By and large, the landscape images you see in magazines and online are taken with a wide-angle lens. It’s the go-to focal length for landscapes for a variety of reasons, not the least of which that the angle of view allows you to capture more of the scene before you. For that reason, a wide-angle lens is a crucial part of a landscape photography kit.
Where a normal focal length lens (50mm on a full frame camera or 35mm on a crop sensor) captures a landscape much like we see it with our own eyes, a wide-angle lens creates an image with a wider angle of view. From sweeping vistas to close-up shots of individual landscape elements, wide-angle lenses (which is generally anything wider than the lenses listed above) produce results that are pleasing to the eye.
Let’s explore a few tips and tricks that will help you get the most compelling shots with your wide-angle lens.
Highlight the Broad View
Going with a wide-angle lens means you can capture more of the landscape before you in a single frame. That’s advantageous for a couple of reasons. First, wide-angle lenses allow you to show off the grand scale of a landscape. If vastness of space is an important aspect of the scene, a wide-angle lens will help you capture that.
Second, a wide-angle lens gives you an opportunity to highlight a single, strong subject by placing it in a position of importance in the frame while simultaneously allowing you to show the relationship of that subject with the larger landscape. That, in turn, assists you in telling a stronger story about the subject and its place in the immediate environment.
This trick in action: Using a wide-angle lens allowed the photographer of the image above to highlight the tree in the foreground while still giving us a view of the surrounding landscape. Without a wide-angle lens, getting so close to that three would obscure the surrounding environment. What’s more, by going wide-angle, we get a better feel for how distant the mountains are in the background. In that regard, the wide-angle lens helps tell a more compelling story about how desolate the landscape is and how isolated the tree is within that space.
Play Up the Foreground
One of the best assets of a wide-angle lens is that you can get up close to an element of foreground interest in order to make it more important in the scene. That is, a wide-angle lens alters the perceived size of elements in the frame - elements that are closer seem larger than they are while elements in the background seem smaller.
This trick in action: Perhaps the best way to take advantage of this feature of a wide-angle lens is to use a low shooting angle to place a foreground element on full display. Using the image above as an example, note how the lower-than-normal shooting angle helps bring the foreground boulders into full view. Note as well how their size is emphasized in the frame, while the mountains in the background seem much smaller.
And, because wide-angle lenses offer a greater depth of field, you can get even closer to foreground elements and still manage to have a decent depth of sharpness in the photo. Try getting a foot or even closer to a foreground element and see how much of the scene you can still get in focus.
When using a wide-angle lens, it’s most common to shoot in horizontal format. However, don’t be afraid to tilt your camera on its side and take some vertical format wide-angle shots as well. Doing so gives you the power to put the height of a landscape element, like a tree, mountain or waterfall, on full display because you can capture its entire length in the shot, even from relatively close up. What’s more, a vertical wide-angle shot gives you a unique result in which the viewer can see the scene from the extreme foreground to very high in the sky.
This trick in action: In the image above, note how the vertical format offers a pleasing view of the landscape. We’re afforded a view of the rocks in the immediate foreground, which adds some texture and shape to the image. But we’re also given a full view of the sky extending above the mountain peaks in the background. Note as well how there are no lines in the shot to be distorted. That’s an important consideration if you want to create a more life-like image (more on distortion below).
Beware of Too Many Elements
Though the broad angle of view a wide-angle lens provides is often a blessing, it can also be a curse. By incorporating so much of the landscape into a single image, it’s easy to get too much visual interest, leading to a photo that seems chaotic and distracting. In other words, just because you have the ability to photograph everything in the scene doesn’t mean that you should.
In fact, using a wide-angle lens requires you to pay greater attention to the objects in the landscape that provide the most visual interest. Everything in the shot should be there for a reason - to add texture or color, to help frame the primary subject, or to help you tell a better story about the landscape. Check your composition for any distractions - elements in the foreground or background that take interest away from the primary subject - and work to frame them out of the shot as best you can.
This trick in action: Look at the image above and notice how there are branches sticking up in the bottom left corner. These branches are in the frame because of the wide-angle view, and they are precisely the type of thing you must be vigilant of when composing your shots. Had the photographer noticed the branches, they could have taken a few steps forward, excluded them from the shot, and it would be easier for the viewer to focus on the subject - the gorgeous waterfall. In short, seek to simplify your compositions and they will be much stronger.
Show Off the Sky
If you happen upon a landscape scene that’s got a dramatic sky, a wide-angle lens is an ideal choice. Just like a wide-angle helps you convey the space of a landscape, it helps indicate the volume of space too. And, because of the wide-angle of view means you can incorporate the landscape and the sky, it gives you opportunities to create a single image with a dramatic foreground and a dramatic sky at the same time.
This trick in action: In the image of the iceberg above, you can see how the foreground and background work together to create a more dynamic composition. The glistening ice is on full display, but with the backdrop of the dramatic sky behind it, the image becomes far more compelling. Notice as well how the photographer sought to include only what was important - they are close enough to the ice to frame out any other foreground elements, but the wide-angle view still gives us clues as to the relationship between each element in the shot.
Watch Your Angles
Because wide-angle lenses often create distortion around the edges of the frame, straight lines can appear to converge inward. Though this can be used as an artistic tool, keeping the camera level with the horizon will help minimize these distortions.
This trick in action: In the image above, note how the tree trunks all appear to be straight. This is because the camera was kept level to the ground. The resulting image looks normal, as though we are viewing it with our own eyes. This can make a landscape image seem more familiar and help the viewer connect with it on a deeper level.
Then again, angling the camera upwards will distort straight lines, as seen in the image above. Compared to the previous image, you can see just how much the straight lines of the trees converge as they extend toward the top of the frame.
This trick in action: Note as well that angling the camera upwards allows you to frame the foreground out of the shot. This might be advantageous if the foreground is distracting or if there are elements that just don’t fit the scene. If there is a compelling sky, angling the camera upwards can also be advantageous.
Get In Tight Spaces
Some landscapes aren’t wide open vistas, but are instead tiny spaces by comparison that pose a significant challenge to photographers. In these situations, a wide-angle lens is an ideal choice because, again, the wider angle of view allows you to capture more of the scene, even though you’re in tight quarters.
This trick in action: In the image of Antelope Canyon, you can see how the wide-angle lens is beneficial. Both sides of the canyon are in full view, giving us insight into the textures of the canyon walls. It also gives us an indication of just how narrow the canyon actually is, while also allowing the photographer to incorporate some of the sky to indicate how deep the canyon is as well.
With that, you’ve got seven solid tips that will help you make the most out of your wide-angle lens. Next time you venture out to photograph a landscape, test one or two of these tricks to see how they can improve your images. Keep practicing each one, and with time, they will become second nature.