The moderate wideangle to short telephoto zoom lens is the bedrock of most modern photography. Supplied either as a kit lens with a DSLR or as one of the first lenses many people buy when getting into photography, these lenses are do-all workhorses. Reasonably wide at the wide end for landscapes or just to squeeze everything in, and slightly telephoto at the long end to get you a bit closer to the subject, they are the most popular choice of lens worldwide. They are plentiful, relatively inexpensive and can give amazingly sharp results. They’ve largely taken over from the fast 50mm f/1.8 prime as the lens most people own and use the majority of the time.
And, of course, lens designers know just what they are looking for when making lenses like this. They want maximum sharpness across the frame, with as little darkening in the corners as possible and no nasty colours or aberrations. After all, since the dawn of photography, image makers have been on a quest for bright, distortion-free lenses to give their images a certain bite and sharpness.
Master photographers even avoid using their lenses at the extremes of aperture – full open and full closed down – because the images can look slightly soft due to the effect of diffraction.
But for more creative results, it doesn’t have to be this way. Using more extreme lenses – from different focal lengths to tilt/shift optics and more – can bring a new look to your shots. Just because a lens is designed specifically for one thing doesn’t mean you can’t use it for another. Or even break the rules on how the lens is supposed to be used in term of subject mater or viewpoint. And in this way, you can often get results that are just that bit out of the norm.
Spurred on by the popularity of Instagram and lots of retro-themed photo manipulation packages, some enterprising manufacturers are raiding the archives for vintage lenses that they are remaking to fit modern cameras. This is helped by the new wave of mirrorless cameras that can accept many different types of lenses via adapters that can be then focused using the live view screen on the back of the camera. And with the instant playback of digital photography, it’s easy to see your results straight away which can always be a driver of creativity.
While many people start with a kit zoom, quite often the next lens that’s on the purchase list is something wider – either to get more into the frame or for landscape use. And once you are into the territory of ultrawide angle lenses – such as 18mm or shorter focal length on a full-frame camera – then there is a whole new world of creative opportunities. The best of these sort of lenses are designed to offer a “corrected” perspective, which means that straight lines at the edges are kept as straight as possible rather than bowing out like you are looking at things through a fishbowl.
The “rules” for using these ultrawide angle lenses are to try to keep them relatively straight, so that the horizon doesn’t bend too much. And always make sure you fill the foreground of the shot with something, or else the photo can look very empty. But most of all, don’t get too close to your subject as the lens will just really distort the perspective – especially for portraits. Those are the unwritten rules, but they are meant to be broken!
By using an ultrawide angle lens right up close to a subject’s face, it’s true that it isn’t the most flattering look as the nose can appear very big. But especially with a burst of flash to life the shadows, it can give a really unique perspective and a fun look for the right subject – such as our muddy motorbike man.
And by getting the subject so big in the frame, and using a wide aperture, the background of the shot is less dominant and sharp – really putting attention onto the face of the subject.
It’s this exaggeration of parts of the subject that are close to the lens while making things further away look much smaller that also works for the shot of the blue .
By having a 14mm lens low and very close to the rear wheel, the wheel itself looks huge – especially compared to the front wheel which is further away. The car might be distorted, but using the perspective allows the swooping blue lines of the car to contrast with the blue sky for a more graphic shot. And the ultra wide lens means the buildings in the background of the shot are rendered so tiny as to not take any attention away from the car. It’s about getting rid of clutter and making a simple, graphic shot.
And distorting a car is also why an ultra wide lens was used for this shot of a gull-wing Bristol.
The low angle and 14mm lens exaggerates the length of the front of the car, and really highlights the gull-wing door against the sky. Using an ultrawide lens might not make a car look like its designer intended it to look, but the perspective can really work in making shots that are a bit more dramatic.
While ultrawide lenses are often corrected to prevent straight lines at the edges of the frame from bending, some lenses are made so that they do exactly that. These are often called fisheye lenses, and they give a trademark look to any shot. They can offer as wide as a 180-degree view, depending on the focal length.
While many photographers try to use fisheye lenses by carefully framing their images to reduce the bending effect of any straight lines in the image, it can be a good idea to do the exact opposite! By getting in close to a subject, and making sure there are parts of the image that have straight lines in them at the edge of the frame rather than an expanse of sky, for example, then the effect and therefore impact of using a fisheye can really be seen. Like in the shot of our ice cream seller in her little booth.
And with a fisheye having such a wide angle of view, if the lens is tilted downwards then the horizon can bend – which is often not a great thing. But you can exploit it! For this shot of a motorbike race start, a camera with fisheye lens was used on a boom over the top of some of the riders nearest the camera, and aimed slightly downwards.
The horizon may not look natural now as it’s curved, but it adds to the unique perspective and impact of the shot. Rules are meant to be broken!
At the other end of the scale to the super-wide lenses are the long telephotos, usually in focal lengths of 300mm or more on a full-frame camera. To many, these lenses are simply used to get you closer to the subject when it physically wouldn’t be possible to get there. Such as when photographing wildlife or a speeding car coming around a corner for example.
And fast lenses – such as the bright f/2.8 primes in 300 and 400mm versions – are often used wide open to get a high enough shutter speed to freeze the action.
But one of the key creative controls of such long lenses is to use the flattening perspective, to make the subject and background look like they are much closer together. Because a telephoto lens magnifies the background, as well as the foreground, shots of crowds can look more impressive.
And the far-away viewpoint really can change the look of any shot.
But it’s this magnifying of the background, compared to the subject, that can make or break a shot. If the background is messy, it can really take the attention away from the subject. That’s why fast primes, used wide open for super-shallow depth of field, can be used to really put sharp focus on the subject and make the background disappear into some far softer, out of focus and less distracting.
It can be much trickier to get the subject in focus when using a lens wide open, but the results can be worth it.
It’s the ability to use a fast aperture lens wide open that often draws people to fast, prime short telephoto lenses like Canon’s 85mm f/1.2 or Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4. When used wide open at very close distances to a portrait sitter, then the depth of field can be so shallow that the eyes can be in focus but the end of the nose can be way out. That’s not usually a good thing, but why not give it a try!
The purists may not like it, but it can give a softer and more dreamy affect to your natural light portraits and really blur out the background.
Of course, that’s fine for natural light but in a studio, lenses like these are usually used in middle aperture settings to get maximum sharpness and also because the studio lights are too powerful to allow use of such fast apertures. Studio lights can only be turned down a certain extent, but by using neutral density filters on a fast portrait lens, it means wide f/1.4 or f/1.8 apertures can be used. This gives a unique look to the subject as their face can be sharp but their hair and even their shoulders can be soft and more diffuse. It’s a unique look you can only get with a fast lens used wide open.