What is an ultra-wide angle lens?
An ultra wide lens is anything that takes a photograph between 10-20mm. Ultra-wide lenses can be zooms or primes. I own a Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6. While it’s not the sharpest lens in the shed, it is a lot of fun to shoot with and can come up with some great effects. Other popular lenses include the Nikon 12-24mm, Tokina 11-16mm and Canon 10-22mm.
Is your lens really that wide?
It all depends on if you use a full frame or a cropped sensor camera. Full frame sensors are limited to high end professional cameras, such as the Canon 5D iii as well as the Nikon D800 and D4. They allow digital cameras to capture the same “size” as a 35mm film camera. If you stick a 10mm lens on a full frame sensor, they will appear exactly as 10mm. A cropped body sensor alters the length of the lens. So a 10mm lens is actually shooting at 15-16mm. Sound confusing? Here’s an example at 10mm on a cropped body sensor.
How to use an ultra wide angle lens
There’s a common misconception that you use a wide angle lens to fit everything in. In fact, it’s the opposite of how you should compose a wide angle image. If you use an ultra wide angle lens to shoot a vista from a mountain, everything is going to look incredibly small and distant.
The key advice for landscape photography composition comes into play here. Think foreground, middle and background. In this case, you’ll be looking for something in the foreground to appear enormous, while the background compliments the image.
When there’s no obvious focal point
Sometimes you just want to capture the sheer expansiveness of something. There still needs to be a focal point, but the image will focus on a texture in the foreground or the vanishing point of the image.
Sense of perspective
The distortion of ultra-wide angle lenses can create effects of vertigo while looking down, or capture the sheer enormity of a building. Again, get as close as you can to the building to fill the frame up.
While not everyone enjoys being made into a kooky Japanese anime character with a big head and small body, you can get a cute effect by sticking the lens into somebody or something’s face. It works particularly well with animals, like these two Icelandic ponies.
Okay, okay, so I said don’t use it to fit everything in. But when things really are enormous, and you’re already really close to it, like in a tight room or a designated walkway in the national park, the wide angle comes in handy. For example, my 10-20mm can fit an entire wide screen TV in the image from a distance of 30cm.
Common uses of ultra-wide angle lenses
An ultra-wide lens is key in any landscape photographer’s kit. It allows for creative framing and capturing the expansiveness of a location.
While the distortion effects of wide angle lenses make them inappropriate for certain types shots, ultra wides allow the photographer to capture vast interiors, particularly useful in buildings with stunning ceilings or wide cathedrals.
Real estate photography
Try making that tiny room seem expansive without a wide angle lens. A must have in any real-estate photographer’s kit.
Problems with Ultra-Wide Lenses
All ultra-wide lenses give some sort of vignette at the very wide end, especially when using the lens hood. Vignetting can be a curse and a blessing. If you’re trying to create a gothic or Victorian feel, a sense of moodiness or simply to focus the viewer’s attention in the centre of the frame then ultra-wides can help create a great image. Sometimes, like in landscapes, you don’t want a vignette or you want to control it in post production. Vignetting, along with distortion, is easily fixed in Adobe Lightroom, by clicking on the Lens Corrections tab and ticking “Enable Profile Corrections”.
Because ultra-wide lenses are often ultra-wide (my 10-20mm has a filter ring of 77mm), they are prone to lens flare. The Sigma 10-20mm gives off a hexagonal lens flare, visible in most sunny situations. Interestingly enough, when shooting with the Sigma over sunny water, it can create a lens sparkle. Great for all those 1970s nostalgia shots.
Because of the width of the lens, polarizers look crummy on ultra wide lenses.
Some lenses do this more than others. Lenses like the Nikkor 10.5 f/2.8G are specifically designed to give the 180 degree fisheye effect, and can look great when used correctly. The fisheye effect is most visible when shooting people up close. As with vignettes, they can be fixed in Lightroom by clicking on the Lens Corrections tab and ticking “Enable Profile Corrections”.
Things around the edge of the frame can appear longer or more stretched than they really are. This can be used effectively to create perspectives and draw the viewer into the image, but watch out for people caught on the edge of the frame. They can appear warped with particularly long limbs.