Posted by: David Vernon | June 11, 2009

Let’s Talk Ultra-Wide – It’s All About Perspective

Stairs In The Woods(Note: Today’s guest blogger, Tim Sheets aka tsheets, is a fine Central Illinois photographer, who chronicles the places he visits and the food he eats – all important stuff. Enjoy!)

Many times when a photographer first lays hands on an ultra-wide lens, the first thing they do is look in amazement at all the stuff they can fit in the frame. But, the real power of an ultra-wide is in the wide-angle perspective it provides. To learn the basics of using an ultra-wide to make more interesting images, there are a few things to consider.

Over the past several years, there have been several “Ultra-Wide” angle zoom lenses released for digital cameras with APS-C (cropped) sensors. The focal lengths covered by these lenses range from about 10mm – 24mm depending on manufacturer. This would be the equivalent of about 16mm – 36mm field- of-view on a full frame 35mm camera. That’s great and all….but, what does that mean to me? Why should I care?

Well, let’s start with the basics. With angles of view (at the wide end) in the 108.4 – 99 degree range, you get a LOT of coverage. All that coverage also means you have a lot of subject matter to manage. In other words, you have to be careful your shoes (or tripod legs) don’t end up in your shot!! You also have exaggerated near-far relationships which give you that “wide angle perspective” we all know and love! These features are great for shooting landscapes, close quarters such as interiors or larger subjects where you can’t back up far enough to get them all in the frame (buildings, for example). But, more importantly, you can create dramatic images by using the wide angle perspective to immerse your viewer in the scene. And yes, you can also use it to distort your subject with an almost fish-eye effect.

Let’s take a look at the ‘get everything in the frame’ approach. Ultra-Wides are certainly good for that!! Capturing grand vistas, entire skylines, or whole rooms is a snap! Jubilee State Park Fishing Pond This example shows how while you can get everything in the frame, there really isn’t much depth. Just as a telephoto lens pulls things in close (and compresses near-far relationships), the ultra-wide pushes things away. So, you get a lot, but, a lot may be relatively small and loose significance in the overall frame. With so many objects in your viewfinder, you have to be careful to manage them properly or risk loosing the viewer in a weak composition that feels cluttered. That entry-way that first grabbed your attention is suddenly lost in all the surrounding environment. How do you counteract this potential pitfall? The answer is really pretty simple. Get close!! Which brings us to the other main (and more effective in my opinion) strategy when using an ultra-wide, perspective!

Forest Floor and Bluff One rule of thumb for creating compelling landscape images is to have an interesting foreground, middle ground, and background. These layers help give depth to the image and lead your viewer through the scene. With an ultra-wide attached to the front of your camera, the way to accomplish this is to find a foreground object, and get close! Line it up so you have a good background (and hopefully some middle ground) and you have the makings for an effective composition. Remember, since the wide angle is going to exaggerate the near-far relationships, the distance between your foreground and background doesn’t have to be miles, even a few yards can be enough. For this example, I was probably about two feet from the log in the foreground and the base of the bluff was (guessing) about 10-15 yards. In the leading picture, I had the camera set on a tripod, maybe a foot away from the near step.

Twin TowersI also want to mention wide-angle distortion. This is what can lead to converging lines. If you don’t care that parallel lines bend in towards (or away from) each other, carry on. However, by tilting the camera up or down, you can have a dramatic affect on this.

See how the building and even the lamp posts are leaning in towards each other? If you tilt the camera up, verticals bend towards each other the further up you go. If you tilt the camera down, the vertical lines will bend towards each other the further down you go. By keeping the camera perfectly level, you will minimize this distortion. As you can see in the example, I tilted the camera up significantly. For a quick reference, here are a few tips for using / characteristics of an Ultra-wide lens.

  1. Get close – often 3ft or less.
  2. Get creative with wide-angle perspective/distortion.
  3. Find subjects that extend past (behind) you to immerse the viewer.
  4. Find an interesting foreground to give depth (foreground = close).
  5. Keep the camera level to minimize wide-angle distortion.
  6. Tilt the camera up or down to creatively use wide-angle distortion

In summary, you can use an ultra-wide lens to gather everything in a single frame, and that’s perfectly fine and something we all do on occasion. But, a more effective use is taking advantage of wide-angle perspective. This is accomplished by arranging a foreground object close to the camera which helps pull the viewer into the scene. Now that you have the basics down, go out and borrow, rent, purchase, or simply become better acquainted with your ultra-wide angle lens. They can be a lot of fun, and a most creative tool to have in your camera bag!


  1. Great article, Tim. The timing is perfect too. I am going on a European vacation this summer and am really considering using a wide angle lens.

    I rented one awhile back and I know that after you gave me the tip to get closer, my photos improved. I was doing a very newbie thing and was awed by the view I could see in my viewfinder. Your tips were very helpful and now I’ve got the bug to try more wide angle stuff.

  2. Thanks, Stacy!! Be careful! It’s addicting! I think the 10-22 is my favorite lens! 🙂

  3. Tim – great article.

    One word of warning to people using a WA lens for portraits – you may distort or enlarge features depending on actual focal length and distance to subject. Can look good on kids but not usually adults – it’s something to experiment with.

  4. Thanks, Tim! Good reminder / tip!

  5. Tim… great article. I just stopped by Peoria Camera yesterday and “tested” out the two new lenses I’m investing in. One is definitely the 12-24 (or 11-16, still deciding) and this article is good to have.

  6. […] Sheets, who blogged in this space last June about the love of wide-angle lenses, is doing a presentation on high-pass filter sharpening next Tuesday, January 26th at the […]

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