How To: Make The Most of a Wide-Angle Lens

By: steve

May 10, 2011

People use lenses to make things bigger or smaller in the frame, right? So if you’re photographing something big like a landscape, you should use the widest zoom setting. This is the accepted logic, but it misses out on one of the most important aspects of photography: the selection of lenses for more creative effects.

Most people are comfortable using a telephoto lens to make something appear bigger in the picture. This tends to make pictures more dramatic, but wide-angle settings tend to be largely ignored or misused.

Lens choice is about more than just the crop. Each style of lens has its own unique characteristics. As wide-angle lenses tend to cram more of the scene in the frame and have a broader view than the human eye, they tend to distort the image. While some people dislike this effect, I love it and will often deliberately compose my pictures to exaggerate it.


Elephant in India, shot with a 14mm lens. by Steve Davey

Elephant in India, shot with a 14mm lens. This makes the elephants trunk and head seem much larger compared to the rest of the animal and the crowds behind.



Get in close

To exaggerate the distortion effect of a wide-angle lens, try to shoot closer to the subject. This gives a more dynamic effect. I often get much closer than I need to be to the thing I’m photographing  and zoom to a wider setting, just to magnify the effect.



Wideangle for portraits

Conventional logic says that you should use a mild telephoto lens for shooting portraits, as it gives a pleasing perspective on the face. In many cases this is true, but if you shoot a little closer, and use a slightly wide-angle lens, you can get a more engaging portrait. This effect is magnified if the subject of the portrait is leaning towards you slightly.



Pilgrim, West Bengal. by Steve Davey

Pilgrim, West Bengal. Shooting a portrait with a mildly wide lens and leaning in slightly, creates a dynamic and engaging effect.


A wide-angle lens is also perfect for shooting an environmental portrait. You can get in close to your subject in order to preserve the feeling of connection and empathy, while still showing enough of the scene to give a sense of context.


Buffalo seller, India. by Steve Davey

Buffalo seller, India. Shooting an environmental portrait with a wide lens allows you to combine an intimate, close-up portrait with a significant background.


Most people would advocate shooting candid portraits with a telephoto lens, but you can also shoot them with a wide lens. Point the camera slightly away from the subject, at an interesting or significant object and you can still have the subject of the portrait in the corner of the frame.


Accentuate distortion

You can also accentuate distortion by tilting the camera upwards or downwards. This will cause the subject to narrow at the top or bottom, creating a bolder effect.



Golden Temple complex, Amritsar. by Steve Davey

Golden Temple complex, Amritsar. If you shoot vertically and use a very wide lens, you can show the foreground and much of the sky in the same shot, creating a dynamic, distorted effect.


A wide-angle lens will always make a subject stand out from the background, as it makes the subject larger. This can be a great technique for making the subject stand out from crowds or from a landscape. Again this effect can be amplified by shooting up close.


Incense burner, Tokyo. by Steve Davey

Incense burner, Tokyo. This was shot with a fisheye lens: a super-wide lens with huge distortion. This gives a very dynamic and stylised effect.


All photos by Steve Davey. Header image: Detail of the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Shooting with a wide 17mm lens and getting in close has completely distorted the statues, making a right-angle seem exaggerated.

Steve runs travel photography tours to Asia and to Morocco. More details on

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