Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why I like ultra wide lenses

I got my first ultra wide lens (the Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6) just over a year ago, and I had gotten it to use it only as a scene-setter and nothing more.  I had the idea to take a few establishing shots to show the location and then I could put it away.  However, I have since found that shooting with ultra wide lenses is fun and challenging.
In the shot above, the shark looks like it is lunging at you, and that effect is intentional.  The shot was taken with a Sigma 10-20 3.5 at 10mm (i.e. 15mm equivalent).  The ultra wide angle exaggerates perspective, making far things look farther, and close things look disproportionately closer.  That is what gives the shark the appearance of moving toward the lens.  If I had used a longer focal length and the shark occupied the same portion of the frame, the effect would have been different.  The challenge with getting this kind of shot is that the impression of being close is actually not an illusion per se -- you DO have to be very close, which is sometimes not safe for certain subjects :).

Another reason I like ultrawides is that they can offer a close-up view of the subject while still providing a lot of context, as in the shot of the fish above.  The fish is large enough in the frame that we can see its details.  At the same time, we can still see much of the background.  Again, if I had used a longer focal length and the fish occupied the same part of the frame, I would only get a view of the rocks immediately behind it, never mind the other fish and the water surface.

The effect of combining a close up view of a subject with a wide view of the background can be used in other ways.

In this shot, there is a detailed view of one nautilus, and at the same time there are other nautili in the background, as though showing other views of the same subject, and at the same time showing the subject and its genus.

Another way I like to use this effect is to juxtapose two related subjects.

In the shot above, the close-up shot is a stuffed turtle hugging a smaller stuffed turtle.  In the background is my wife talking to my kids.  The foreground subject is the ostensible subject but is a visual metaphor for my wife taking care of my kids (too bad her pose doesn't look so tender :) ).

Speaking of people, I do use ultra wides occasionally for a single person in the same way as the shots above.
Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6
I also like using a wide angle for informal group portraits to create a little bit of variation in distance to the camera for visual interest.
18mm (27mm equivalent)
However, for group shots, I usually won't go wider than 16mm (24mm equivalent), because when the focal length is too short, the subjects would have to be equidistant to the camera or else some people will look a lot closer and more prominent than the others:

Anyway, the shots here are just a few examples to illustrate some ways I prefer to use (or not use) an ultra wide. Note that unless otherwise indicated, the shots above were taken at a very wide 10mm (15mm equivalent), but none of them look strange or comical like stereotypical ultra wide angle shots (except for the ultra wide group shot). These shots show some of the reasons I believe an ultra wide has the potential for a more general application, not just for unusual, stretched-looking images.

I also want to point out how a lot of elements have to come together for an ultra wide shot to work.  That challenge is part of the reason I like ultra wides.  I do get far more keepers with telephoto or standard zooms, but when an ultra wide shot comes together, I find it very rewarding.