Buying Wide Angle Lenses

It was August 1982, and I was in Dubrovnik in what was once Yugoslavia, wondering the medieval back streets of a beautiful town. This was just my second trip outside of the UK, the first being to Tunisia a few months previous. It was these formative years of my traveling experiences that cemented my relationship with cameras, and the need to visually document my journeys. The Tunisian trip was an incredible starting point photographically, but my budget and equipment was very limited. Well used 50 and 135mm lenses were all I owned and, exploration of crowded souks and medinas quickly gave me a longing for a lens with a wider angle of view; something that allowed me to capture more of a scene when I could back up no more.

Not wishing to be in the same situation in Dubrovnik, I spent preceding months researching the world of wide angle lenses. A whole world opened before me as I was completely unaware how diverse this lens group could be. Believing there would be just wide and super wides I soon became overwhelmed with choices separated by few degrees in viewing angle, a simple fact that took me several years to fully appreciate. As the internet had yet to exist, research was more time consuming and consisted of pouring over photography magazines and books, along with occasional trips to dealers and camera clubs. My search culminated in the purchase of a 28mm* f2.8 lens. The reasons I chose this over many others were;

  • I was a novice, and my research suggested that 28mm was a good starting point, not requiring too much technical ability from me
  • The price point for 28’s was attractive, particularly for third party options
  • Having grown accustomed to the 47° viewing angle of my 50mm, the 75°viewing angle of a 28mm provided plenty of ‘wow’ factor
  • 28’s appeared tiny compared to some super wides on the market at the time.

So, there I was, back in 1982, grinning from ear to ear while peering through the viewfinder with my new lens attached, at the ability to cram so much into my pictures. Even today, some 35 years on, wides seem the most magical of all lens groups and, while I use them less, my appreciation for their ability has never waned; it still fascinates me that it is possible to stand in one place and push back the boundaries of a composition in such a dramatic way. I guess this is something any change of lens provides, but with wide angles it seems so much more pronounced.

Having used wide primes and zooms of varying speeds, from 17 to 35mm, what advice could I offer someone looking to purchase their first wide angle?

NOTE Focal length values refer to those provided by 35mm (36x24mm) sensor sizes, therefore camera systems using APS-C or Four Thirds sensors will differ, although f-stops remain the same.

  • Is my zoom good enough?

    If you already have a standard zoom, there is a chance this will zoom to 35 or 28mm. Check your output; have you taken many images at the wider end of the lens? If not, ask yourself why; it may be that the lens does not perform too well at such focal lengths causing you to avoid exploiting it, or your shooting style does not have a requirement for going beyond what the lens is capable of. If the reason falls into the former category, explore options further. If the latter, I would suggest saving your money until such a time comes whereby a) your requirements change or b) you find interest in lens groups other than wides – after all what use is a lens if it sits in a bag unused for most of its life?

  • Viewing Angle

    A greater viewing angle is not necessarily better. The wider a lens is, the larger the technical challenge is to master it. Think about this for a moment; you are outdoors, and a stunning vista presents itself. You attach your 18mm lens and look through the viewfinder. That vista has lost something, as many of its discerning features have been pushed so far back as to have no impact. That perfect landscape image is now more challenging as composition needs to be rethought. In this situation it is important to include foreground interest… something that leads the viewers eye into the scene and doesn’t leave them squinting around the image in search of a focal point. Look for large interesting features such as boulders, gates, fences, buildings etc. that will provide this. Alternatively, increase depth of field to include foreground texture such as sand, wildflowers or rock striation; all will lend an image extra impact. When none of these suggestions is possible, take a look at the sky; there could be a lot of drama going on up there begging to be included. Simply rethinking the image to include this can be rewarding, although it may not be what you originally intended.

  • Portraits

    Super wides can create whacky portraits that you will either love or loathe (probably the latter when you let your model view them!) Noses and chins become distorted, faces are stretched, grins are grotesque. This is not limited to close ups either; beware of large group pictures as the poor people located at the edges of the frame will be unflatteringly stretched.

