Five Tips for Better Wide Angle Landscapes

Wondering how to make better use of your wide angle lens? While this article focuses on how to improve your landscape photography, these tips work just as well for architecture, street, and underwater photography. Ultra wide angle lenses typically are at least 15-16mm on a full frame camera. They are often associated with creating grand landscapes which contain a foreground, midground, and background with a classic near / far composition for creating depth. If you haven’t used one before or struggle with finding interesting compositions with your wide angle lens, this post should provide a foundation for creating more compelling landscape photos. Let’s get to it!

Tip #1: Understanding Wide Angle Optics

It helps to know how wide angle lenses view the world as there are pros and cons. They are a great tool for composing amazing vistas in a single frame. If you’ve ever experienced those moments where your head is on a swivel as you take in the grand scene before you, it’s easy to reach for your wide angle lens and snap a few photos. However, distant objects will shrink in size making them appear smaller than to the naked eye. While this helps fit more in the frame, it can ultimately de-emphasize the very subject you are trying to showcase. Here are two images with the same backdrop. You can see the difference in how much weight the background carries. The first image is 18mm and the second is at 105mm. As a result, it is imperative to make good use of the foreground to lead into  your background.

Background at 18mm

Background at 105mm

Another way wide angle optics work is that they have very good close focusing abilities. This allows you to emphasize a smaller foreground subject in order to draw more attention to it.  When working with close distances, simply being a foot further away from your foreground can drastically reduce its weight in the image. Try this exercise: if you have a cell phone with a wide angle lens, open your camera app, switch to wide angle and put the lens 6-12 inches (15-30cm) from an object. Move about 6-12 more inches (15-30cm) away and see how much smaller the object appears.

The next two photos are using a wide angle lens but one is close to the ground and the other is up at eye level. See how much larger the foreground details appear. Both are shot at 12mm on full frame but the only difference is the distance away from the foreground.

Foreground from Eye Level

Foreground from Ground Level

Tip #2: Scouting for Backgrounds

With the ability to “fit it all in”, wide optics wield a double-edged sword. Sure, you can include a lot in your photo, but if done poorly, the image will lack focus on a cohesive idea containing interest from front to back. While scouting in the field, pay attention to where you want to lead your viewer’s eye and look for potential backgrounds. Where is the light going to be most interesting? Will it be directly into the sun, ninety degrees away for possible side lighting, or opposite the sun for softer light? What are the background shapes? Is it a series of jagged mountains, arcing or diagonal clouds rising up, a valley with hills on either side, or maybe something else entirely? If those shapes in the background can lead to where the light or sky has interest, or they make use of the corners to create additional leading lines, plan on using them when the timing is right. Other possible background ideas include framing and symmetry. Having a few options can help so when sunrise or sunset light develops, you can adapt as it appears in different parts of the sky.

In the first image, I was camped out on this composition and the sunset behind me was going off. The still lake reflections and prominent tufa structure at Mono Lake reflected offered soft colors and symmetry. The next image is from Death Valley. Knowing the goal was to photograph the rising milky way, choosing which background to compose was straight forward. The final image had dynamic interest shooting directly into the sun with intense lighting and the added bonus of a rocky shelf being struck with crashing waves. All three images are examples of how I chose a background first, then moved on to find a suitable foreground to complement them.

Soft pastel skies and reflections creating symmetry as background

Sunset light on South Tufa at Mono Lake

Milky Way rising as backgorund

Milky Way rising over Badwater salt flat in Death Valley

Setting sun and crashing storm waves as background

Dramatic coastal sunset landscape image

Tip #3: Finding a Foreground

Picking out a foreground should ultimately add to the rest of the image and help tell the story of “place”. Here is the opportunity to show your viewer some of the smaller, finer details right at your feet. This could be a splash of color (wildflowers, rocks, fall foliage), contrasting colors and textures found in rock formations, salt flats, and shorelines. Look for leading lines in the form of diagonals across the frame, s-curves creating a path back and forth into the image, or repeating horizontal elements. Make use of corners and lines to draw attention inward and upward. It’s also important to consider excluding distractions such as debris, footprints, empty space that detracts from the main foreground element. As they can focus fairly close, look for subjects that are only a a few feet wide vs a great expanse. You can easily fill the lower 30-50% of a composition with a compelling foreground. By doing so, you are using a key concept of simplifying and exaggerating your near subject. Here are a few examples.

Image #1: Wildflowers lead diagonally from lower right to setting sun in the upper left.

Image #2: Dark pointed rocks contrast with receding waves to create texture and tonal contrast in the leading lines.

Image #3:: Dark mud against white salt creates tonal contrast and mud formation uses corners to lead into the valley.

Wildflowers lead diagonally from lower right to setting sun in the upper left

Dark pointed rocks contrast with receding waves to create texture and tonal contrast in the leading lines

Dark mud against white salt creates tonal contrast and mud formation uses corners to lead into the valley

Tip #4: Pick a Perspective

Ansel Adams had some great quotes, of which I think I only know three. One of them is “a good photograph is knowing where to stand”. Choosing a perspective breaks down into two main ideas. The first is simply moving side to side and changing your angle of approach to the foreground. A square can be a triangle if you position your camera 45 degrees to it. The second one is height. How high or low your camera is will dramatically impact the weight your foreground and midground have in the composition. The higher it is, the more emphasis is on the midground. Lower it down and more emphasis is put on the foreground. As you lower your camera, the foreground simplifies and is emphasized  while the midground shrinks. As you raise your camera, the midground expands and the foreground loses impact. Regardless of your vertical perspective, the background remains largely unchanged. This is a decision that is made with almost every grand landscape wide angle composition. Do you show off more foreground at the expense of the midground? Or do you add more midground weight while reducing the foreground’s presence? Since we go through life seeing at eye level, images created at eye level may seem more normal and therefore less unique. Consider a lower angle when using a wide lens. Below are three images taken at 12mm at close to eye level, waist level, and knee level. Notice how the background doesn’t really change, but the foreground and midground do. 

Varying Perspectives

Tip #5: Depth and Focus

Considering I have offered advice to get lower and get closer to your foreground, it would be prudent to discuss a little about depth of field control and focusing strategies for wide angle landscapes. First off, wide angle lenses offer more apparent depth at a given aperture compared to a telephoto lens. So on a full frame camera, you can often get by with f11-f16 or f8-f11 on an APS-C camera. However, the closer you get to your foreground, the more depth of field is required to get sufficient sharpness from front to back. This may require maxing out your aperture to f16-f22. Put you focus point approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of the way into your composition. The closer you are to a foreground element, the closer to 1/3 into your frame you want to focus. More depth falls behind your focus point than in front of it. So don’t focus on your distant midground or background. In some cases, even extreme apertures can’t provide enough depth. To make matters worse, small apertures result in a phenomenon called diffraction which softens fine details. If you plan on printing large and / or you are an extreme pixel peeper, you may want to consider focus stacking for ultimate sharpness and depth. Check out my article on focus stacking if you’re interested. 

Example of Single Focus Point

Did any of these tips help? Do you have some of your own that you like to use when out in the field? Let me know in the comments. And as always, if there is a topic you want me to go over in more detail, either drop a comment or send me a message. Until next time, happy shooting!

Jim Patterson

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