As a photographer, you have a vast selection of lens options to choose from. Wide angle lenses are a popular choice, but what is a wide angle lens used for? Is wide angle the best lens choice for you?
To tackle this question, let’s look at the different types of wide angle lenses available, and when to use them.
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What Is a Wide Angle Lens?
First, we must clarify the meaning of wide angle.
The most common description is that a wide angle lens displays a wider field of view than our vision. However, this doesn’t translate directly to millimetres (mm) and degrees.
So, What mm is a wide angle lens? The popular definition is that a lens below, or equivalent to 35mm is considered a wide angle lens. This is roughly 65 degrees of diagonal field of view.
Does a Wide Angle Lens Zoom?
Primes are generally lighter, faster, cheaper and produce better image quality. The Canon 24mm f/2.8 STM is a great example.
A zoom lens has a variable focal length (zoom range). Some all-around “travel” zoom lens options cover wide, standard and telephoto focal lengths alike. Most zoom lenses are more specific, giving you one or two of these.
Zoom lenses very versatile, allowing to keep your gear to a minimum. But, generally, a zoom lens is heavier and more expensive, due to extra mechanisms and glass inside the lens. Kit lenses are exceptions, but they often come with compromises.
Their image quality is often surpassed by prime lenses. They are very much a jack of all trades, master of none. The Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 lens is an excellent example for a professional wide angle zoom lens.
How Wide Is a Wide Angle Lens?
We have to make a disclaimer here. The camera that you use influences how your lens will ‘look’. Smaller sensors crop out the centre portion of any lens, resulting in a tighter field of view.
For simplification, all focal lengths mentioned here are full-frame equivalent. If you want to know how these translate to your camera, divide them by 1.5 (APS-C) or 2 (M4/3).
We know that wide angle means anything below 35mm. But there’s still a lot of room for further specification.
Focal lengths between 35mm and 24mm are considered standard wide angle.
Between 24mm to 16mm is what we usually refer to when saying wide angle.
Focal lengths below 16mm are considered ultra wide angles.
But what is the best size for a wide angle lens? The most popular wide angle zoom range is 16-35mm. Most kit or standard zoom lenses go down to 24mm or 28mm. The widest lenses on the market are 10mm (rectilinear) and 8mm (fisheye).
What Are the Three Main Types of Wide Angle Lenses?
In terms of distortion, we differentiate between three main sorts of wide angle lenses.
Fisheye Wide Angle Lenses
Fish-eye lenses are special ultra-wide angle lenses. Their angle of view is usually 180°, allowing you to see half of a full rotation.
They have a distinctive, hemispherical type of lens distortion. They cram in as much information as possible. Thus, they don’t produce straight lines.
In terms of focal length, they are at the bottom of the scale.
Most action cameras, like the GoPros, also feature built-in wide fish-eye lenses.
Rectilinear Wide Angle Lenses
Rectilinear wide angle lenses are the other type. These are not free from distortion either, but they keep lines (close to) straight.
You might still notice moderate barrel distortion on some. It is more obvious in architectural images, where the lines bow outward, away from the centre. But, it’s also easy to correct during post-processing.
Basically, any lens that’s not explicitly marked as fisheye is rectilinear.
You can get lenses with shorter focal lengths, but they are solely for cropped-sensor cameras (like the Sigma 8-16mm).
Keep in mind that you cannot compare a 16mm fisheye with a 16mm rectilinear wide angle lens. Because of the distortion, the fisheye lens will give a different, slightly wider image.
The Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM is a good example of an all-around, rectilinear wide angle lens for Canon. If you have the budget for it, I strongly recommend the Canon 24mm f/1.4L II lens. It’s one of my all-time favourites.
Tilt-Shift Wide Angle Lenses
Although tilt-shift lenses don’t have to be wide angle necessarily, most are. Neither of the previously mentioned two lens types allows you to correct for perspective distortion.
This type of distortion is especially prevalent in wide angle lenses. It happens you’re not viewing two parallel lines directly from the middle. With a standard rectilinear lens, they would converge.
Tilt-shift lenses take rectilinear a step further.
They project much larger images than the full-frame sensor. You can move the lens on the plane parallel to the sensor both horizontally and vertically. Thus, they can make converging lines parallel, or parallel lines converge.
You also have the option to independently control (tilt) the plane of focus.
These lenses are extremely sophisticated and very expensive. They are most popular lens among professional architecture and fine-art photographers.
