Making it big
Let’s take for example a simple situation, where we have two kids, which should be of similar size. The girl is playing closer to the camera while the boy is watching several feet farther. We make a shot with a wide angle lens. What effect the lens would bring here? First of all compare the size of the girl and the boy. The boy probably would be two-three times smaller than the girl, while in reality their somewhat of the same height. OK, the perspective added its effect and make the boy seem smaller. But in the reality the boy is not that far away. On the photograph I it could seem as 15-20 feet (5-7 meters) between the boy and the girl, actually only a few feet separated them at that moment. So here you see the first effect of the wide angle lens – stretching perspective.
And I should say that there is additional benefit for a photographer in this. Because the girl appear to be bigger than the boy she becomes the main subject without any doubts or additional thinking, we just assume it by judging the relative sizes of subjects/objects in the frame. It means that with wide angle lens its much easier to focus viewer’s attention on the primary subject – the size matters. If we consider the relative sizes and how it reduces the significance of the objects/subjects that farther away from the camera, we can say that the other elements of the photograph (not the primary one) easily become the background for our primary subject. And this trail of thought leads me to a conclusion that by using wide angle lens we can separate the subject from the rest of stuff in the image by making all other elements to become the background. It looks like we push all other elements farther away from the camera and pull the subject much closer to the camera.
Though there is one side thought, it may not always be possible to get close to the subject and enforce that distance between elements in the photograph. It only works when you are very close to the subject, otherwise the use of wide angle lens will have the opposite effect – it will blend your subject in with the rest of the elements of the photograph. And sometimes it may even worsen things, such that some insignificant object on front plane becomes almost huge and draws a lot of unwanted attention. That’s why there are limits to this techniqe, as always.
Seeing a lot
So, by pushing the subject farther from the camera we blend it with background. But what if we need to include a lot of the scene? What if there is no single subject? Let’s say there is a vista or a big room full of people (some kind of event) and we want to get everything into the frame. Well, again the wide angle lens could be your choice, because the name of that range says it all. Wide angle means that you can fit a lot of stuff into the image.
Though when you put a lot of stuff into the image everything becomes small and less significant. And then the emphasis shifts to the overall “wow effect”. When the quantity of elements and their relation to each other play more importance, than qualities of a single element, this mix of many elements becomes the primary subject.
Wide angle lens help when there is a limited space and you need to jam a big subject into the picture. One of the examples is the interior design photography. Let’s say we have an assignment to take photographs of a kitchen, which I had some time ago. In my case I had plenty of room to move around, the kitchen was for a show, not for real purposes. But there are times when the space is a great issue, then the only choice is to use a wide angle lens, if you are not focusing on the details and need the overall view of the room.
Dynamics and distortion
Sometime ago I’ve taken a shot of a man sitting on a car. It was taken with “a hidden camera”, I just pointed the camera at the man from the waist level at pressed the shutter. The lens, of course, was the wide angle one – at its widest angle. The legs of the man were closest to the camera, and the head is most distant. How was it represented in the photographs? My first answer would be the disproportion of the man, his legs seem much bigger in relation to his whole body than a person usually would have. That is one of the the distortion effects which I wanted to point out. It relates to the “Making it big” issue covered earlier in this article. The body parts of the man, which are closer to the camera (in our case those are the legs) appear to be bigger than his other limbs, which are farther away. Such a distortion sometime may add a funny look to a portrait or highlight specific features of the subject. You probably have seen many images taken with a fish eye lens – the lens that cover 180 degrees and with most distortions. The first example that comes to my mind is a picture of a dog, which is sniffing the camera. The nose of the dog has the size of the dog’s head, which makes it so funny.
The other effect of distortion is that straight lines that cross the frame may appear not that straight. The farther from the image center the line crosses the frame the more it will be bent by the optics. Sometimes with fish eye lens it seems like a couple of lines create a circle around the lens. That’s how strongly a distortion can affect the scene in the photograph.
But we have not talked about the dynamics. Where are the dynamics in the photograph created with a wide angle lens? In my mind the dynamics in all aspects described above: the stretch of perspective, the differences of the subjects, which are on different distances from the camera, the unreal proportions of known shapes and forms and the distortion of the straight lines (or any other usual and known graphic elements).
Among those technical aspects of the wide angle lens, there is one, which adds its own appeal to me. Considering that you are using the lens to take photographs of a person, you are bound to come closer to the subject. Coming closer, huh? It means that most probably the person would notice you and your camera, which will almost touch him or her. And if your are noticed by the subject, then the attention will be turned at you and all the activities or interests that kept that person busy and made him/her interesting for you will be forgotten for a little while. And the scene, which you were hunting for, is gone. It seems like you are losing the advantage of a candid shot and are left with a posed one.
Not at all, if you stick just for a few more minutes and spend some time around the subject, the person would be bored with you and shift his attention to some other, more interesting activities or objects. That’s the moment we have been waiting for – we are close and unnoticed. And the time which we spent waiting for that we made an invisible connection with the subject. We learned about some personal side and probably made some impressions and conclusions. All those small things count, they will appear in the photograph, it will create that personal touch and add the mood to the photograph, which is based on the photographer’s understanding and impression of the subject. I consider this side-effect of the wide angle lens one of the important aspects. And even if the subject is a simple rock laying in the grass, we will have to pay more attention to the rock and by doing so we cannot escape a deeper impression. This personal connection makes as think more about what subject we select to include into the frame and what we know about it, what we want to express, which is the core of photography.