Tips for Using Your First Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens

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I’ll never forget the first time I looked through the viewfinder of a camera fitted with a 20mm ultra-wide-angle lens. Everything looked amazing and I blew several rolls of film shooting everything I saw along the way. Prior to using this “exotic” lens, I had never shot with anything wider than the 50mm normal that came with my first 35mm camera.

The sobering part came when I developed the film and started eyeballing the results of my first outing. In a word, they were underwhelming, but I kept at it until I figured out how to use ultra-wide-angle lenses in ways that enabled me to capture the kinds of photographs I envisioned capturing with these wonderfully challenging lenses.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

Ultra-wide-angle lenses enable you to take dramatic photographs but can also distort your subject. The challenge is to control distortion or make it work for you creatively. The Chevelle Super Sport above almost leaps off the screen—the distortion is a result of coming in too close and tilting the lens slightly downward. If I were to back up a foot and level the camera, the distortion would not be as obvious.
Ultra-wide-angle lenses enable you to take dramatic photographs but can also distort your subject. The challenge is to control distortion or make it work for you creatively. 

The Chevelle Super Sport above almost leaps off the screen—the distortion is a result of coming in too close and tilting the lens slightly downward. If I were to back up a foot and level the camera, the distortion would not be as obvious.

Wide-Angle and Ultra-Wide-Angle: What’s the Difference?

The average normal (50mm) lens on a full-frame camera has an angle of view (AoV) of about 47°, which closely replicates the way our eyes perceive perspective and the spatial relationships we see around us.

A wide-angle lens is generally defined as being a lens wider than a 50mm normal lens but not wider than 28mm (approx. 75° AoV). Lenses with focal lengths wider than 28mm are considered ultra-wide-angle lenses and they range from 25mm (approx. 82°) to 10mm (approx. 130°) with about a half-dozen fixed focal length options between them. There are also a number of OEM and third-party ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses available for pretty much every popular camera system.

The lenses discussed in this article are designed for full-frame DSLR and mirrorless camera systems. The same rules and guidelines apply when using comparable ultra-wide-angle lenses designed for APS-C and MFT format cameras. Equivalent focal lengths for smaller format cameras can easily be calculated by multiplying the focal length of a lens by 1.5x for APS-C cameras (1.6x for Canon EOS cameras) or 2x for Micro Four Thirds format cameras.

Do Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses Distort?

The short answer to this question is Yes, but, depending on the lens, many forms of distortion can be brought under control. The only exception to this rule are circular fisheye lenses, which take optical distortions to their extremes. (More on these later in the text.) The most common—and in my opinion one of the creative (and fun) aspects of shooting ultra-wide-angle lenses—is how heroic mundane things become when framed close up to the lens. The exaggerated proportions that result can be wonderful if you take the time to explore your options.

No, this half-eaten corncob isn’t twice the size of the picnic table. By getting down to ground level and in real close with a 21mm-equivalent lens (approx. 90° AoV) on a point-and-shoot camera, I could make the corncob appear humongous by taking advantage of the forced perspective created by focusing very close with an ultra-wide-angle lens.
No, this half-eaten corncob isn’t twice the size of the picnic table; the illusion was created by getting down to ground level and in real close with a 21mm-equivalent lens.

For example, in the photo above, by shooting at ground level and up close with a 21mm-equivalent lens (approx. 90° AoV) on a point-and-shoot camera, I could make the corncob appear humongous by taking advantage of the forced perspective created by focusing very close with an ultra-wide-angle lens.

There are two key methods of minimizing distortion when taking photographs with ultra-wide-angle lenses. The first is to always keep the camera level. The moment you tilt the camera up or down, you begin introducing distortion into the final photograph. It should be noted this distortion can often be the reason the photograph is interesting, but this is an aesthetic decision the photographer must make for themself.

The photograph above of a scene along the Coney Island boardwalk was taken with a 16mm ultra-wide-angle lens. Despite the extreme AoV of the lens, as long as the camera is level, distortion is easy to keep under control.
This photograph of a scene along the Coney Island boardwalk was taken with a 16mm ultra-wide-angle lens. Despite the extreme AoV of the lens, as long as the camera is level, distortion is easy to keep under control.
A camera with a 21mm ultra-wide-angle lens held close and askew to the horizon line makes for a colorfully bold street shot.
A camera with a 21mm ultra-wide-angle lens held close and askew to the horizon line makes for a colorfully bold street shot.

