Musings On The Craft III - Composing With A Wide Angle Lens

July 04, 2014  •  1 Comment

I frequently see photographers posting on social media using the latest and greatest camera gear when it is obvious from their photos that they need help with their craft and vision in order to learn how to properly take advanage of this equipment. Top dollar professional grade cameras and lenses do not a photographer make. On the other end of the spectrum, I see photographers using consumer grade gear and taking stunningly marvelous photographs. What this obviously tells me is that it is not the equipment but the photographer's vision that makes the image.

What makes a good or great photographer is learning to see. Knowing which elements to leave in and which to leave out are the end all of a good photograph. There are several ways an aspiring photographer can learn this art of composition. With the next few posts I am going to share a bit of my wisdom that I hope will help some of you get a better grasp on composing your images.

First, take a look at photographs of photographers that you admire. In particular, pay attention to the elements they include in an image. If possible look at the exif data they might include such as which lens and what focal length they have chosen, as well as the exposure information. If you have a lens with similar characteristics then you can apply this info to aid in your own work. With the following example I will share how I assessed which elements to include in a particular composition.

Composing With A Wide Angle Lens

"3 Stones"

The 3 stones in the foreground are what attracted me to this scene from the start. I wanted them to be the central theme of the image but I also wanted the wall and the trees in the background. As I looked at the entire scene, I realized I also wanted the sticks and other bits of detritus in the foreground to give the image a sense of scale. The world famous landscape/wildlife photographer Art Wolfe once said to fill the corners in a composition. What he meant was don't leave a vacant space in your corners because this 'emptiness' will detract from the harmony of the final envisioned scene. This is particularly true for close up wide angle compositions.

Choosing a wide angle zoom lens was the obvious choice if I wanted to incorporate all of the elements I envisioned, so in this case I chose my 12-24/4 DX format wide zoom lens which is equivalent to an 18-36 in FX format. For this composition, I placed the 3 stones just above the bottom of the frame using a 12 mm focal length. Due to the distortion characteristics of wide angle lenses, my camera was positioned just above and behind the bottom end of the sticks and approximately 18 inches off of the ground. I could have backed up some and used a longer focal length but would have lost the tops of the trees in the scene. The positioning and focal length I chose allowed me to keep the stones in the bottom third of the frame and allowed me to tilt the lens up enough to incorporate the trees in the background. I now had the composition I wanted but how to keep everything in focus from front to back. I set my f-stop at f/18 to alleviate a bit of the inherent diffraction and yet maximize depth of field.

Using hyper-focal distance allowed me to calculate the best point of focus on the lens. Using the distance from the stones at 1.5 feet and the approximate distance to the trees at roughly 40 feet, I set my lens' focus at approximately 5 feet using the distance scale on my lens barrel. With the practice of using hyper-focal distance, this is the half-way point between the front and back elements and ensures that most elements in the scene will be sharp front to back. So now my foreground is in sharp focus and the trees in the background are as well. However, if you look closely at the trees farthest away, you will see that they are not quite in focus. This is the trade off that one deals with when wanting everything to be in focus. If I had tweaked my focus a tiny bit I might have been able to get everything completely focused but my primary concern was to have the stones and other foreground details in focus. I was willing to sacrifice a bit of sharpness in the very background to retain sharpness in the foreground.

You can try these techniques on your own. Set your camera on your tripod and focus on an object in the close foreground. Vary the focus a bit either way making notes about which image is which. Examining them in your software will show you which image best represents what you are trying to achieve and your notes will help you to make future decisions. After some practice, you will learn what works best with your particular lens in real life situations.

I hope this short tutorial helps some of you out there when using wide angle lenses.


Betty A(non-registered)
Thank you, Thomas, for this wonderful tutorial represented by your magnificent photo full of rich colors and design. I love the three stones pointing to the trees leaning out of the frame and back to the beautiful layers in the canyon wall dotted with luminous greenery. I'm truly grateful that you have shared of your knowledge and vision in detail. I'm going to use this information to help me become a better photographer.
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