requiring special third-party filter holders and extra-large filters, which can take up quite a bit of space in your camera bag compared to normal-sized filters. Plenty of ultrawides take normal filters, though.
Choosing the right wide zoom is largely a matter of which camera you have and your budget; in some cases, you’ll have to choose between the flexibility of being able to use regular filters, but with a shorter (less wide) focal length versus the desire to have the widest angle possible, along with a fast maximum aperture that’s useful for night photography, but with less zoom capability and the need to use special filter holders.
Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM
You may consider getting a prime wide-angle lens, and while primes are often touted as being sharper than zooms, the reality is that most high-quality zoom lenses these days are excellent. In fact, most ultrawide-angle lenses on the market are zooms—there are more ultrawide zooms available than ultrawide primes.
The chart includes current wide-angle zooms with 35mm-equivalent focal ranges starting at 17mm or wider.
Adam Woodworth is a landscape photographer, fine-art printer, award-winning filmmaker and software engineer. Originally from Maine, he now resides in New Hampshire. Woodworth has had a love of photography for most of his life, and his main focus now is landscape photography and astrophotography. Learn more about his techniques through his video tutorial at adamwoodworth.com.