The second factor in reducing distortion is distance. Sometimes moving in or out an inch or two (or a foot or two) can make a world of difference when it comes to controlling the degree of optical distortion in a photograph.

By maintaining a careful distance from the rear of vintage automobile, I maintained minimal signs of distortion, despite the 90° AoV of the 21mm ultra-wide-angle lens on my camera. Moving in even a few inches closer greatly changed the geometry of the composition by elongating and distorting the side panels of the car.

By maintaining a careful distance from the rear of the vintage automobile shown above, I maintained minimal signs of distortion, despite the 90° AoV of the 21mm ultra-wide-angle lens on my camera. Moving in even a few inches closer greatly changed the geometry of the composition by elongating and distorting the side panels of the car.

Keystone Distortion

A distortion commonly associated with wide-angle lenses is keystone distortion, which is the distortion that makes buildings appear as if they are tilting or falling backward. This is caused when you cannot back up enough to get the entire building in the frame without tilting the camera upward, causing the camera to go out of parallel to the structure being photographed. To get around this problem, many photographers defer to using tilt-shift lenses.

Keystone distortion can also be corrected post-capture using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and other photo editing software. (To learn more about tilt-shift lenses and correcting keystone distortion post-capture in Photoshop Lightroom click here.)

Keystone distortion, which occurs when tilting a camera with a wide-angle lens backward to fit the entire structure within the frame lines, can be corrected by using a tilt-shift lens.

Rectilinear or Non-Rectilinear Lens Design: Why Should You Care?

Without wandering too far out into the weeds, there are two types of wide-angle lens designs—rectilinear and non-rectilinear. With the exception of fisheye lenses, most every consumer ultra-wide-angle lens is a rectilinear design. In a nutshell, when positioned level to your subject, parallel lines such as walls of a building are rendered straight when photographed using a rectilinear ultra-wide-angle lens.

Non-rectilinear lenses are capable of capturing wider fields of view, albeit with notably visible distortion save for the horizon line—and that’s assuming the camera is level. Fisheye lenses, which can capture fields of view wider than 180°, are non-rectilinear lenses.

Non-rectilinear fisheye lenses are designed to capture either circular (above left) or full-frame fisheye photographs (above right) depending on your needs and desires. With either type of fisheye, optical distortion is inherently unavoidable. 
If you need to maintain straight, parallel lines along with extreme angles of coverage, use rectilinear lenses, which provide extreme coverage while maintaining straight, parallel lines. (see above) With the exception of fisheye lenses most ultra-wide-angle lenses are rectilinear.
If you need to maintain straight, parallel lines along with extreme angles of coverage, use rectilinear lenses, which provide extreme coverage while maintaining straight, parallel lines.

If taking photographs that render perspective correctly is your goal, you’ll want to use a rectilinear lens. If creativity and gonzo imaging is what you prefer, go for a non-rectilinear lens.

These two photographs were taken with a Voigtländer Heliar-Hyper Wide 10mm f/5.6 ASPH lens, an ultra-wide rectilinear lens with a super-wide 130° angle of view (AoV).

Looking at the two photos above, the motorcycle with the buildings in the background (left) appears distorted because the camera was tilted slightly upward. The front end looks elongated because the bike is angled to the lens. Conversely, the red firebox and yellow pylons (right) were taken with the same lens, but the camera was level to its surroundings, so the walls and building aren’t falling over—all parallel lines remain parallel. Spatial distortions are glaringly obvious in the photograph, but parallel lines remain parallel and the vanishing lines remain true across the image field.

Visual Anchors and Framing Techniques

Strong visual anchors are essential for successful photographs, and these anchors are even more essential when composing photographs using ultra-wide-angle lenses. They are particularly important for landscapes. Without a dominant visual, the eye wanders aimlessly. This is where visual anchors and framing techniques come into play.

