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For beginners or amateurs, digital photography is simply a tool to capture the various events in their lives, their family lives. Typically, the pictures they take are from “normal” angles and fields of view. There is no reason to distort the image or apply some kind of unusual technique, since the purpose is make everyone in these kinds of pictures identifiable. Then, there is another group of photographers who understand that photography is also a creative medium, which means, by definition, some of the most creative opportunities are at the extremes.
One of the tools that attract these photographers is an ultra-wide-angle lens, especially if they’ve already had experience with a more standard wide-angle. (You can too if you read the two-part PhotographyTalk.com article, Digital Photography—The Wonderful World of the Wide-Angle Lens, Part 1, and Part 2.)
Although the upper boundary is a bit fuzzy, an ultra-wide-angle lens is approximately 20mm to 13mm (as used full frame or on an FX camera). There are fewer ultra-wide-angle lens choices and virtually no ultra-ultra-wide-angles for smaller formats, such as 1.6x, DX and 1.3x digital cameras. To enjoy the ultra-wide-angle photography experience, you must be a bit weird, just like the weird images you’ll record with one of these lenses. Even with this weirdness, there are various concepts, bits of information, tips and techniques that are important to know, so you can control the bizarre nature of ultra-wide-angles lenses and the images they will produce. You’ll find many of them in this two-part PhotographyTalk.com article.
Don’t confuse an ultra-wide with a fisheye lens. One way to understand the difference is that fisheyes distort all the elements in the image technically, while an ultra-wide when used correctly distorts creatively. You have some control of ultra-wide distortion, but none of the distortion of a fisheye image. Ultra-wides record straight lines, but will also over-emphasize the distance between the closest and farthest objects, distend objects at the sides and corners of the frame, and amplify even the smallest degree of poor positioning of your camera in relation to the subject. These become powerful creative tools in the hands of a photographer who understands ultra-wide-angle lenses.
The Show-Everything Misconception
A common misconception of photographers new to ultra-wide-angle lenses is that their purpose is to include all objects and subjects within the wide field of view. Invariably, this leads to photos with the primary object/subject squeezed into the center of the frame surrounded by worthless, open space and distracting objects at the sides of the frame.
The solution to this error is one that experienced photographers and instructors often repeat to beginners: move closer to your subject! Generally, the wider the angle of the lens, the closer you must be to the subject. Ultra-wide-angles require that you almost touch the subject with the front of the lens housing to be able fill the frame.
Another secret is to reserve the use of an ultra-wide-angle to indoor spaces, especially large public buildings or historic homes with tall ceilings and grand stairways. In these cases, you want to record everything the lens sees because all of it is interesting. When you’re outdoors with an ultra-wide, it’s very difficult not to include wasted space from the subject in the middle to the edges of the frame. A counter-intuitive technique that will help you use an ultra-wide correctly is to compose the image based on what you see at the edges, not the center of the frame.
Scale is another concept that helps to explain why you must move so radically close to your subject with an ultra-wide-angle lens. In photographic terms, scale relates to how big of a print you would have to make to show the subject at an appropriate, viewable size. If you mistakenly photographed your subject isolated in the center of the frame surrounded by a large amount of unnecessary space, then you would have to make an enormous print for anyone’s eye to be drawn to the subject in the center. Crop all that space and just make a print of the center portion of the image and you’re apt to loose considerable sharpness.
Read Part 2 of this PhotographyTalk.com article for more ideas about how ultra-wide-angle lenses work and how you can take advantage of their properties.