A Wide Wonderland

Shot from atop a Ferris wheel, this unusual vantage point makes for a stunning wide angle shot. Photograph/Anirban Brahma

Shot from atop a Ferris wheel, this unusual vantage point makes for a stunning wide angle shot. Photograph/Anirban Brahma

Ambarin Afsar helps you understand how wide angle photographs can distort, expand or even change our perspective of the world around us.

This story was originally published in May 2011.

Imagine a beach wonderfully lit by a sunset, with large, majestic clouds casting impressive reflections on rivulets of wet sand. Alternatively, imagine rows of sharp, graphic shadows cast in a corridor of stone arches. In such situations, you feel compelled to capture the entire scene.

Regardless of whether you are shooting with an ultrawide lens, the wide end of your kit lens or even a compact camera, you may find that the final image lacks that ‘Wow!’ factor and seems like an ordinary capture. So, how do you get a perfect wide angle photograph that knocks the wind out of the viewer? Also, is a wide focal length only for gorgeous landscapes or can you use it for other kinds of photography as well? Here are a few simple things that you need to bear in mind.

Get as Close as You Can
Move as close as you can to your subject while shooting at a wide focal length to lend the frame a sense of intimacy. You do not need to take a wide view of the scene and include all the elements in one frame. An image that includes a parking lot, a petrol pump as well as rows of cars might end up lacking a single point of interest or defining element. As a result, the viewer’s eye wanders all over the frame disinterestedly and fails to understand the message being conveyed by the photograph.

Instead, you can simply find a strong defining element in the foreground and move in as close as you can. In a park crowded with people and picnickers, you can get close to a fountain or even a statue. Once you have done this, frame the surroundings with context to this foreground elements. You will see your image transforming within a few steps.

Do Away with the Clutter
A messy room crammed with clothes, books, shoes and other things looks untidy and unkempt. Similarly, a frame with a lot of clutter may look unappealing and littered. Wide shots are more prone to clutter because while capturing the entire scene, you do not pay attention to the corners of the frame. In a capture of a busy market place, you might accidentally include pillars, garbage, peels, corners of baskets, drains and so on. To avoid this, simply look through the viewfinder and study the corners of your frame closely before you release the shutter.

Go Vertical!
How many of you think that horizontal photos can get a little boring and conventional? Do you know that wide focal lengths can give you great vertical shots that have a feet-to-sky perspective? This way, you can capture everything in the frame leading from the paved road of a bridge to the deep blue sky above. You can also capture rippling water, a gleaming bridge on top of the water and the fluffy clouds above the bridge, all in one go!

Create a Sense of Space
You might remember how it feels to be crammed into a crowded public transport vehicle such as a bus or a train with a hundred other people. Did you know that you could simply use a wide focal length to transform this crammed space into a vast area?

In a tiny room, a focal length that is not too wide will show probably just one section or one wall of a room. But, a wide focal length can effectively capture two or even three walls of a room. An ultrawide focal length can push the walls back and make the room seem deeper, bigger than it actually is—small bathrooms, narrow lanes or even tunnels can look spacious and cavernous. Also, this quality can be extremely useful when shooting in cramped situations such as capturing a family of fifteen people in a tiny room.

Obtain Great Depth-of-Field
Imagine a marvellous image of a corridor framed by repeating arches and pillars. You would want every single detail in this wide angle vista to be in focus! Well, wide focal lengths offer greater depth-of-field than normal or telephoto focal lengths. So, each time you see a scene in which you want sharpness throughout—sunlight pouring through a fence filling the frame, a car at the end of a winding framed by tall grasses or even a shadow cast by the crooked branches of a tree on the grass-covered, sun-lit ground—all you need to do is select an aperture of f/8 or greater.

Alternatively, DSLR users can make use of hyperfocal distance by selecting f/16 or greater and focussing on the ground between their feet. After achieving focus, simply switch to Manual Focus and you will get great depth-of-field in your images.

Emphasise the Foreground
You may have often noticed that vendors selling various trinkets often push articles in front of you so that you cannot miss them. A wide focal length does something similar—it ensures that viewers do not miss the main subject of the image by exaggerating the foreground. So, objects that are in the foreground appear closer and the distance between elements in the foreground and the background seems greatly enhanced.

Simply put, wide focal lengths exaggerate the distance between near and far. Zero in on an eye-catching object so that it fills a good chunk of the frame while still retaining features in the background—a signboard before a house or an abandoned beach or even an overturned skateboard lying in front of a group of kids.

Exaggerate Perspective
Perspective is exaggerated by wide focal lengths and so, long objects such as fence-lines, railway tracks, piers, sidewalks, roads or anything that stretches away into the distance can be made to seem even longer. These strong lines will lead the viewer into a three-dimensional composition. The viewer will feel that he is not just looking at the photograph, but right into it.

Point Up, Down or Tilt!
If you want straight vertical and horizontal leading lines, keep the camera level with the horizon and perpendicular to it. However, any slight downward or upward angle can make the lines turn, converge and skew at crazy angles! Tilt the camera deliberately and you will learn how distorted lines can create movement, make structures look large or imposing, small and distant or even force perspective.

Distort Away!
Do you remember the trick mirrors from amusement parks that made people look strangely fat and thin ? Well, consider the wide focal length as one of these trick mirrors! The most fun advantage of shooting at the wide end is the barrel distortion that can make the corners of a wide angle shot look as if someone has pulled them outwards. People located in the sides of the frame may look fat or stretched. However, you can use this distortion to do something that most photographers rarely think of—make portraits! If shot from a high vantage point, features such as the forehead, spectacles or even the nose of a person become grossly exaggerated. We often feel that equipment and gear have their limits and cannot be used for a particular style of shooting. However, limitations are meant to be pushed. Boundaries are meant to be broken and explored. Similarly, be it an ultrawide lens or even the wide end of your compact camera, do not be afraid to experiment. You will find that wide focal lengths can offer those rare gems that are only produced from understanding the rules and applying or bending them wherever necessary, wide angle style.

Tags: Better Pictures, Ambarin Afsar, Composition, wide angle, January 2011, unconventional