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Wide-angle lenses are wonderful tools that allow a photographer to take in large areas in tight quarters. Their angle of view exceeds sixty-five degrees and can go as wide as one hundred eighty. For this reason, they’re a popular choice with landscape photographers as large expanses of land can be included in the frame. They’re also popular with photographers who work in cramped spaces and need to include the entire area in which they’re located. This same quality that makes these lenses so effective also allows photographers to take advantage of their distortion.
Wide-angle distortion occurs when the lens is focused very close to the subject. The closer the subject is in conjunction to the degree of width determines how much distortion is achieved. For example, a 20mm lens focused at three feet creates more distortion than a 28mm lens focused at seven feet. Depending on the subject and your intent, the distortion may or may not be desirable. Extreme examples remind me of the effect of a carnival mirror. It distorts the human body making certain areas look larger and others smaller depending where you stand and the curvature of the mirror.
Intentional distortion is best achieved with lenses wider than 24mm. I prefer the effect a 20 or wider produces with respect to a full frame sensor. With APS sized sensors, the lens needs to be wider. If I want to really distort a person’s facial features, I get very close to my subject's nose and make it the focus point. It becomes very pronounced with the sides of the head receding into a round ball. The effect is a favorite with kids. At one of my son’s birthday parties, I provided all the kids with a souvenir photo using a 17mm lens creating intentional distortion. They loved it. Try it with kids in their Halloween costumes and you’ll be the hit of the neighborhood.
Seeing the world with wide-angle distorted eyes is very different and unique. It’s fun to play with wide-angle distortion. Experiment with it photographing cars, people, sides of buildings, and even your pet. It may become addictive.