One of the biggest advantages of SLR and DSLR cameras has always been the possibility of interchanging lenses. In the last few years, a new type of camera has appeared on the market, which combined the reduced size and weight of compact cameras with the possibility of attaching different lenses (sometimes called mirrorless or system cameras).
The truth is that without this possibility, the ability of capturing the scene we want in different situations is significantly reduced. In this post I want to concentrate on a specific type of lens, with focal lengths that are rarely achieved by compact cameras. Moreover, these lenses are not usually at the top of photographer’s bucket lists despite their versatility and ability to get some unique results, especially when talking about landscape and travel photography. I am talking about wide angle lenses.
Since I shoot with a cropped sensor camera (not a full-frame), the focal lengths I will be referring to are specific for that type of cameras. Also, to avoid using ‘cropped sensor’ all the time, whenever I say ‘camera’ I am referring to ‘cropped sensor camera’.
Usually, DSLR cameras come with a kit lens and it is not uncommon that this kit lens is a 18-55 mm. This is a good general purpose lens (I am not talking about quality, just focal length) that can serve to shoot landscapes as well as portraits, for instance. Many wide angle lens photography aficionados stick to this lens but the truth is that it has some important shortcomings. Not only the build quality is not the best (with some sharpness and focusing issues) but the fact that the aperture range in the wide side is quite limited, makes it difficult to take photos under low light conditions or to have the right depth-of-field when taking for instance portraits.
However, the largest limitation and why I recommend experimenting with different lenses, is the focal length itself. While you would need a large zoom or telephoto if your interest is street or wildlife photography, if landscape and travel photography is what motivates you, I would definitely recommend giving wide angle lenses a try.
The obvious reason is that sometimes 18 mm is not wide enough to allow us capture everything with a single shot. This is especially relevant in travel and cityscape photography, where sometimes it is just impossible to step back a bit in order to get all the scene in a single exposure. Take, for instance, this image of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany, taken with a focal length of 18 mm.
Being a medium-size building, even though I could not capture the whole structure, by stepping back a bit I was able to capture at least the main entrance and a good part of the structure. The image might look interesting like this, but it is simply impossible to get the rest of the building in a single shot, simply because the focal length of the lens is not enough.
Now take this image of the same building and almost from the same spot, taken this time with a focal length of 10 mm.
Ignore the obvious change in mood (the first image was taken in summer while this one was taken in winter). Now, by actually moving forward to cover less foreground, I was able to capture the whole structure, better conveying the size and 3-dimensional structure of the building.
This is actually something central when interested in architecture photography, not only for the outside of the buildings but also for the inside like for instance when doing a photo session for real estate purposes.
Now, as usual, there are some things to keep in mind when using wide angle lenses. When shooting, you need some practice to get the results you want, mostly because the effect of having such a small focal length will make everything look smaller and seem to be farther from the camera than in reality. This is something that cannot be avoided and the only thing you can do is keep it in mind when composing your image by for instance getting a subject in the foreground when capturing a landscape or a building (unless, of course the building itself is the subject!).
Another problem that comes with smaller focal lengths is optical distortion. Take for instance this image of the same building as before, this time taken with an 18 mm focal length and looking directly into the entrance (no angle as before).
If you look at the straight lines on the image like the border of the sidewalk or the building itself, you will notice that some optical distortion is present, making the lines look bent towards the inner part of the photo. Now look at the same angle, this time captured with a 10 mm focal length.
Here you can first see how much of the building we are able to capture (as described before) but also how stronger the optical distortion is, especially when you compare the left border of the building. In fact, as with every lens, the optical distortion is stronger on the borders of the image. This distortion can sometimes be aesthetically appealing, as with the color cast caused by ND filters. However, sometimes it is something we will want to get rid of. Fortunately, this is a simple task in Photoshop but keep in mind that by fixing the distortion you will loose information in different parts of the picture, so you might want to plan for this in advance by, for instance, taking some extra photos at the sky above the building to be able to combine them with your original image later on.
Unfortunately, photography is an expensive hobby, and arguably the most expensive part of it are precisely the lenses. Some manufacturers have relatively inexpensive and good quality lenses (around €200) but other versions or brands can cost more than a good camera. For this reason, it might be a good idea to first ask some friends to borrow their lenses or even get them for some days at some photography shops that rent equipment. This way you can really find out if that is what you need before committing to an important investment.
I hope you have a better idea now on what you can expect from wide-angle lenses and, as usual, don’t hesitate to write me an email if you have any question regarding this (or any other) topic. I will try my best to answer!