What you probably don’t know about wide-angle lenses

Decay - by Jim Harmer

I have had the conversation dozens of time.  I’m teaching a workshop when I recommend that one of the students buy a wide-angle lens for landscape photography.  The response is classic: “Why do I need a wide angle lens when my kit lens is already an 18mm?  Isn’t that wide-angle?”  The answer isn’t just image quality, there’s a lot more…

When you take a photo with a wide-angle lens, it makes the viewer feel like he or she is actually standing there.  This is difficult to explain in words, but it draws the viewer into the scene.  Go on flickr and look at a few photos taken with long telephoto lenses.  You may not have noticed it before, but if you pay attention to the photo, you can feel that the camera is not actually 5 feet from the subject, but it is far away and zoomed in.  Try it out and you’ll see what I mean.  This is one of the most important reasons why I recommend wide-angle lenses rather than just having the photographer scoot back a few feet.  While the photo on this page isn’t a masterpiece, it exemplifies this principle.  Look at the very bottom edge.  You can tell that you’re standing right there and not zoomed way in.  Can you feel it?

If you’re a technically-minded person and want to know WHY it makes the viewer feel like the viewer is present when looking at a wide-angle shot, then consider the fact that wide-angle lenses make close objects look extremely large and distant objects look quite small.  For a more detailed explanation of this principle, check out this great article from lensrentals.com, which I think explains it well.

Next, there is  a huge difference between 18mm and 10mm.  You may think that, because only a sliver of the photo is cut off when you zoom from 200 – 208mm, the same must be true for wide-angle lenses.  You’d be wrong again.  Millimeter lens distances work in reverse exponentials, so there is a huge difference between a 10mm and an 18mm lens, but not as big of a difference between a 100mm and a 108mm lens.

Third, wide-angle lenses give a greater depth-of-field than telephoto lenses.  In addition to using high aperture values, a wide-angle will ensure that the whole landscape is in sharp focus.

These are three of the most important reasons why a wide-angle lens is well worth the cost for landscape photographers.  If you are interested in buying a wide-angle lens for your landscape photography, then you need to know that, unlike most lenses, you need to buy one specific to your camera type.  On a full-frame camera, a 20mm lens is considered wide-angle because there is no crop factor on the camera; however, on a consumer-level DSLR (this includes ALL DSLRs which cost less than $1,600 body only), there is a built-in crop factor, so a 20mm lens on a crop factor camera won’t be a wide-angle.

Recommended wide-angle landscape lens for a Canon crop DSLR (such as all the canon rebels): Canon 10-22mm lens for around $800.

Recommended wide-angle landscape lens for a Nikon crop DSLR (any Nikon under $1,600 body only): Nikon 10-24mm for around $850.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    I use the Sigma 10-20mm f4.5-5.6 on my Sony DSLR and have to agree with you completely. The 3rd party UWA lenses are also very good. The 2 Sigma 10-20mm lenses and the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 are particularly good.

    One thing though – these lenses tend to cause bruised shins ;-)

  2. says

    Hi, I want to buy a good digicam and lens for wide range of uses. I want to carry minimum stuff around. What do you think of a 10-24mm lens for wide and 18-200mm for wide and tele photo? Thanks a heap. John

  3. says

    I am the DEFINITION of an amateur, so please forgive me if this is a silly question. But (as an amateur) I don’t exactly have a good cash flow going. So, my question is, as I’m just starting out and can’t afford a true wide-angle lens, how bad is it to try and get the same effect from a lens attachment like this one – http://www.amazon.com/550D-THIS-DIRECTLY-FOLLOWING-75-300mm-55-200mm/dp/B003USYPX2/ref=wl_it_dp_o_npd?ie=UTF8&coliid=I1E9PAP0MQV7EI&colid=16KHQ8MEHRO2X ?

  4. Armando says

    Can you clarify this for me:
    “On a full-frame camera, a 20mm lens is considered wide-angle because there is no crop factor on the camera; however, on a consumer-level DSLR (this includes ALL DSLRs which cost less than $1,600 body only), there is a built-in crop factor, so a 20mm lens on a crop factor camera won’t be a wide-angle.”
    I have a Canon Rebel T3i and a 10-20mm f4-5.6 ultra wide angle lens. So, are you saying that if I got a better camera that my lens would work better as a wide angle lens?
    Thanks.

  5. says

    Its not going to work very well. I tried experimenting with one of these just yesterday, and the quality just isnt there. When you get towards the outer edges of the picture, you are going to start seeing quite a bit of blur

  6. Etb6d says

    Your T3i and 10-20mm lens will work just fine for ultra-wide shots. What the author was pointing out was the crop-factor multiplier when not using a full frame camera.

    Basically, a T3i, 60D, 7D and anything lower priced does not have a full frame sensor. Your T3i and other APS-C sized sensors are smaller than full frame. The difference is 1.6 (1.5 on Nikon system).

    Why this matters? Because your 10mm focal length on your camera is equivalent to a 16mm focal length on a full frame (10mm x 1.6 = 16mm). Note that 16mm is considered ultra-wide on full frame, so your 10mm on APS-C is also ultra-wide.

    The focal length listed on all lenses is relative to a full frame camera. Most kit lenses are something like 18-55mm. On APS-C, your equivalent focal length is 29-88mm (definitely not ultra-wide).

    Does it matter? No, but just be aware of the crop factor when deciding what lenses to buy. Someone looking for ultra-wide should avoid anything over 15mm on APS-C and spring for something around 10mm.

    Of course this means you enjoy more telephoto reach on the long end!

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