The wide-angle picture of the dunes, beach, ocean, and sky is pleasing, but visually it’s a boring photograph. With the exception of the narrow band of darker blue water, there is little in the way of visual tension. More importantly, there isn’t any strong visual anchor point or center of interest. It’s an OK picture, but it’s not a picture that draws you in.

This wide-angle picture of the dunes, beach, ocean, and sky is pleasing, but visually it’s a boring photograph. With the exception of the narrow band of darker blue water, there is little in the way of visual tension. More importantly, there isn’t any strong visual anchor point or center of interest. It’s an OK picture, but it’s not a picture that draws you in.

In terms of visual dynamics, the above close-up photograph of the shadow of a handrail captured from slightly below with a 16mm lens is the dominant form in this semi-abstract composition. The dark form of the shadow grabs the viewer’s eye and takes it on a joy ride down and back up the stairs again.

In terms of visual dynamics, the above close-up photograph of the shadow of a handrail captured from slightly below with a 16mm lens is the dominant form in this semi-abstract composition. The dark form of the shadow grabs the viewer’s eye and takes it on a joy ride down and back up the stairs again.

Bold splashes of color against monochromatic or otherwise contrasting backgrounds can also be used as visual anchor guides.

There’s nothing like a splash of color in an otherwise near-monochromatic cityscape captured with a 10mm ultra-wide-angle lens. Note the degree of distortion toward the corners of the frame, even though the camera is relatively level. This is due to the extreme A0V (130°) of the lens. How wide is 130°? To give you a point of perspective, I was no more than two feet from the back of the red VW.

There’s nothing like a splash of color in this otherwise near-monochromatic cityscape captured with a 10mm ultra-wide-angle lens. Note the degree of distortion toward the corners of the frame, even though the camera is relatively level. This is due to the extreme A0V (130°) of the lens. How wide is 130°? To give you a point of perspective, I was no more than two feet from the back of the red VW.

Visual anchors and framing devices need not be obvious. In the above photograph of New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, the surface of a concrete retaining wall running diagonally across the image field wall visually complements the angular design of the convention center in a very subliminal manner.

Visual anchors and framing devices need not be obvious. In the above photograph of New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, the surface of a concrete retaining wall running diagonally across the image field wall visually complements the angular design of the convention center in a very subliminal manner.

Sometimes the phrase “framing the image” can be taken literally, as shown above. A window overlooking a Chinese village mountainside leads the viewer’s eye through the open window and the trees and fields below. Photograph taken with a 25mm lens.

Sometimes the phrase “framing the image” can be taken literally, as shown above. A window overlooking a Chinese village mountainside leads the viewer’s eye through the open window and the trees and fields below. Photograph taken with a 25mm lens.

The darker interior of the train carriage serves as a visual framing device in this photograph taken between two cars on a commuter train, using a 16mm lens. Here too, the darkened interior surrounding the brighter scene through the window and beyond adds a layer of depth to the photograph.

The darker interior of the train carriage serves as a visual framing device in this photograph taken between two cars on a commuter train, using a 16mm lens. Here too, the darkened interior surrounding the brighter scene through the window and beyond adds a layer of depth to the photograph.

An early morning photograph of an Amtrak viaduct over the Raritan River in central New Jersey, taken with a 15mm lens. By getting in close to the base of the viaduct, I was able to use the arch itself as a framing device, which was mirrored in the viaduct’s reflection. The edges of the frame were intentionally darkened post-capture in Photoshop as a secondary visual framing device.

An early morning photograph of an Amtrak viaduct over the Raritan River in central New Jersey, taken with a 15mm lens. By getting in close to the base of the viaduct, I was able to use the arch itself as a framing device, which was mirrored in the viaduct’s reflection. The edges of the frame were intentionally darkened post-capture in Photoshop as a secondary visual framing device.

The above photograph of an abandoned gas station was taken with a 10mm rectilinear lens. The extreme field of view of the lens enabled me to overlap the overhead structure and its footing as a visual framing device over the boarded-up service station. Because the camera was level, aside from perceptual spatial distancing, there is little in the way of distortion.