My favourite is the Canon EF TS-E 17mm. It’s a very versatile lens. You can even attach a 2x teleconverter to make it a 35mm tilt-shift lens.
When to Use A Wide Angle Lens (with Recommendations!)
So, what is a wide angle lens used for? Wide angle lenses are generally used for scenes where you want to capture as much as possible. Landscapes, cityscapes, and architecture are the main categories that use a wide angle lens.
A fish-eye lens captures even more of the scene but is mainly used for artistic and creative purposes. They are wide enough to nicely capture the two-worlds scene that I am sure we have all seen and admired.
Be aware that you have to be very conscious of your composition to work well with a wide angle lens. It is easy to fall into the trap of showing too much.
I often use my wide-angle lens for street photography. If I need to get closer to a subject, I move there myself.
As Robert Capa taught us, “If your images aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. This can be a pain with wide angle lenses, as you need to get in really close.
In turn, it can give a dramatic perspective and a sense of presence.
I recommend a fast 35mm or 24mm prime lens for street photography, especially in challenging lighting conditions.
When you’re travelling, you don’t usually want to bring a lot of lenses. Lighter gear means more room to pack other stuff or more convenient travel. So, most photographers opt to choose a standard zoom lens, maybe an extra telephoto lens.
If you’re going to a place with a lot of landmarks, or vast landscapes, I suggest you include at least a moderately wide lens. If your kit lens goes as low as 24mm, it might be enough. (Keep in mind that the 18mm kit lenses are equivalent to 28-30mm.)
I actually seldom bring a standard zoom lens when travelling. Instead, I tend to rely on a wide angle prime lens and a short telephoto prime.
Architecture and Real Estate Photography
For these specific purposes, you’ll need to have a wide lens. An ultra-wide lens is recommended for interiors.
Aperture and build quality are not really of consideration here. What you need is a versatile, sharp and wide lens.
You might opt for a tilt-shift. They give you excellent image quality, advanced controls, and distortion-free results – for a high price.
Canon and Nikon both make fantastic tilt-shifts, often for astronomic prices. Samyang, a third party manufacturer, offers less expensive options which still give you a lot of value.
For landscapes, you inevitably need a wide lens. As you’ll probably do it from a tripod, the aperture is not a very important factor. Instead, size, weight, image quality and weather sealing are.
Event Photography and Photojournalism
These fields (among other gear) require fast and wide lenses. You have to be ready for numerous possible lighting and action situations.
Use wide angle lenses when you need to capture the all-encompassing shot. Or, use it to get really close-up for dramatic angles – remember Capa’s words.
You have several options.
These are all versatile, well-built and provide adequate image quality, but are all serious investments.
Sadly, with zooms, you very rarely get below f/2.8. To capture moving subjects in low light, you still have to raise the ISO quite a bit – resulting in more noise.
The way I prefer is going with wide aperture primes. As mentioned, I’m a big fan of the 24mm f/1.4 lens but there are other options. Most brands make 35mm f/1.4 lenses. Tamron recently brought out their own, which I like a lot.
Night Sky Photography
If you want to photograph the night sky (maybe the Milky Way), fast prime lens are the way to go, too. Especially the aforementioned 14mm f/1.8 lens.
Follow our guide in the Milky Way Mastery course to know all about this field, and the use of wide angle lenses in it.
Why Not Use Your Normal Lens?
You could use a multitude of lenses to try to replicate the view from wide angle lenses.
If you were to use a standard 50mm lens, for example, you would have to shoot a few dozen images and stitch them together for a 16mm view. Six to eight images may be enough to cover 28mm.
Here, you’ll need an editing program such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. If you have the time, the non-moving subject, and the effort required, you can be quite successful with this. Your combined image will also have a much higher resolution than a single shot.
There’s also a different consideration to stitching. You can use it to replicate the shallow depth-of-field look of large formats. There’s nothing to stop you from doing it with portraits or product shots.
The pioneer of this technique is Ryan Brenizer, a wedding photographer from New York. He achieves impressive background separation and wide angles simultaneously with it.
Of course, other photographers also borrow his trick. It takes time to perfect (particularly with portraits), but the results are rewarding.
Beginner photographers often neglect wide angle lenses. But they are powerful tools of expression, providing options that no other lens type is capable of.
This lens can also pose challenges. Applying composition and exposure skills to wide angle shots can be harder than expected.
It’s important that you feel comfortable using your wide angle glass, without overthinking it. Going with your flow almost always yields great results. This way, your shots will be genuinely great and unique.