One of the most asked questions in regards to photography is ‘What is the purpose of different camera lenses?’.
Our answer is going to look quickly at the different types of wide-angle lenses available, and when to use them.
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Types of Wide-Angle Lenses
First, it’s important that we clarify the meaning of wide-angle.
The most wide-spread description is that a wide-angle lens displays a wider field of view than our own, human vision. However, this doesn’t translate directly to millimetres and degrees.
So, the popular way of defining it is that a lens below equivalent 35mm is considered a wide-angle. This is roughly 65 degrees of diagonal field of view.
Still, there are a few questions you can ask to clarify different types of wide-angles.
Does It 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” zooms cover wide, standard and telephoto focal lengths alike. Most zooms are more specific, giving you one or two of these.
They are very versatile, allowing to keep your gear to a minimum. But, generally, they are heavier and more expensive, due to extra mechanisms and glass inside the lens. Kit lenses are exceptions, but they often come with heavy compromises.
Their image quality is (commonly) surpassed by prime lenses, as they are very much a jack of all trades, master of none. The Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 is a great example for a professional wide-angle zoom.
How Wide Is It?
We have to make a disclaimer here. As you probably know, the camera that you use influences how your lens will ‘look like’. Smaller sensors crop out the centre portion of any lens, resulting in a tighter field of view.
For the sake of 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.
Most kit or standard zooms go down to 24mm or 28mm. The most popular wide-angle zoom range is 16-35mm, while the widest lenses currently on the market are 10mm (rectilinear) and 8mm (fisheye).
But what are those two?
How Does It Distort?
In terms of distortion, we differentiate between three main sorts of wide-angle lenses.
Fisheye 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, as 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 fisheye lenses.
Rectilinear wide-angles 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 apparent in architectural images, where the lines bow outward, away from the centre of the image. But, it’s also fairly easy to correct during post-processing, especially if you shoot in raw.
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.
Although tilt-shift lenses don’t have to necessarily be wide-angles, most are. Neither of the previously mentioned two types allow you to correct for perspective distortion.
This type of distortion is especially prevalent in wide-angle lenses. It happens you’re not viewing to parallel line directly from the middle. With a normal rectilinear lens, they would converge.
Tilt-shift lenses take rectilinear a step further.
They project a much larger image 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 be parallel, or parallel lines converge.
You also have the option to independently control (tilt) the plane of focus.
To do this without sacrifices in image quality, these lenses are extremely sophisticated and very expensive. They are most popular 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.
When to Use A Wide Angle Lens (with Recommendations!)
A wide-angle lens is generally used for scenes where you want to capture as much as possible, for various reasons. Landscapes, cityscapes, and architecture are the main reasons why photographers use a wide-angle lens.
A fisheye lens captures even more of the scene but is mainly used for artistic and creative purposes of photography. 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 successfully work with a wide-angle lens. You can easily fall into the trap of showing too much.
In Street Photography
I often use my wide 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 a wide-angle lens, as you need to get in really close.
In turn, it can really give a dramatic perspective and a sense of presence.
I recommend a fast 35mm or 24mm prime for street photography, especially in challenging lighting conditions.
In Travel Photography
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.
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 when travelling. Instead, I tend to rely on a wide-angle prime and a short telephoto prime.
In Architecture and Real Estate Photography
For these specific purposes, you’ll need to have a wide lens. An ultra-wide 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.
In Landscape Photography
For landscapes, you inevitably need a wide lens. As you’ll probably do it from a tripod, aperture is not a very important factor. Instead, size, weight, image quality and weather sealing are.
In Event Photography and Photojournalism
These fields (among other gear) require fast and wide glass. You have to be ready for numerous possible lighting and action situations.
Use a wide-angle lens 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 – but there are other options. Most brands make 35mm f/1.4 lenses. Tamron recently brought out their own, which I like a lot.
For Night Sky Photography
If you want to photograph the night sky (maybe the Milky Way), fast primes are the way to go, too. Especially the aforementioned 14mm f/1.8.
Follow our guide in the Milky Way Mastery course to know all about this field, and the use of wide lenses in it.
Why Not Use Your Standard Lens?
You could use a multitude of lenses to try to replicate the view from a wide-angle lens.
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, which is 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.
Naturally, other photographers also borrow his trick. It takes time to perfect (particularly with portraits), but the results are rewarding.
Wide-angle lenses are often neglected by beginner photographers. In reality, they are very powerful tools of expression, providing options that no other lens type is capable of.
They also pose challenges: applying your skills of composition and exposure to very wide shots could be much harder than you’d expect.
It’s important that you feel comfortable using your wide-angle lens, without overthinking it. Going with your flow almost always yields great results. This way, your shots will be truly great and unique.
I hope you’ve learnt something today.