The above photograph of an abandoned gas station was taken with a 10mm rectilinear lens. The extreme field of view of the lens enabled me to overlap the overhead structure and its footing as a visual framing device over the boarded-up service station. Because the camera was level, aside from perceptual spatial distancing, there is little in the way of distortion.

Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses and Spatial Relationships

One of the characteristics of wide and ultra-wide-angle lenses has to do with the perceived spatial relationships between visual elements within the frame. Just as the curved side-view mirror on your car warns you about objects being closer than they appear, wide and ultra-wide-angle lenses also expand the perceived distances between visual elements within the frame. (Telephoto lenses do the opposite—they compress the perceived distances between visual elements within the frame.)

Just as your side-view mirror reminds you objects are closer than they appear, so do photographs taken with super-wide-angle lenses. The above photograph of a walkway at a Jersey shore nature preserve was taken with a 16mm lens. The point where all lines converge appears to be about 1/8-mile from camera position when, in fact, it was closer than 100 feet. Spatial exaggerations aside, as long as the camera is held level there is little, if any, evidence of distortion in the photograph.
Just as your side-view mirror reminds you objects are closer than they appear, so do photographs taken with super-wide-angle lenses.

The above photograph of a walkway at a Jersey shore nature preserve was taken with a 16mm lens. The point where all lines converge appears to be about 1/8-mile from camera position when, in fact, it was closer than 100 feet. Spatial exaggerations aside, as long as the camera is held level there is little, if any, evidence of distortion in the photograph.

Landscapes

I do not think it would be a stretch to say shooting landscapes with an ultra-wide-angle lens is about as satisfying as a good day of fishing. Landscapes and ultra-wide-angle lenses are a natural, and unlike architectural photography, where maintaining parallel lines is a primary concern, there aren’t any parallel lines in nature to be concerned about.

A Caribbean seascape captured with an 18mm lens. A Polarizing filter makes the clouds seemingly pop from their deep blue surroundings, creating a strong visual anchor for the viewer’s eye.
A Caribbean seascape captured with an 18mm lens. A polarizing filter makes the clouds seemingly pop from their deep blue surroundings, creating a strong visual anchor for the viewer’s eye.
Windows and storefronts can be used creatively when shooting street scenes with wide-angle lenses.
Windows and storefronts can be used creatively when shooting street scenes with wide-angle lenses.
The corner post of a retention fence overlooking a terraced hillside tea farm in China serves as a visual anchor while adding a layer of dimensionality and depth to the photograph.
The corner post of a retention fence overlooking a terraced hillside tea farm in China serves as a visual anchor while adding a layer of dimensionality and depth to the photograph.

Portraiture Using Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses

Depending on the positioning of the camera and subject, taking portraits with ultra-wide-angle lenses can produce either fruitful or horrifying results. What’s interesting is that moving the camera position an inch or two one way or the other can make or break the composition. Perhaps the best piece of advice one can offer is never to place an ultra-wide inches from your subject’s face because the results will be Bozo.

Unless your goal is to end a friendship, never take a picture of somebody real close with an ultra-wide-angle lens. The results are never flattering.
Unless your goal is to end a friendship, never take a picture of somebody real close with an ultra-wide-angle lens. The results are never flattering.

In addition to keeping your subject at a comfortable distance from the lens, you should always position them within the center third of the frame to avoid distorting your subject’s features.

This informal portrait of New York City’s “official street portrait photographer,” Louis Mendes, was captured using a Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon ultra-wide, known to be one of the best-corrected ultra-wides available. His equally legendary Speed Graphic is front and center, while Louis is carefully positioned in a way that minimizes the elongated edge distortions that are common in ultra-wide-angle lenses.
This informal portrait of New York City’s “official street portrait photographer,” Louis Mendes, was captured using a Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon ultra-wide, known to be one of the best-corrected ultra-wides available.

In this portrait of Louis Mendes, his equally legendary Speed Graphic is front and center, while Louis is carefully positioned in a way that minimizes the elongated edge distortions that are common in ultra-wide-angle lenses.

Exposure Settings for Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses

There aren’t any specific rules about exposure settings when using ultra-wide-angle lenses. As for ISO settings, I prefer slower ISO sensitivities for optimal detail and overall tonality, but if lighting or environmental conditions dictate using higher sensitivity levels, so be it—current-generation cameras can handle higher ISO ratings very respectfully.

