FAQ: Wide-Angle Lenses


In this week’s edition of FAQ, the topic is a wide-angle lenses. When describing the focal lengths of lenses, there are three main groups: normal, wide-angle, and telephoto.

What is a wide-angle lens?

By way of comparison, normal lenses approximate the perspective and special relationships between elements within the viewing area the way our eyes do. In other words, normal lenses represent the world much like the way we see it.

Wide-angle lenses capture a wider view of the scene before the camera, but because they squeeze more of the scene into the same physical aspect ratio, i.e., 2:3, 4:3, etc., photographs made with wide-angle lenses have a deeper sense of depth, along with exaggerated special relationships between elements within the frame lines.

Telephoto lenses capture a narrower view than normal lenses. Subjects appear closer to the lens, while the perceived distance between elements within the frame lines is compressed.

What’s the difference between field of view and angle of view?

Angle of view (AoV) and field of view (FoV) are often used interchangeably but, technically, represent distinct values. Angle of view describes how wide of a vantage a specific lens provides. It is a constant measurement and does not change, based on with what camera you are using a lens. Field of view describes how much of your surroundings ends up within the frame of your image based on the angle of view of a lens and the sensor size of the camera being used. This is why a 50mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera is considered a normal lens, but when used on a camera with a smaller APS-C sensor, the angle of view is narrowed by a factor of 1.5x, which in essence turns the lens into a short telephoto lens. The angle of view of the lens hasn’t changed, but the field of view is now significantly narrower.

The angle of view of a normal lens is approximately 46.8° on the diagonal plane. This is the angle of view of a 50mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera, 35mm on an APS-C format camera, and 25mm on a Micro 4/3 camera. Wide-angle lenses have angles of view of at least 63.4° on the diagonal plane. On a full-frame 35mm camera, this translates to a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera, a 24mm lens on an APS-C format camera, or a 17mm lens on a Micro 4/3 camera. On a full frame 35mm camera, lenses with focal lengths 24mm (84° AoV) and wider are called ultra-wide-angle lenses.

How are wide-angle lenses used?

Though typically associated with landscape, architecture, and photographing in tight quarters, wide-angle lenses can be used for almost any photographic application, including studio and product photography. The optical qualities of wide-angle lenses can also be used creatively to produce photographs with visually dynamic qualities that are unique to wide-angle lenses.

Do wide-angle lenses distort your subject?

Yes and no. One of the characteristics of wide-angle lenses is that, because they capture wider fields of view within the same frame lines as a normal lens, objects closer to the lens appear larger than objects farther from the lens. This is the key reason you should avoid taking close-up portraits with wide-angle lenses. Conversely, this is why architects love wide-angle lenses for interior photographs—they make smaller rooms appear larger than life.

Wide-angle image of an electric guitar

Distortions common to wide-angle lenses include keystone distortion, barrel distortion, pincushion distortion, and the oddest of all, “mustache” distortion.

Keystone distortion, which is not limited to wide-angle lenses, is what makes buildings appear to be tipping backward when you photograph them with your camera aimed upward. The best way to eliminate keystone distortion is to back away from your subject until you can photograph it straight-on. If this is not possible, you can correct keystone distortions post-capture using photo-editing software. Alternatively, you can use a tilt-shift lens, which is specifically designed for eliminating keystone distortion when photographing buildings or other subjects affected similarly.

Barrel distortions cause straight lines to bow outward toward the edges of the frame.

Pincushion distortion causes straight lines to bend inward toward the center of the frame.

Mustache distortion, which is most commonly found in less expensive wide-angle lenses, causes straight lines to curve both inward and outward as they crisscross the horizontal and vertical planes of the photograph.

While barrel and pincushion distortions, which are also known as “radial distortions,” can usually be corrected post-capture in Photoshop, Lightroom, or other photo-editing applications, mustache distortions are more difficult to correct post-capture.

Can you shoot portraits with wide-angle lenses?

Though most people associate short telephoto lenses for portraiture, when used carefully and thoughtfully, wide-angle lenses can be used for portraiture with very good and often creative results.

The trick to taking successful wide-angle portraits—or as some people call them, environmental portraits—is to keep your subject a safe distance from the camera to avoid unflattering facial distortions. You should also avoid placing your subject top far off-center, which, depending on the lens and subject-to-camera distance, can also distort your subject.

