The Power of Wide Angle Compositions

 

We all have seen them: A photograph depicting a scene in a manner you would never be able to see you with your own eyes, and yet you are told the image is straight out of the camera. You ask how this is possible, and the answer is: I used a wide angle lens. Your first thought is to get one for yourself and create truly powerful and otherworldly images to enhance your portfolio. The wide angle lens is probably the most often used, but also misused, lens in landscape photography. In my previous articles I described why I prefer to use the telephoto lens for landscape photography but that should not detract from the wide angle being a very powerful lens, as long as it is used with forethought and for the right scenes. In this article I will share with you a few useful tips for composing powerful wide angle images, and I hope it encourages you to go out there and capture the beauty!

 

Look for Compelling Foregrounds

Wide angle images are, in general, all about compelling foregrounds. The wide angle lens distorts the perspective of the scene you photograph, so that features close to you are much larger than those further away. The foreground is an essential component of your image. It is your entry point and its function is to lead the viewer into the scene. Look for foregrounds that are clean and include graphical elements such as converging lines or features arranged in shapes, such as a triangle of rocks. Not all foregrounds have to lead the viewer in, but at the least they play an essential role in your image, and you have to take care with which foreground you select.


The foreground in this image was all about the converging black lines formed by the protruding rock, enhanced by their contrast against the white silky water which I achieved through a long exposure. Always keep in mind that lines that are not parallel will diverge or converge when viewed through your wide angle lens. Look out for them, and include them in your composition. This image was taken in beautiful Tsitsikamma National Park, along South Africa’s spectacular Garden Route. It is also a lesson for not letting the weather get you down. The beauty about photography is that there are always opportunities, you just have to allow yourself to see them!

 

The hunt for dramatic skies

In wide angle compositions, a dramatic, textured sky can add significantly to the impact of your image. It almost always will enhance your composition considerably. Pay careful attention to how the wide angle enhances the converging/diverging elements of the sky or how it may make the sky appear to snake or wind its way through the scene. Always keep in mind that the sky, foreground and middle ground have to work together and complement each other.


I was very fortunate to witness this scene in the rugged dramatic coast line of South Africa’s Cape Point Nature Reserve. I have returned here several times but have never seen it again. I used my wide angle lens together with a long exposure so that the line of white of the breaking waves lead the viewer along the winding coast line to the background mountains above which radiate beautifully arranged purple clouds. I also enjoyed how the curving line of white complemented the curving, radiating clouds. Although the wind was screaming in my ears, it was a scene of serenity and breathtaking majesty. In the background humid ocean air turns into clouds at the coastal mountain peaks, which then are blown inland over the fynbos covered plains. I left knowing that I had born witness to one of those breathtaking scenes that occur somewhere on this planet every day.

 

Move your body!

When using your wide angle lens, nothing is more important than exploring the scene through your viewfinder as you change your position. Just one step to the side can alter your composition dramatically. The same holds for moving up or down – the perspective from closer to the ground can be much more powerful than shooting from standing up. Sometimes you will need to get into uncomfortable, contorted positions, but in the end it will be all worth it!


On the frozen surface of Lake Ontario, a block of smooth and beautifully textured ice juts out of the surface and is illuminated by the warm light of the rising sun. To capture this image I had to lie flat on my stomach on frozen ice and snow, with the camera only centimetres above the snow. In fact people who were passing by thought that I may have fallen through the ice! It was a lot of fun and, I feel, well worth the effort . 🙂

 

Sometimes even the wide angle is not enough!

Some scenes require such a wide angle of view, that you will be forced to exclude features, even when you are using your wide angle at its shortest focal length. The alternative is that you take two wide angle images and combine them later in processing. It is actually quite easy and straightforward to do, but you would have to come to one of our workshops so that I can show you how! 🙂


An unforgettable morning in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park. Gale force winds transform the calm turquoise colored waters of Lake Pehoe into a raging sea, blowing away crashing waves and literally lifting the water off the lake surface, all of this against the unforgettable mountain backdrop of los Cuernos del Paine! The scene was so vast that I had to take one wide angle image for the foreground and then pivot my camera to take another image of the beautiful, dramatic sky.

 

Conclusion

I hope you found these short tips for using your wide angle lens helpful. There are more tips I look forward to sharing with you in a future article. There are also pitfalls you want to avoid when using your wide angle, but we will talk about these at a later time. Good luck and go out there and capture the beauty!

For a considerably more in depth treatment of composition, please have a look at our in depth e-book which discusses the art of composition and the principles of aesthetics. In particular, I explain the psychology behind aesthetics and image design, also known as visual thinking, which will enable and empower you to express your photographic vision powerfully and effectively.

Related Articles:

15 Tips for Stunning Mountain Photography!

The Story Behind the image

Highly Effective Composition Tips

Chasing the Light

Effective Processing Tips


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