Wide-Angle Lens Tips for Landscape Photography

Master of Dreamscapes Ian Plant shows his top-five tips for great wide-angle photography

1 By going wide, I was able to include a progression of visual elements that leads the eye into the scene. Virgin Mountains, Nevada.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED AF (with Canon EOS adapter), ƒ/11, 1⁄13 sec., ISO 100, tripod

Landscape photography just wouldn't be the same without wide-angle lenses. Superbly suited for the classic "near-far" style of composition (a staple for most landscape shooters), wide-angle lenses give you the ability to include generous amounts of foreground, background and sky simultaneously, creating photos with considerable depth and compositional power. While wide angle lenses don't work perfectly for all scenes and circumstances, going wide nonetheless greatly expands your creative options.

Traditionally, anything wider than 35mm on a full-frame camera is considered a wide-angle lens; anything wider than 24mm is considered an ultra-wide-angle. For the purposes of this article, I'm excluding fisheye lenses, which are specialty lenses that haven't been corrected for the extreme barrel distortion inherent to wide-angle optics (barrel distortion causes straight lines to be rendered as curved). Lenses that have been corrected to allow straight lines to be rendered as (more or less) straight are known as "rectilinear" lenses. These days, lens manufacturers are increasingly pushing the wide-angle envelope, and now we're seeing ultra-ultra-wide rectilinear designs, the widest being Canon's new EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM lens for full-frame cameras. The widest lens currently available for cropped-sensor cameras is the Sigma 8-16mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DC HSM lens, which has a full-frame equivalent focal length of approximately 12-24mm. Now that's wide!

But how do you use your wide-angle lens to its fullest potential? What follows are five of my favorite techniques for making great wide-angle photographs.

Get Low, Get Close,
Get In Your Face!

1 If you want to wow viewers, get low and close to interesting foreground elements with your wide-angle lens. Wide-angles allow you to create photos with unusual and exaggerated perspectives, and they particularly excel at shooting near-far landscape compositions that include plenty of foreground. Although you don't need to include a foreground in every wide-angle landscape photograph you make, you'll find that foregrounds add considerable depth to your compositions and help lead the viewer's eye into the scene. Be sure to choose a foreground that's interesting!

The reason wide-angle lenses are so effective for near-far compositions is because of perspective distortion, which causes objects that are closer to the photographer to appear amplified in size compared to more distant objects, giving extra emphasis to the foreground subject. The lens itself doesn't cause perspective distortion—rather, it's the way the lens is used—as the camera's position relative to objects in the scene makes them appear larger if close or smaller if farther away (this also makes the scene appear to "open up," giving the appearance of extended perspective). Since wide-angle lenses are typically used closer to foreground objects than longer lenses, perspective distortion is very apparent, enhancing the appearance of depth.

So don't be afraid to get really close to your foreground, as doing so intensifies the perspective distortion effect. I like to fill the bottom part of the frame with my foreground, usually getting only a few feet away in order to take maximum advantage of perspective distortion. When getting really close to your foreground, you may need to use a smaller aperture to ensure sharpness from near to far (try ƒ/11 or ƒ/16 to make sure everything in your photo looks tack-sharp).


2 Wide-angle perspective and edge distortion stretch and exaggerate the striations in the sandstone, creating an energetic radial pattern of converging diagonal lines. Antelope Canyon, Arizona.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED AF (with Canon EOS adapter), ƒ/11, 3.2 sec., ISO 100

Use Distortion Creatively
With Converging Lines

2 Perspective distortion can make vertical or receding parallel lines appear to converge (for example, parallel railroad tracks will appear to converge in the distance). Although this happens with all lenses, it's most apparent with wide-angles. More problematic for wide-angle photography is what happens to vertical parallel lines, such as when you're in a forest and point your camera up: The tree trunks will appear to "lean in" and converge toward the center (the opposite happens when you point your camera down, with the tops of the trees appearing to lean out). Sometimes this distortion can be used creatively, but if you want to avoid it, put the horizon in the middle of the frame (you also can make corrections when processing the image).

Another distortion effect to be aware of is edge distortion, where objects appear unnaturally stretched and enlarged as they near the edges of the image frame, which is a result of rectilinear correction for the extreme barrel distortion inherent to wide-angle lenses. With some landscape subjects, this won't be an issue (distortion of the shape of an irregular landscape feature might not be obvious to viewers), but if shooting a scene where edge distortion is problematic, avoid placing important elements of your photo near the edges of the image frame.

With certain wide-angle subjects, however, the combined effect of perspective distortion and edge distortion can greatly enhance your composition. For example, when shooting parallel lines heading away from you, such as the striations found in many slot canyons, a wide-angle lens will render them as diagonal lines radiating from the edges of the image frame appearing to converge in the distance. Edge distortion amplifies the effect by stretching and distorting the lines at the edges. The result is a compelling radial pattern that relentlessly draws the viewer deep into the composition.