Wide-angle portrait of a Border Collie

By abiding by these guidelines, it is possible to capture powerful portraits of people in their homes, workplaces, or other interesting environments with wide angle lenses.

Are there different types of wide-angle lenses?

There are two categories of wide-angle lenses: rectilinear and curvilinear lenses.

Rectilinear lenses display the least amount of optical distortion, which is a desirable attribute when photographing architecture and other subject matter in which distortion is not desirable.

Curvilinear lenses exhibit noticeable distortion. The most recognizable curvilinear lenses are fisheye lenses, which, with the exception of horizon lines on a leveled camera, cannot render straight lines.

Wide-angle portrait of another pooch

If your goal is to capture wide-angle photographs with little or minimal distortion, you should be using a rectilinear wide-angle lens, which is a category that includes most consumer wide-angle lenses.

What are the widest-angle lenses available?

The lenses with the widest angles of view are fisheye lenses, which are available in two categories—circular and full-frame. Circular fisheye lenses capture photographs with up to 180° fields of view. In the 1970s, Nikon produced a limited number of Nikkor 13mm f/5.6 circular fisheye lenses that captured 220° fields of view, which often included the hands, feet, and/or tripod of the person taking the picture.

Full-frame fisheye lenses fill the entire length and width of the image field, but their fields of view are narrower than 180° circular fisheye lenses. Exceptions to this rule include Nikon’s AF Fisheye Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D, which captures a full 180° FoV in a full-frame format.

Nikon AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm f/2.8D Lens

Depending on the lens, many circular fisheye lenses designed for use with full-frame cameras can fill the entire viewing area of the frame when mounted on APS-C and Micro 4/3 cameras.

What is the widest-angle lens that doesn’t distort?

The lens with the widest rectilinear angle of view is the Voigtländer 10mm f/5.6 Hyper Wide Heliar, which takes in a whopping 130° AoV. Voigtländer’s 10mm Hyper Wide Heliar is available for Sony E and Leica M-mount cameras.

Voigtlander Heliar-Hyper Wide 10mm f/5.6 Aspherical Lens

Not quite as wide, but crazy-wide nonetheless, is the Venus Optics Laowa 12mm F/2.8 Zero-D, which takes in a 121.96° AoV and is available for Sony E-mount cameras. A popular ultra-wide-angle lens among cinematographers is the Arri Ultra Prime 8mm Rectilinear 8R T2.8 M lens.

Venus Optics Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D Lens

Are panorama pictures the same as wide-angle pictures?

Here, too, the answer is both yes and no, depending on the camera and/or the technique used to capture the image. Panoramas are by definition wide-field photographs, which means the aspect ratio of the frame is wider than the 2:3, 4:3, and 1:1 formats common to most consumer cameras.

Wide-field cameras typically have aspect ratios in the neighborhood of 1:2 or 1:3. Included in this group are the Hasselblad X-Pan, the FUJIFILM 617, the Widelux, the Noblex, and the Horizon, all of which are out of production. Linhof still produces medium-format wide field cameras that capture photographs in 1:2 (612) and 1:3 (617) aspect ratios. All of these cameras are film cameras—to date, nobody has produced a wide field digital camera.

Linhof Technorama 612 PC II Medium Format Panorama Camera

Many digital cameras feature a Panorama Mode that enables you to create wide-field photographs by stitching together dozens of individual exposures captured while you pan your camera from left to right, or vice versa. Captured images are stitched together in-camera to produce a single wide-field photograph.

Panorama Mode On the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS

In the case of cameras with interchangeable lenses, you have the option of shooting with a normal, wide-angle, or telephoto lens, which enables you to capture wide-field panoramas with wide, normal, or telephoto perspectives.

Are there wide-angle zooms or are all wide-angle lenses fixed focal length primes?

Wide-angle lenses are available as fixed primes or zooms. Fixed focal length primes are available in focal lengths ranging from 5.8mm fisheyes through 35mm, with many choices in between.

Common wide-angle zoom ranges include 14-24mm, 16-35mm, and 17-40mm. One of the more popular wide-angle zoom ranges among wedding, editorial, and event photographers are 24-70mm zooms, which go from wide angle to slightly longer than normal. All of the abovementioned wide-angle lenses are widely available from OEM and third-party manufacturers.

Is there a photo topic you’d like us to feature on the B&H Photo FAQ column? If so, please let us know in the Comments field, below. We’d love to get your feedback.