Wide angle lenses are perfect for capturing scenery, creating images with dramatic vistas, taking photos of large groups, and shooting in tight spaces. For many photographers, a wide angle lens is a vital part of their kit. It allows you to bring in far more of the environment than other lenses. Adding a wide angle lens to your arsenal can introduce some challenges and require solving some unique problems. You need to be aware of the distortion they can introduce and know how to overcome or harness that distortion. It can be harder to keep your subject from getting lost in the scene. But once you learn how to approach using a wide angle lens it may just become indispensable.
Why Use a Wide Angle Lens
Wide angle lenses are lenses with a focal length of 35mm or less when shooting on a full frame sensor, which gives an angle of view of roughly 64 degrees or more. Because of this wide angle of view, there are several genres of photography that commonly use wide angle lenses.
Perhaps the most common example is landscape photography where a wide angle lens helps you to capture expansive views. Architectural photographers also work primarily with wide angle lenses in order to photograph in relatively confined spaces.
Wide angle lenses are also finding increased popularity among vloggers because they are wide enough and small enough that a shooter can hold the camera while still getting themselves and their surroundings in the frame.
These are perhaps the most common uses for wide angle lenses but that certainly does not make them the only possible uses. Shooting at wider angles can give a larger depth of field and introduce distortion that some photographers choose to use creatively. So even if a wide angle lens isn’t your immediate thought, there could be ways for you to integrate one into your shoots.
Choosing the Right Wide Angle Lens
As with anything, there are a few considerations to make when choosing a wide angle lens.
How Wide Do You Want to Go
While wide angle can be lumped into any lens 35mm or shorter, this range is often further divided into a second category of ultra-wide lenses, considered anything wider than 24mm. The difference in a wide and an ultra-wide lens can be significant.
Think about how wide you want to go. You can get in more of a scene with an ultra-wide, but this can also lead to your subject getting lost in the environment. Think carefully about how you want your composition to be and how much you want to exaggerate the angle of view.
All wide angle lenses introduce some amount of distortion and there are a couple of different types of distortion to consider.
The first is perspective distortion. The closer something gets to your lens, the larger it’s going to look in relation to other parts of the image. With wide angle lenses you often place your subject far closer than with other lenses, which is a great way to emphasize your subject. However, you also start running the risk that some things become too exaggerated. This is often seen in photographing people with wide angle lenses when you try to fill the frame with a head/shoulder shot – they end up looking like they have giant noses.
The wider the lens, the more this perspective distortion is going to show up. Of course, you can absolutely use perspective distortion as a creative element, but it can also ruin images if you don’t pay attention to it.
The other type of distortion that often appears is barrel distortion. Think about taking a picture looking up at a building and having the walls look like they collapse in on themselves as they go up.
All wide angle, and especially ultra-wide, lenses have some degree of barrel distortion. Rectilinear lenses attempt to correct this, while fisheye lenses exaggerate it even farther, but many lenses don’t fall exactly on one end or the other, so think about how much distortion a specific lens will give you.
Speaking of fisheye lenses, they are often classified differently from other ultra-wide lenses. Fisheye lenses greatly exaggerate the barrel distortion of the lens, giving the appearance that the edges of the frame are actively bending into the image. Many people have strong opinions on fisheye pictures, either loving the effect or absolutely hating it. There are definitely creative ways to use fisheyes, but they are lenses that have to be used with a lot of intention.
The angle of view of a lens depends as much on the size of a camera’s sensor as it does the lens’s focal length. For Canon cameras, their APS-C sensors have a 1.6x crop factor, meaning that a 35mm wide angle lens used on an APS-C camera will look like a 56mm normal lens used on a full frame camera. Learn more about this in What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens.
For Canon APS-C cameras, you need a lens 22mm or wider to be considered wide angle, or 15mm or wider if you want to go ultra-wide.
There are a couple of problems that can arise when using filters on wide angle lenses.
The first problem is simply that the angle of view, especially when using an ultra-wide lens, might be wide enough that the edges of the filter become visible in the frame. Most of the time this is easy enough to avoid by making sure that you have filters that are large enough to cover the entire field of view, but you might have to skip using filters on some extreme lenses.
The other problem that can arise is that wide angle lenses generally don’t play well with polarizing filters. The effect of a polarizing filter is largely determined by the angle between a light source and the lens. With a wide enough lens, though, this angle can be different across the frame. A common example is shooting a landscape with a wide angle lens and a polarizer. Parts of the sky will be more polarized than others, creating variations across the sky instead of being smooth and consistent.
It’s important to note that a lot of wide angle lenses have large front elements that can’t accommodate filters unless they are the square sheet-glass style that go into matte boxes. Also, some wides and ultra-wides have slots on the rear element for filters.
The Best Wide Angle Lenses for Canon DSLRs
There are a lot of great wide angle options for Canon cameras, but there are a few lenses that stand out from the others.
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L lenses have been at or near the top of the wide zoom lens category for a long time, and this third version improves on the features of its predecessors. It continues to offer a fairly wide range of focal lengths and a wide f/2.8 aperture, making it a versatile option for many situations. It also improves corner sharpness and distortion as well as reduced chromatic aberration, flare, and ghosting thanks to a revamped optical design.
You also get incredibly fast and accurate AF and impressive weather sealing, letting you use it in almost any condition.
Sigma 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art
Sigma has been delivering fantastic performance with their Art line of lenses and at lower prices than Canon’s L equivalents. The Sigma 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art is another compelling offering if you’re looking for an ultra-wide lens. The image quality is top notch and the AF is fast and quiet, making it good for both photography and video. Build quality is also fantastic, giving you a professional option while saving a little on the cost. The ultra-wide range makes it a great option for group portraits, interiors, events, and more.
Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 ZE
The Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZE lens is a beautiful, precision made lens that has been described as the world’s most beautiful lens. However, this does come with the caveat that it is completely manual focus only. But if you prefer to shoot without autofocus, you not only get impeccable optical performance, you can create dramatic shots with the ability to focus less than 9” from the lens.
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt Shift
Tilt-shift lenses are one of the most niche lenses that are commonly available. With the ability to tilt and shift the lens elements you can manipulate the perspective and plane of focus in ways that are impossible for other lenses. Tilt-shift lenses are especially important for architectural photographers because they allow you to eliminate the distortion of shooting up at a building. They can also be used as a specialty lens for creating unique effects such as the “miniature” look. Learn more about how to use a tilt-shift lens here.
Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM
If you need as wide of an angle of view as possible while also having the flexibility of zoom, it’s hard to beat the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L. It offers an incredibly wide 11mm focal length while still retaining a low distortion rectilinear design. It has superb optics and a water and dust resistant build. While the f/4 maximum aperture doesn’t look terribly impressive, the reality is that for the types of photography you’re most likely to use this lens for, you won’t want a faster aperture anyway.
Wide angle lenses are integral to certain styles of photography, but also offer unique opportunities for many photographers of different styles. They certainly introduce new challenges and considerations for the photographer to overcome, but if you want to capture a lot of information into one frame and showcase otherwise ordinary scenes with stunning new perspectives, they are irreplaceable.