3 For this image of sandstone cliffs overlooking Lake Superior, I had to think carefully about what to exclude and how to meaningfully organize everything that I chose to include in the composition. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Tamron SP 15-30mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD, ƒ/8, 1⁄40 sec., ISO 400, tripod

The "Art Of Inclusion"

3 One of the many challenges of working with wide-angle lenses is to exclude elements that don't contribute to the composition. At the very least, you have to be extra-careful to exclude obviously unwanted elements, such as feet, tripod legs, your shadow or other nearby photographers. Another thing to be careful about is lens flare, especially when you're pointing your wide-angle lens toward the sun (wide-angle lenses are harder to shade than longer lenses, so be extra-vigilant).


I got very close to small ripples of sand in order to exaggerate their size relative to the background. As I was just a few feet away from the nearest ripples, I stopped down to ƒ/16 to make sure everything in the photo was sharp from near to far. Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED AF (with Canon EOS adapter), ƒ/16, 1⁄10 sec., ISO 100

Wide-Angle Zoom Vs. Prime?
One of the most persistent myths in photography is that prime lenses are always and considerably better than zooms. In fact, many of the newest wide-angle zooms are as good as, and sometimes even better than, their prime lens counterparts. A high-quality zoom lens will give you much more artistic flexibility than a prime lens. Also, zooms are especially useful when you're trying to optimize the relative sizes of your foreground and background elements. If you've zoomed out too much and your background is too small, you simply can back away from your foreground, zoom in (which makes your background larger) and reframe as necessary to find the best compromise between background size and foreground proximity.

Good wide-angle photography takes more than just excluding the obvious: You also need to carefully choose your position and framing to exclude visual elements that detract from, or otherwise don't contribute to, your overall composition. But, even more important, you need to think critically about the balance and placement of visual elements that you can't exclude. Because wide-angle lenses have such a wide field of view, compositional complexity increases, and it becomes considerably more difficult to exclude unwanted elements. I like to call wide-angle photography the "art of inclusion"—the photographer must find a way to make given elements in the scene relate to one another in a visually pleasing way. Good composition requires skill no matter what lens you use, but finding a way to successfully include elements with a wide-angle lens is more challenging than working with the narrower view offered by longer lenses.


4 When high clouds started streaking overhead on a moonlit night, I reached for my wide-angle lens for a dramatic perspective. Quiver Tree Forest, Namibia.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED AF (with Canon EOS adapter), ƒ/5.6, 30 sec., ISO 800

Big Skies, Go Wide!

4 When dramatic clouds fill the sky, that's when I really want to go wide—the wider, the better! Wide-angle lenses excel at "big sky" moments, giving you the opportunity to create compositions juxtaposing interesting foregrounds with dramatic clouds. Of course, I often have to be careful not to go too wide; I make sure to include only those portions of the foreground and sky that are actually interesting, and that work well together to form a compelling composition. I also think critically about the placement of my horizon, sometimes excluding some of the foreground or sky in order to keep my horizon from being dead-center (although sometimes center placement works best).


5 For this shot of a dead tree in the famous Deadvlei area of Namibia, I included the sun to make the composition more interesting. I partially blocked the sun with a tree limb to eliminate unwanted flare.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L USM, ƒ/13, 1⁄160 sec., ISO 100, tripod

Include The Sun

5 Wide-angle lenses are great when you want to include the sun in order to add an eye-catching point of interest. When working with a wide-angle lens and a small aperture, you can create an attractive "starburst" effect, sometimes also referred to as a "sunstar." The smaller the aperture you use, the more pronounced the effect will be, although I generally avoid ƒ/16 or ƒ/22 in order to reduce diffraction, an optical effect resulting from using small apertures, which reduces overall image sharpness. Typically, higher-quality wide-angle lenses produce better starbursts, and some produce quality bursts even at wider apertures such as ƒ/11 or ƒ/8. To reduce or eliminate lens flare, partially block the sun with some feature of the landscape or sky, such as a tree limb, cloud or distant mountain. Don't block the sun completely; make sure just enough light shines through to create a strong burst effect.


Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM, ƒ/9, 1⁄5 sec., ISO 100, tripod

Canon EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM
For years, wide-angle zooms were the weakest part of the lineup of the lens world. As digital sensor resolution increased, the flaws of these sometimes decades-old designs became increasingly apparent. Not anymore: The most recent wide-angle zoom designs from Canon, Nikon and others are a triumph of lens engineering. Canon's newest entry into this space, the EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM rectilinear lens for full-frame DSLRs, offers the widest field of view (just over 126º) ever produced that hasn't been a fisheye lens. This lens is extremely sharp, and optical distortion is also well controlled throughout the zoom range—which is no small feat considering how wide this lens goes.