  • Converging Verticals

    The wider a lens gets, the more challenging architectural shots become. Because of their massive angle of view, tall buildings such as cathedrals and skyscrapers become very distorted as typically, their higher points are further away. The exaggerating properties of wide angle lenses causes them to soar into the distance, a phenomenon known as converging verticals. It can add drama to an image but looks far from natural as external walls look like they are falling in on themselves and rectilinear object such as windows become rhomboid. Without the use of specialist PC (Perspective Control) lenses, this is difficult to overcome. The problem is less apparent with wides such as 35mm, having a narrower angle of view of 67°, which tends to be my choice when shooting architecture. Recalling a trip to New York many years ago, I only took a 24mm lens with me. Shooting pictures of the Empire State building when stood on the street meant the top section was lost. Returning here a couple of years ago, I reshot using a 35mm and the results, while not perfect, were far more pleasing.

  • Depth of Field

    Wide Angle lenses offer massive depth of field; even at their largest aperture DOF (depth of field) is significantly increased when compared to other lens groups. So why bother with super bright apertures? Back in the days of film, bright lenses were very useful for extended hand-held shooting opportunities when light levels dropped. Freeing the photographer a little longer from tripod deployment while using slow speed film, they served a useful purpose. Now that we have image stabilisation and superb high ISO performance in most cameras, extended hand-held shooting times are possible with slower, smaller variants which, for many users, is sufficient. High speed glass in any focal length is expensive so there is no need to invest in f2 or f1.4 apertures if not needed.

  • Aperture

    Speed is still important if you are a fan of shallow depth of field and close focussing techniques. I once owned a 21mm f2 that fulfilled a specific set of requirements; I often used it when foreground interest was the primary point of interest and setting it to f2 allowed isolation of the foreground. Because of the 92°angle of view, the background was huge but sufficiently out of focus as to not distract the viewer… particularly useful when creating environmental studies. For example, a poppy set against a backdrop of out of focus mountains and deep blue sky. Or weathered moorings with boats and ocean behind. Taking this a step further and adding a 7mm extension tube, things became far more exaggerated. Now I could focus even closer while retaining the same huge background. But where it became even more interesting was not at its fastest, but slowest (f16) speed. The depth of field was transformed so as to allow foreground (assuming I was not too close) and background to remain in focus – a real bugs eye view of the world.

    Traditionalists of low light photography will always prefer faster lenses though, irrespective of focal length. Some are optimised for wide open use therefore provide superb results, with little vignetting and softness at the edges. And there is no denying their allure; results aside, they are aesthetically pleasing, and jewel like in their construction. Aesthetic attributes are not enough of a reason to go out and spend a stack of money on the latest 24mm f1.4 offering but do add to pride of ownership if you find yourself treading this particular road.

  • Zoom vs Prime

    There was a time when the optical quality of zoom lenses considerably lagged behind those of primes, and more so with wide angle zooms. Those that were technically good were also large and heavy, detracting considerably from the allure of more portable primes. The wide angle zooms I once used were blighted with open aperture softness, heavy vignetting, coma and lens flare.

    Technology has come a long way, and after decades of prime use, I ventured back into the realm of wide zooms. That was 15 years ago, and I couldn’t believe how the technology had evolved. Little in the way of previous problems was present and I found that I was using the new zoom almost exclusively for all wide-angle shots.

    Last year I replaced it with a similar 17-35mm focal length as I had changed systems and continue to be wowed by what is possible. This has challenged my opinions that primes are generally superior as my current wide zoom seems every bit as good (but a little slower) than any of my wide primes. A zoom will always be larger, but if like me you carried three or four primes, this advantage becomes negligible. To sum up, if speed and ultimate portability is needed, consider a prime. If convenience and flexibility are at the top of your list, look at a high-quality zoom.

While my own shooting style has changed through the decades, one thing hasn’t – that is the grin that sometimes accompanies a scene viewed through my 17-35mm lens. Above other lens groups, wides have proved to be the most fun to explore and, at the same time, nurturing my photographic development.