Getting Close with a Wide-angle Lens
AW – Often students in my classes will bring work that shows an interesting subject, but without enough information to tell a complete story. I find that one effective tool for storytelling is using a wide-angle lens close to my subject, so that some of the background is included, creating a valuable sense of place.
I find elephant seal weaners, fattened up and then abandoned by their mothers, to be wonderfully cooperative photographic subjects. With this weaner, I laid flat on the ground in front of it to photograph it on its level.
The hot-spring-addicted macaques in the Japanese Alps are another fun subject. When their own hot springs were invaded by the furry monkeys, the human residents built a monkeys-only spring. This youngster hung around the side of the pool, making a perfect subject for a wide-angle shot, which allows me to add important background and context.
MH – Looking at us with its liquid black eyes, the seal pup seems to be hoping we are his mother coming to feed him. Weaned at three weeks, he seems a bit lost, even indignant, that the tap has suddenly been turned off. With the spectacular landscape of South Georgia in the background, this image creates a sense of loneliness, seeing this solitary pup by himself in this grand wilderness.
In the second image, the Japanese macaques are so human-like that it’s a little freaky. The monkey in the image seems curious, even mischievous, while his peers ignore his proximity to the camera and wallow in the thermal heat. I love seeing an animal in its environment, especially one as unique as this. It enlarges our understanding of how they live and sometimes gives us clues as to what motivates their behavior. Here, the slight distortion of the wide-angle lens enhances the drama of the scene.
Strong Leading Lines
Another important approach to using a wide-angle lens is to work with leading lines. Leading lines have long been important parts of painting and other two-dimensional forms of art. A leading line is simply something that creates a line from foreground to background and leads or directs the eye through the image. It can be anything that is visually distinct, that a viewer is going to notice, and helps define the composition.
You can find all sorts of leading lines in the environment: tracks in the sand, edges of roads, cracks in rocks, architectural structures, and so on. These can be used to direct the viewer’s eye through a composition and toward the main subject. They are an excellent way to help the viewer understand your picture as well as add a graphic element to the design of your image.
Wide-angle lenses help emphasize leading lines. This comes back to the concept of perspective. By getting in close to nearby parts of leading lines, you spread them apart, yet they still go to the same vanishing point in the distance. That creates a very strong change from foreground to background along those lines, something that will dramatically show off the elements of your photograph.
To understand this, think about a railroad track. If you stand on a hill and photograph railroad tracks in the distance so they start at the bottom of your picture and go to the horizon near the top, you will see them heading off to a vanishing point at the horizon. The railroad tracks will be a certain width at the bottom of your composition. If you then put on a wide-angle lens and get right down on the tracks, the width of the tracks will fill the width of your image. The tracks are still going to go off into the distance to a vanishing point, but now they go from the full width of your frame, creating an extreme change from foreground to background.
Don’t be afraid to get close to leading lines in order to emphasize how strong they are. So often photographers back off from subjects like this and lose some of the impact because they don’t have the same foreground-to-background perspective.