What is a wide-angle lens and when should you use one? A wide-angle lens is generally considered to be an optic that provides a focal length between 10mm to 40mm.
But if you’re new to photography you might have a general sense of what shooting at wider angles means in terms of focal length.
However, you may be unsure as to when it’s best for the type of image you want to shoot. And that’s OK! Lens choice is one of the more difficult elements of photography.
In short, wide-angle lenses are typically used when a photographer wants to tell a story. A lens with a short focal length will give a wider view of your subject and its surroundings.
For this reason, wide-angle lenses are typically used to tell a story about a subject by revealing the context of its environment. For the portrait photographer, this might mean shooting at a wide angle in a mechanic’s workshop to reveal more about who he is and what he does.
For the landscape photographer, this might mean shooting at 10mm to capture a bigger vista with both foreground and background in focus.
Another great quality of a wide-angle lens is its ability to distort perspective so you can get more creative with your portraits and landscapes.
Wide-angle lenses create a sense of openness in a photograph, seemingly increasing the distance between subjects and elements in your frame to make spaces seem more expansive and less confined.
When to use a wide-angle lens
01 Close focusing
Wide-angle lenses can be very beneficial to you if you need to shoot very close to your subject. Still life, for instance. Or framing over the mechanic’s shoulder in that workshop.
Because of their optical design, wide-angle lenses are capable of focusing very close to subjects.
02 Include the surrounding landscape
We talked above about how wide-angle lenses can provide environmental context to an image. Another benefit they provide is a sense of scale.
When you include the wider surroundings in your composition, the extra depth gives viewers points of reference and comparison. This enables them to get a sense of its size and establishes a human connection with your image.
03 Shoot from above
Shooting an image from an overhead view would look strange with any other lens but a wide-angle. Think about shooting a plant or scattered autumn leaves on a forest floor.
The wide-angle view allows more in the frame, helping emphasise colours and patterns, engaging the viewer.
04 Unusual perspective
Wide-angle lenses will distort perspective more so than any other type of lens. While you wouldn’t want to use this in every situation, for those times when you do – such as a big, bold landscape – the effect can be very powerful. A distorted perspective can make an average scene look all the more exciting.