The ultra wide lens is the single most effective tool in the Landscape photographer’s kit to bring a huge swath of earth and sky into a single image. It is also one of the most difficult to use effectively, as it is not forgiving of poor composition skills, demanding more out of the photographer with every shot. Get it right and you’ll be rewarded with a dramatic sweeping view that pulls the viewer in from the near by blade of grass and throw them all the way to the tallest peak in the distance. Get it wrong, and your shot will be awash with uninteresting specks of landscape. The goal of this article is to help you understand how to put more of the former on your memory card, and identify ways to avoid the later.
Note, focal lengths referenced below are in relation to a full frame digital sensor, aps-c / crop body sensors should divide by 1.5.
The first thing to understand is that not every landscape is ultra-wide friendly. Some environments simply lend themselves to the 14mm and wider range than others. The deserts of the southwest filled with sandstone formations, the streams of the Pacific Northwest and the hundreds of waterfalls also comes to mind as ideal ultra-wide playgrounds. Smaller city parks are more difficult to get ultra-wide shots to work, usually because there are more things you want to exclude, but it isn’t impossible. The key rule to remember is that the wider the shot, the more important the foreground. Pause, let that sink in for a moment, read it again – The wider the shot, the more important the foreground. Take a shot at 14mm from eye level and you’ll understand why – EVERYTHING is small, tiny, or worse. And there’s a LOT of it, and none of it is more interesting that the other. In very few situations is that preferred. Subjects should fill a significant percentage of the frame, and if everything is 5% or less of the frame, then nothing is the subject. I tend to shoot a lot with my 16-35F4L, the 16mm is plenty wide for most places, and I have a 14mm in the bag for those days where I need yet more. I know other photographers who have honed the ultra-wide composition to a mastery and they can shoot all day long at 11mm and make it work one after another.
So when choosing when and where to make use of an ultra wide lens, the two most important questions to ask yourself are – first, is there a strong foreground; second, is the background strong enough to balance the foreground. In the photo below, if there had not been this amazing sunset filling the entire sky, no way would this shot work. The thin band of trees along the horizon isn’t nearly strong enough on its own to be interesting. With ultra wide compositions you need a path, a starting point and a destination, and anchor point and an expanse that it anchors. And the wider of a focal length you employ, the more difficult both jobs become without other issues weakening the composition.
I recommend starting in the 16 or 17mm range (on a Full Frame sensor, this would be the 10-12mm range if you are shooting an APS-C sensor camera) if you’re diving into the ultra-wide ranges for the first time, get some experience under your belt and then start considering what going yet wider will require of your compositions to maintain visual impact. Remember, the wider your focal length, the more important that foreground becomes. Locking yourself into a 14mm prime lens very quickly limits the opportunities in any given location without constantly searching for new and interesting foregrounds. If you haven’t had time to thoroughly scout an area for these ideal spots ahead of time, you’ll quickly find yourself spending more of those magical minutes of perfect light looking for a new composition rather than capturing them.
Ultra Wide Composition Techniques
As I said in the intro, shooting ultra wide will put your composition skills to the test, and on display in every shot you take. Utilizing techniques such as leading lines, the rule of thirds, patrolling the edge of your frame and getting down low (close to that important foreground!) all become vital.
Leading lines aren’t just any linear shape in your frame. They need to flow into the frame, drawing the viewer deeper into the image. Leading lines don’t have to be straight either, but they should start near or at the edges and draw towards the middle. Leading lines can be strong, such as the fallen longs in the foreground of the waterfall above, or softer, such as the split between shadow and light in the foliage surrounding the waterfall above. The combination of these two leading lines creates a strong X pattern, allowing me to be a bit less strict about placing interest at the intersection of a 3rd-line. The more centered composition with the waterfall in the middle works thanks to the leading lines creating symmetry. In the image below, a long exposure of an incoming wave was utilized to create a set of leading lines, drawing the eye up and around the seastack and ultimately out into the emptiness of the foggy ocean beyond. Like the wave action, when in the southwest, look for sandstone formations that create these strong foreground leading lines. Unlike salt water, don’t be worried about getting up really close to these shapes for dramatic effect!
In addition to waves, flowing water of streams, especially right below a waterfall make ideal leading line candidates. Getting down close to a group of rocks over which water is flowing allows you to use small sections of flowing water to build up interesting patterns of lines that all flow up towards the main subject – the biggest water feature of the image. You can even use the hiking path along which you are hiking can be used as a leading line!
Rule of Thirds
The more we are able to encompass in the frame, the more foreground, or in the example above, background, utilizing the rule-of-thirds helps the eye from becoming lost, by giving it a place to go. 50/50 compositions, especially those without leading lines, the eye doesn’t really understand what the important part of the frame is, because two competing areas – usually the land and the sky – have been given equal weight. In the photo above, I wanted to use the ferns as the anchor, the visual interest that brought the viewer in, but it was the towering trees beyond that are meant to be the subject. Their height expressed by the fact that even 2/3 of the frame isn’t nearly enough to capture their full scale. In the beach scene below I not only placed the horizon on the upper third line as a way to include as much interesting foreground as possible due the sky not having all that much texture, but I also played with a diagonal positioning of the foreground rock on the lower-left intersection of the 3rd lines, and the larger background seastacks on the upper-right. This diagonal arrangement prevents one side of the image from becoming too heavily weighted as well as creating a longer ‘path’ for the viewer’s eye to take through the frame.