Because ultra-wide-angle lenses boast a great deal of depth of field even at wide apertures, focus is seldom a critical issue when shooting with these lenses. When photographing at closer distances and at wide apertures, it’s even possible to incorporate selective focusing into your photographs.

When shooting landscapes, unless you have reasons to do otherwise, it’s a good practice to stop your lens down at least 3 to 4 stops for greater depth of field and overall sharpness. Unless there is something visually interesting going on in the foreground, stopping your lens down to about f/8–f/11 with the lens focused at infinity should work in most situations. Although your lens might stop down to f/16 or even f/22, at the smallest lens apertures most lenses no longer perform at their peak in terms of resolving power and suppression of optical aberrations. For this reason, the smallest lens apertures should be reserved for times you need maximum depth of field.

Unless you are trying either to freeze or blur ambient movement in your photograph, the best practice is to set your camera to Aperture Priority. This enables you to maintain control of the depth of field in the image, which is less critical for most wide-angle photography than the actual exposure time.

Lastly, if there are clouds in the sky, use a Polarizing filter to darken the blues and make the color and detail in water and foliage seemingly pop from the frame.

Ultra-Wide-Angle Takeaways

  • Distortion is an inherent trait of ultra-wide-angle lenses. The trick is to understand how to control it.
  • The easiest way to minimize (if not eliminate) optical distortion is to keep your camera level—as soon as you tilt the camera up or down, you introduce distortion.
  • When photographing architecture or landscapes, it’s a good idea to mount your camera on a tripod to maintain level horizon lines. A bubble level or your camera’s internal electronic level (if your camera has one) are also recommended as a means of keeping your camera level.
  • When composing photographs using an ultra-wide-angle lens, always include a visual anchor to lead the viewer’s eye. This can be a bold color, a shadow, or other graphic design element that makes the photograph work.
  • When possible, add a visual framing device as a means of adding a greater sense of physical depth to the photograph.
  • Polarizing filters can greatly improve the color saturation and detail in landscape photography.
  • Find the sweet spot when composing your photograph—not too close as to distort your subject and not too far as to reduce the visual impact of the composition. Not sure what works? Keep moving and shoot along the way. At some point you’ll nail the photograph you’ve been aiming for.

Do you shoot with ultra-wide-angle lenses? Do you like using them? Do you find them challenging? Any good ultra-wide-angle tips you can offer? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

19 Comments

I'm a bit disappointed.  The subject of the email I got to read this article was "Get the Most from Your New Pentax 10-17mm" but it turns out it's about shooting ultra-wide-angle lenses...with a full frame camera.  The Pentax 10-17mm is specifically designed for APS-C so I was expecting to read an article specific to APS-C rather than having APS-C just mentioned in an "oh, by the way" manner.

In recommending polarizing filter for sky color with ultra wide, seems that a caveat should be added about the differential saturation of blue that will normally result from polarization across a wide angle. The reault is

... result is hard to deal with in processing.

Hi R K,

You make a good point, but we don’t think that the issue is caused by the polarization filter—it is just a matter of physics. The sky isn’t really a constant shade of blue, especially when photographed with a wide-angle lens. The sky is lighter the closer you get to the giant light source at the center of our solar system. And, because polarizing lenses work best as you approach right angles to the sun, you’ll see a wider range of brightness in the atmosphere with a wide-angle or ultra-wide-angle lens. The polarizer might even accentuate this range of brightness, but that isn’t something that would really vary from brand to brand or filter to filter.

Please let us know if we interpreted your question correctly or if you have follow-up questions.

Thanks for reading!
 

I have a Nikkor 20mm F2.8 Ais rectilinear that I shoot with a lot in the wide angle category. Love that lens!!! Next lens up from that I use is a Voigtlander 40mm F2 . It too is a magnificent optic. These are the two I mostly shoot with. My two photo editors for a couple of magazines always comment on the sharpness of these two optics. Case rested....................

And 'nuff said! We have some fans of ultra-wide-angle lenses right here at Explora. They are famous for tack sharpness. Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to post your comments, Larry E.

