A wide angle lens is an important tool in the photographer’s handbag. It allows the photographer to actually increase the width of the shot because of its short focal length. In this category we can find a large array of lenses, typically 35mm or less. A substantially bigger image circle can be produced with lenses of this type, and as a result, shift and tilt adjustments can be used more liberally. Normally, in still photography, a lens is said to be normal if its focal length is almost the same size as the digital photo sensor. A wide angle lens, on the other hand, is said to be normal if the focal length is nearly twice the size of the image frame.
Longer lenses emphasize only the objects that are focused and they blur away whatever is present in the background. A lens of wide angle, however, captures the complete picture without any blur effect and even allows a greater depth of the field. This characteristic makes short lenses ubiquitous for shots in which the foreground is the object of attention, but faraway backgrounds still take up much of the space being captured.
Wide angle lenses have a noticeable effect on image composition. Close objects will appear bigger, faraway objects will appear smaller, and disproportionately so in both cases. Because longer lenses tend to magnify objects, the perceived distance to them is compressed and thus they look closer. Wide angle lenses have a sort of opposite effect, magnifying the distance between objects and as a result distorting their size. This effect can be exploited if, for example, you want to make large objects in the back of a shot look insignificant. Perspective distortion on these types of lenses will cause straight lines to converge on their vanishing point (where one points their camera) much more quickly than if photographed with a regular lens; looking up at a building through this lens will make the top of it appear much smaller compared to the first floor, effectively making it tower over the viewer. These effects only become more pronounced as these lenses go as far down as 14mm, and as a result, careful placement of the center of one’s shot should be practiced. A general rule of thumb is to point the camera toward the horizon to minimize this distortion.
On the words of compromise, lens flare is a formidable opponent in using these lenses at all, and the very nature of them will make it counterproductive to use a lens hood, as it will often do a better job of reducing the viewing angle of the shot! One important consideration when buying a wide angle lens is the difference between variable and single focal length. While a variable length gives you far more versatility, almost always, a single focal length lens will yield crisper images at any focal length.
Bill Green is an engineering student and freelancer for Photo.net where you can read reviews of wide angle lenses and hundreds of camera and lens reviews.