Get LOW and CLOSE
The power of the ultra wide lens is how it allows something at your feet and towering over your head, or far to your left and far to your right, all to end up in the same frame. I tend to shoot in portrait orientation a lot when shooting with my ultra-wide lenses, as you can probably see from not only the example above, but also the previous examples that have almost all been a vertical oriented composition. I find that I’m more often able to utilize interesting foregrounds that create either leading lines or can place something of interest, such as this blue agave in a position that can be a strong contrast point to the background beyond. I had my small travel tripod positioned near the ground, at most one leg extension opened, just high enough to create a narrow band of separation between the agave and the sunlit forest from which the towers of red rock reach to the sky. The lens of the camera was no more than a few feet from the nearest spine. Moving higher would have opened up too much of a gap between the plant and the rocks, and made it impossible to get both the lowest leaves of the agave in frame, whole also getting the tips of the rocks with enough room above them to show sky. So if the question is – how low to get – the question is – low enough to get the shot, but not so low to ruin it.
While on the topic of getting low and close, another consideration is when shooting ultra wide, and ultra up-close to your foreground: there’s no f/stop possible that will get your entire scene in focus all the way to infinity. So you start either having to accept creative choices in what is in focus, or dive in the depths of focus stacking. Focus stacking involves taking multiple shots at different focus points, with the aim of getting everything in focus in one of those shots. The easiest scenes to focus stack are open flat deserts where there is little to no sudden differences in distance across the view. Some of the most difficult is when you have a very complex shape, that may be moving in the wind, such as a bush or a cluster of flowers, or a cactus, and the ground immediately around and behind that foreground is far enough away that you can not get both in focus at once. As you have probably noticed, out of focus parts of your shot are slightly larger than what is in focus, making it extremely difficult to eliminate a fuzzy halo of out of focus background from around the edge of a foreground shot. So, a word of advice, start with simple foregrounds!
Patrol the Edges!
Finding the ideal composition with an ultra-wide lens is not a static activity in any sense of the word. The moment you put your camera on the tripod and are unwilling to move it you start to make compromises to your final shot. Maybe there’s a branch in one corner, or a stray rock intruding on the other. Because ultra-wide shots encompass so much of the area immediately around you it can be difficult to find a ‘clean’ shot. But likewise, just scooting the tripod forward a few inches left or right might eliminate those pesky unwanted nuances that you would otherwise have to try to remove in Photoshop back home. One of the tips I’ve picked up along the way is to use live-view while hand-holding the camera at arms length. Of course you’re not going to take the photo like this, but moving the camera around, off the tripod, getting higher or lower, left and right, walking with it (but looking where your feet are going!!) will help you find the ultimate composition both in terms of balancing the main elements in your photo, but eliminating anything on the edges that might distract. Then you bring the tripod to the camera and fine tune the composition from there. The classic (aka over shot) view of Horseshoe Bend outside of Page Arizona can be a tricky one to get perfect. there’s a large closer sandstone formation to the lower right, the V-shaped rock formation center, and the close but not quite symmetrical shape of the bend itself. In short, there’s a lot of elements in play, and moving just a little to the left or right, a little lower changes the relation of those elements significantly.
In a similar fashion in the photo below, finding just the right spot to capture this composition in the Redwood forests of California required close consideration to the edges of the frame. In this case I didn’t want a larger fern or other focus grabbing plant near the edges to wander off the frame needlessly, nor did I want any big root structures in the footpath right at the bottom of the frame. The green bush center, that splits the frame between the massive trunk of the redwood and the footpath, that I wanted to be a visual interest point, but not hide all of the foggy forest beyond. Ideally, you want there to be enough space around your foreground elements to ‘breath’ a little, not stuck right up against the bottom of the frame such that the bottom is cut off, but not so much that the visual impact of that foreground piece begins to diminish. Knowing where that line is takes a little practice, just remember it’s a lot easier to crop a little off the bottom when you get home to tighten up the composition on something than add pixels that aren’t there.
Swing and a miss…
Compare the sets of photos below, each taken at the same location, but note which is the stronger image. And then ask yourself, why the weaker image failed where the other succeeded. I’ll tell you my opinions below, but no cheating…
Okay, I thought I’d have more examples of poor wide angle compositions in my archives, as it turns out, I just delete most of the misses and they never see the light of day. Believe me, there have been far more than these couple of examples, and hopefully I can find some unedited shots in the RAWs later to add. But for now, these two. First the top two: the left is a classic example of no interesting foreground, everything is small, nothing to anchor the shot, not much more than a snapshot in my opinion; while on the right, but using the snow covered brick wall as a sweeping leading line up to the historic visitors center building that then leads out beyond to the canyon there is much more of a sense of scale and context. As far as the second pair: while the right side displays the entire waterfall, there isn’t a whole lot of visual interest otherwise in the foreground, even worse is the larger rock there on the right intruding into the frame and not adding anything what so ever; on the left I opted to allow the top of the falls to get cut off in exchange for the leading lines of the water’s flow. If I am being brutally honest with myself, this wasn’t likely the best composition either, the slick rocks of this Pacific Northwest location likely got the better of me as I chose not to wade out into the water and get a composition further to the left, which would have likely had stronger lines yet, and better view of the falls itself.
Ultimately, shooting Ultra-Wide compositions of landscapes takes work, it takes concentration, and it takes a willingness to look at everything from the stones at your feet to the heavens above and everything in between that your lens is going to include. But if your willing to put in that effort, the pay off can be truly captivating. I wish you luck in your own efforts shooting this style of Landscape photography. There is no substitute for getting out there and trying it yourself. I recommend renting an ultra wide lens for a long weekend to try it out if you aren’t prepared to buy the lens outright just yet. I also offer small group and private workshops in the North Texas area and beyond if you want hands on direction in the field.