I own the Zeiss Distagon 15mm from the first photo in the article and it's one of those lenses you just never part with. That, and an ancient Nikkor 24 mm 2.8, (Still made today) are my go to wide angles! My zoom lenses sit on a shelf... they are great lenses but the prime wide angles are just magic!

We definitely agree on the Zeiss 15mm - it's never leaving my lens arsenal. I've also heard much about the Nikon 24mm f/2.8 but I've never actually shot with one. Now you have me thinking and that can be dangerous...

-AW

I tried the Nikkor 24/F2.8. It had too much flare for me unfortunately and it led me to the 20/F2.8

Great article and perfect timing as I just got my EF 11-24mm for my canon and had a bit of a “play” with it and was able to make two roof lines that were perpendicular look, like they were parallel in the shot when i took the shot while standing in the corner looking out.  It was then I realized the learning curve I was on. The article has explained the gotcha’s really well and I’m off to a 3 day landscape photography tour with the new gear in tow and will not look like such a newby.

Thanks.

Simon

Nice to hear - keep shooting - it's the best way to get even better!

-AW

Great article! 

I do own several ultra wide angle lenses, and love them all: the 8-15mm fisheye, the 17-40mm, and the 24mm. As you mention, knowing how to control the distortion is key. But I would say that knowing how to use it to one's advantage can be a lot of fun! Especially the fisheye can create some interesting results. Granted, interesting doesn't equal successful, but hey, it's fun! 

The one thing that took me a while to get used to when first using ultra wide angle lenses was how much fit into the frame. And thus how much I was responsible for in terms of composition. It sure was a learning curve. 

 

This is a great article that everyone should take some inspiration from. I have traditionally been a very telephoto photographer. If I was taking my 85mm lens off the camera, it was probably to put the 70-200 on. :D But I decided to buy the Irix 15mm to change things up and it has been a wonderful learning process. It takes a fair bit of trial and error to wrap your head around that super wide field of view, but the results can be extraordinary. 

For the takeaway list:

• do not shoot with a friend at either edge of the frame as the fattening distortion may end the friendship
• corners are unavoidably stretched as in the picket fence photo (sloping sidewalk).  I have a shot with the
   strangest goose you ever saw in the corner taken many years ago with a Canon FL 19mm

... and whatever you do never ever position a friend in the corner of the frame while sitting on a picket fence on a sloping sidewalk... it's a true recipe for disaster. 

When I've shot large groups of people using an ultra-wide, I've used Photoshop's "adaptive wide angle" filter to correct the stretched people towards the edges. However, straight lines become curved which I will take over being berated by people complaining that I made them unappealing.

Great article, Allan.  Thanks. 

I have 2 wide angles.  A Canon EF 16-35 f/4L IS USM, and an IRIX Blackstone 15mm f/2.8.  I bought the IRIX for night-time photography, and I really like the focus-locking feature on the lens, so that I can set it to the hyperfocal distance, lock it, and not worry about focus for the rest of the session.  It seems to quite sharp, though I haven't used it much during daylight hours.  After reading your article, that's going to change!

I did want to make a comment about correcting Keystone distortion.  Depending on one's situation, Lightroom does a pretty good job at correcting that kind of distortion, but oft-times Photoshop does way better, IMO.  The key to making it work in LR is to remember to have lots of space all around the image, but particularly at the top and sides, so that there's plenty of "expansion space".  I have too often made the mistake of not leaving enough "space" in images I want to correct.  That leads to having to "add canvas" in PS in images that fail to get straightened properly in LR because there's not enough space on the sides to do an acceptable job.  Sometimes it results in not being able to straighten the subject enough to make it acceptable, or having to accept an image as "the best that can be done without reshoorting", even though it's not really acceptable in your mind's eye!

Seems most people I know prefer PS over LR, yours truly included. And cropping tops of buildings when correcting keystone distortion is a biggie. Interestingly, Leica just introduced a firmware upgrade for their M10 cameras that corrects keystoning in-camera on the fly. You can preview the final corrected image in real-time, which is an amazing technical advance for an 'old film camera company'.