In my post about photographic gimmicks, I mention that wide-angle lenses are dangerously close to being gimmicky. Ultrawides are even closer. They are an easy way to get some extra drama in a photo and are usually the first new lens new photographers are tempted to purchase. The result? Lots of crappy ultrawide photographs. And a lot of people who do not like ultrawide photography.*
*That Ken Rockwell is an ultrawide nut does not help with this matter. Even though his ultrawide advice is very good.
I am not one of those people. I shot with a 20mm lens almost exclusively for over five years (until I upgraded from 35mm film to a digital SLR) and it’s the largest reason why I still shoot film.
But I see why a lot of people don’t like ultrawide shots. Most of it suffers from a combination of boring foregrounds, distant subjects, and a lack of cohesiveness between near and far. It’s very easy to point the camera down and get the view which includes both what I’m standing on and what I’m looking at. Tying it all together so that the viewer moves through the different depths takes work.
My initial motivation for the ultrawide was photography while traveling—especially in the narrow streets of Europe. I’ll admit that this was a bit of “get everything in” but since I’ve never been one of those guys who likes to step back from a scene, this was more a way to allow me to make the most use of my working distances. If I can only step forward, I may as well shoot as wide as I can. And then that approach just becomes natural…
The danger of an ultrawide is that it’s very easy to end up with too much junk in the frame—when you get it all in, you get it all in. Walking forward is one way to avoid it. Another is to use the junk instead.
Where I find myself liking the ultrawide the most is inside where, instead of having to worry about boring foregrounds or skies, the entire interior space is available to me. And by inside, I mean any interior space. It doesn’t have to be fancy architecture or anything.
Since picking up film again after a couple years just shooting digital, I’ve been branching out a bit more and experimenting with other ways of using the ultrawide. Whether it’s trying to take nice photos of people, attempting more rigid compositions,* or trying other experiments, I’ve still got a lot to learn about this lens.
*Getting in close means that everything gets all bendy. I like this a lot but I recognize that, as with tilted horizons, sometimes this encourages lazy shooting.