Wide Angle Lenses Are For Shooting Close

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If you aren’t in love with your wide angle lenses, then you simply don’t know how to use them. Sure, you can use them to fit that mountain scene into a single frame…where’s the fun in that? If shallow depth of field is your chocolate, than please do indulge in your mid-range zooms. Go ahead, crop close and tight to your subject and you’ll probably get a good picture. But if you want a real challenge, and you really want to create some magic, grab your widest lens and start shooting those same subjects with some context.

Context For a Story

I love close-up photography because it introduces the viewer to a world and a perspective that simply isn’t commonplace. The initial gut reaction to such a piece is wonder, and the viewer will continue to observe with curiosity and interest. But what if we wanted to connect with the viewer, what if we wanted to make a statement. Let’s not stop there, we want to share a story. Any good story needs a setting: A context, if you will. Those closely cropped shots of knickknacks found about your home offer little or no context whatsoever. A wide angle lens can help to correct that. The problem all comes down to physics, really. A mid-range or telephoto lens has a narrower angle of view. The longer that focal length, the narrower the angle. So when you get close, you’re cutting out a whole lot of the world – almost all of it in fact. Enter the wide angle lens with its robust angles of view and you begin to see the difference. And what a vast difference it is. Just to throw specifics into the mix, Nikon’s 85mm prime lens has only an angle of view of 18.5 degrees as compared to the maximum 109 degree angle of view for their 10-24mm zoom – over 90 degrees completely lost. You simply cannot tell a story in 18.5 degrees. To tell the story, you need to introduce some context with whatever lens has the widest angle of view.

Move Into The Shot

I lament today’s high quality zoom lenses if only because it establishes poor habits among young shooters. Too often I see someone zooming into their subject. I already know that they’ll be disappointed with the shot as soon as they look at it on a big screen, I don’t even need to see the shot myself to make such a bold statement. Zooming in does more than change the size of your subject. Obviously, you’re also changing the focal length – but more important is the fact that you’re significantly changing the angle of view. The angle of view is what we’re really after here. So break whatever poor habits you have and move around and towards your subject. I like to pick the focal length first and then move myself and my camera into position. I can of course make adjustments to compensate, but what I am not doing is letting my personal comfort get in the way of the shot.

A side effect of the zoom generation is that many people don’t know how close they can get to a subject with their lenses. The data is available on your lens’s spec sheet, but it’s often overlooked. This is information you should know, of course, and you should learn how to judge that distance. Your first clue that you’re too close is that your camera will have problems focusing. But I digress. The real point I’m trying to make is that you can often get much closer than you would think, even without a close-up lens filter or a macro lens. Even my kit lens – which is an inexpensive lens – allows me to get as close as 1.8 feet (0.55 meters). It’s not fantastic, but close enough. That’s the same lens I used to create the photo at the top of this article, and I’m about as close to the flower patch as my lens would permit. As you can see, I was able to create a setting. The context is what really makes the shot. Flowers are flowers, but naturalized flowers in a cemetery is a story. That’s where I can grab the viewer. And I owe it all to the 18mm end of that zoom lens.

Final Thoughts / Your Turn

There is a great deal more creativity that can be poured into a close-range wide angle shot. It allows you, the artist, to explore interesting juxtapositions of the subject within its interesting surroundings. You can tell stories and even demonstrate social commentary with a single still frame. The subject choice could make for an interesting shot. But it’s the subject’s context that really sells the story. Context is really the most important detail that shouldn’t be overlooked. For that reason, I predict that you will learn to love your wide angle lenses. And so I challenge you to shoot wide often. In fact, why don’t you set an example. Capture some close-range wide angle photos of your own and share them with us. Leave a link to your photo in the comments below, or feel free to share your shots with the SP@Flickr group (please add the tag, “SP-CloseWide”) or both. We’d love to see what you have to offer, and of course we’d love for your inspiration to be shared.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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