Note that this lens is designed for full-frame cameras. Cropped-sensor (APS-C) camera users considering this lens would be paying a lot of money for coverage they aren't using; they're better off getting an ultra-wide lens made specifically for APS-C cameras.

Furthermore, this lens is a beast, weighing 2.6 pounds with a protruding convex glass front element, which is housed within an integrated "petal" hood for protection. Accordingly, only full-frame camera owners should consider buying this lens.

What does the world look like through an 11mm lens? The angle of view is, simply put, utterly ridiculous, perfect for really tight places (such as inside a slot canyon) or "big sky" sunrises and sunsets. So when huge storm clouds rose high above the Paine massif in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, I was able to include the incredible cloud formations that were towering almost directly above me—and I still had plenty of room for a generous amount of foreground. That's what a 126° angle of view will do for you!

Filter use will be difficult, but not impossible, with this new lens because of its protruding bulbous front element and integrated lens hood. Some companies (such as Fotodiox, LEE Filters and LucrOit) offer oversized filter holders for ultra-wide lenses, and it's only a matter of time before a holder for the new Canon 11-24mm lens is made available (although it remains to be seen whether a holder can be made big enough to fully cover the lens at the widest part of its zoom range). Canon clearly anticipated the filter problem, adding a rear gel filter slot to the lens (gels are thin acrylic or gelatin sheets used for color correction or neutral-density filtration). Of course, a rear filter slot isn't as flexible as a front filter holder—graduated neutral-density filters are clearly out of the question—but it's better than nothing.

Heavy and bulky? Unfortunately, yes. Expensive? At just under $3,000, prepare to feel some pocketbook pain. Extremely sharp? Yes, from corner to corner at all apertures. The new ultra-wide king for full-frame cameras? It's difficult to conclude otherwise!

 

World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer, as well as a number of other leading photo magazines. See more of his work and download his free photography how-to ebook "Essential" at www.ianplant.com.

15 Comments

    Hello Ian and greetings from the Colorado high country. All your work is wonderful and your wide angle lens article is SUPER! If you are every out this way give a holler. cheers, jon

    jonsheppardphotograhy.com & Facebook

    Thanks Ian,nice and easy instructions for the wide angle lens.I’m going through a slump in my photography and you have just given me a kick in the butt to go try something different,cheers.

    Your images are absolutely beautiful. Thank you for your advice on how best to use wide angle lenses. I’m going out immediately to try out what you’ve taught me. Thank you.

    Another great article Ian. I as you, love the wide angle lenses. They open up a whole “wide’ world of possibilities. My favorite is the Nikkor 20mm F2.8. Next I would say the 28mm. As you say, “get in close” and watch what kind of picture you can make.

    Hi Ian,
    wonderful job especially for me as I am still learning a lot to mature my talent, not had any chance to handle wide angle lens but soon I am going to get one.
    thanks again
    keep helping

    It is wonderful that canon and Nikon make good optics in every angle of acceptance, but who can afford them? I have a Sigma 10-20 for $500.00 and it is shooting circles around the price of the above lens! Of course it is a Pentax mount, and to get it in Canon or Nikon it is twice the price! My mantra to my photo students is Optics, Optics, Optics, in spite of the fact that 90% have Nikon and Canon bodies! And when I visit my local Pawn Shop, One shelf is Nikon and the center shelf is Canon! How come no Pentax? NO IMAGE STABILIZATION in the Canikon bodies! Need I say more?

    Dear James,if your serious about photography you will find a way to afford quality glass {lenses}.Your claim that your Sigma runs circles over a Nikon or Canon is a joke.And depending on your photography genre, image stabilising is not really necessary.

    My wife got me the Tamron 15-30mm F2.8 and the Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 lenses for Christmas to go with my Nikon D600. I can’t wait to go out into our southern CA. mountains and deserts to try them out.

    I am not a pro photographer by any means but I am a truck driver and I have fantastic photos opps because of my travel. I have been taking pictures since I was a small tyke and have recently upgraded to a 6D. I LOVE the full frame, but am still learning the ropes. I started with an older Canon Rebel DSLR. I love my Sigma lenses. Don’t know about circles, but the right lens does an excellent job and being I am not made of money, I am very happy with some, my Tamrons are not too shabby either. Buying the name brand lenses is not alway JUST the way to go. I check the consumer ratings (not on the brand website) and read articles from pros using the lenses before I buy. I have never gone wrong.

    Thank you for sharing your expertise in the ‘short and sweet’ article. I admire your skillfulness as a photographer and your photos instill a sense of awe. Cheers, Scott
    Ottawa, Canada

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