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.

33 thoughts on “What you probably don’t know about wide-angle lenses”

  1. Pingback: Wide-angle lenses for portrait photography | Improve Photography

  2. 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 😉

    1. Please describe circles of confusion to your readers and how this term pertains to depth of field.

      Thank you

  3. 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

  4. 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 ?

  5. Pingback: Where to Focus for Landscape Photography

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  7. 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?

    1. Slashingshark27

      Hello Armando,

      I dont want to say better as the question would he how wide do you want your lens to be? Anything around 20mm is pretty wide in my opinion.

      So as you have a crop sensor camera your lens effectively gives a focal length of (16mm – 32mm) as canon has a crop factor of 1.6. This is pretty wide even if you are a pro photographer.

      On a full frame camera you would have focal length of 10-16mm which is amazingly wide. However, is it worth to move to a full frame camera just for this? Your camera must have cost around 400 buck. A full frame wont cost anything below 1500 buck body only.

      Hope I have delivered the point.

  8. 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

  9. 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!

    1. In basic terms, after reading the third paragraph, quite confusing!. I think he meant a crop frame? Depending what camera you have, Nikon is 10mm x 1.5 = 15mm . If this was a 10mm on a full frame camera it would still be 10mm.

      On most other cameras the difference is 10mm X 1.6 = 16mm.

  10. I take mostly ocean and landscapes photos, and I currently use a Canon SX250. I don’t want to carry a heavy camera with a bunch of lenses like I did years ago when I used film, but I want to upgrade to something that I can take more interesting photos with. At the moment I’m looking at buying a Canon EOS Rebel T5i. This seems like it would be a decent upgrade for now. If I do purchase this camera I’m not sure if I should buy it with the 18-55mm lens kit or buy just the body and buy a Canon 10-18mm lens. I am also looking at the 10-22mm lens but the 10-18mm seems to have better reviews and because the 10-22mm is more money, I’m trying to figure out why this lens, (the 10-22mm) would be a better choice because I don’t really understand how much of a difference it would make.

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  12. I have Nikon 18-200mm lens and recently bought nikon 20mm f 1.8 (1000 AUD) wide angle lens as well.

    I cannot still feel the real differnece in this lens.
    Can someone explain me some situations to best use my new lens? In addition to the astrology photography I am working on.

  13. I have a T4i and am thinking of getting the Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM Lens for about $250.. any thoughts?

  14. Great article, but for those who dont have the money and only have a kit lens and a medium telephoto are, according to what you say, unable to shoot a landscape?

  15. The biggest drawback to Landscape Photography is that using a wide angle lens tends to push framed objects into the distance so that a distant object will appear smaller.
    There is also some distortion of the view by an effect called Keystone Effect ( tall framed objects at edges of the frame, appear to lean inwards to the centre of frame and appear taller).

    Using a Landscape Camera or tilt and shift lenses will lessen these effects, but the most cost effective way is to use in camera panoramic facilities (or stitch photos together manually in a photo editor). A automatic panoramic feature is handy because different light levels on a sweep will automatically be catered for. Images taken on a manual shot by shot sweep will invariably have altered levels of light and contrast that need blending when stitching.

    Using Wide angle shots on Portrait Styles will produce the well known unflattering “Gopher Face” or body parts that are exceedingly disproportioned like long nose, long arms or long legs.

    18mm on an APS-C camera is about 28mm on a 35mm sensor – are generally not too bad on distortion, but anything below this is when the Keystone Effect creeps in. Good Glass will minimise these distortion (as will software), so a prime lens will usually beat a zoom.

  16. I am looking for a wide angle lens that is relatively inexpensive. I am unfamiliar on how to chose though. I like taking landscapes in Yosemite and pictures of the Milky way. How do I chose?

  17. I have a Sigma 10-20 and a Nikon kit lens 18-55. When I take the same photo at 18mm on both lens the result is different. The sigma has about 30% more area in the image. I can see this clearly in Lightroom. Why?

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