One way to create eye-catching imagery is to break the rules. When you shatter these rules, you stop people in their tracks! One of the first rules of portrait and fashion photography I learned was to NOT use a wide angle lens when photographing people. I was told this would distort their features and be unflattering to the model. But what if you use the wide angle on purpose to distort and exaggerate a scene? Then it creates visual interest and impact. Now your images stand out and become memorable.
Shooting wide angle when photographing people is one of my favorite rules to break. For this reason, I frequently shoot my Sigma 24-70mm 2.8 lens to create drama in a scene and will pull out the Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 lens for something more extreme. For me, wide angle lenses allow me to achieve three main goals and visual effects; exaggerate or capture an environment, exaggerate my subject, or set the mood of the scene. Here we will explore some distinct examples of how I’ve put this into practice.
Wide Angle Lenses to Exaggerate or capture an environment:
When I approach a scene with interesting graphic or structural elements, I frequently reach for a wide angle lens. By shooting at a wide angle I can emphasize a graphic scene and also warp lines and structures for dramatic effect.
Let’s take a look at an example where utilizing a wide angle lens allowed me to really capture the essence of a scene.
I took a business trip to Istanbul, Turkey where I had the opportunity to photograph in and around the ruins of the ancient city walls. I had never had an environment quite like this before, and I really wanted to make the walls and structures an essential element of the scene. The walls were thousands of years old, and I was astonished that we could simply walk around all the old walls and fortresses unrestricted. It was a photographer’s dream environment and I wanted to make it shine!
My visual goals for the editorial were to communicate the grandeur and scale of the scene, while also not diminishing the importance of the model, as the shoot was a fashion editorial and the clothing/model had to be prominent. For this reason, I reached for my wide angle lenses to capture the entire scene, while carefully position my model in the frame to establish her visual significance.
In this first example, we were photographing tall fortress-like structures near an edge of the wall. I loved the repeated arches and textures of the wall. I first reached for my Sigma 24-70mm lenses, one of my go to choices for wide-angle because of its flexibility in focal lengths, but it was simply not wide enough to capture the entire scene. Even at its widest angle (24mm) I was cutting into some areas of the background and it was damaging my composition.
Instead, I utilized the Sigma 12-24mm lens so I could capture as much of the structure as possible, without also including the bare white sky of the day. This shot is 100% natural light, and I simply had the model orient her face to create more flattering light patterns.
When shooting at such a wide focal length, however, the model began to look quite small in the frame. For this reason I moved her close to the camera, so that when we threw the dress up in the air, the dress was close to the camera (only a couple of feet). When she stood further back in the frame, the grand structures around her made her look weak and less visually demanding, so I had her stand in a very specific area of the scene to allow her to remain large in the frame, but for me to also utilize a wide lens to capture the arches.
Let’s take a look at one more example from that same shoot. Later in the day I came across the inside of a lookout on the top of the city walls. I loved the texture and structure of the walls, and wanted to be able to capture this scene. For this reason, I grabbed my Sigma 24-70mm 2.8 lens, shooting at its widest focal length. The strong backlit made the scene look created a haunting and surreal effect, and so I actually made the model float in the scene to make her appear almost as a sorceress.
Note: To learn how I created this effect and MUCH more, check out my latest book “Creative 52” for instruction on how to create ‘levitation’ images and utilizing wide angle lenses.
I also utilize wide angle lenses to exaggerate a scene. I was shooting on top of my studio in NYC for a men’s fashion editorial, and it was a drab overcast day. I decided to try to create some more graphic images, utilizing the structure overhead. I actually lay down on my back with the subject standing over me, and shooting straight up so that I could frame the subject in the metal beams. By shooting wide angle I was able to exaggerate the structure and the model to look more imposing than they were in reality.
Wide Angle to Exaggerate a subject:
In fashion photography I frequently use a wide angle lens to exaggerate the size of a dress or the length of a model’s legs. I can make a model look impossibly tall and their dress look incredibly full, simply by my lens choice.
I use this technique often. In fact, I use this technique frequently when my model is in a long and flowing dress, or when the clothing structural and emphasizes the height of the model.
Let’s take a look at two distinct examples:
I was tasked with shooting an image themed “Twins” at Coney Island for an online TV show called “The Concept”, sponsored by Sigma. When I think of Coney Island I think carnival, nostalgia, and freak shows. I decided to direct my wardrobe stylist to get a dress with a lot of fabric and movement. I could pose the model to have movement in the dress, and therefore in Photoshop I could merge the dresses of the two figures to look like conjoined twins (even if only joined at the dress).
As we made our way out to Coney Island, it started to downpour. The sky was ominous, with no sight of the rain slowing down. Unfortunately, the dress we had borrowed was very expensive and the way it was designed it absolutely could not get wet. Furthermore, because of the weather, the actual park had been closed down for the day and we could not even get in the gates.
The only area of refuge I found was in a large covered area where the toilets were located. When I realized that this would be the only area I could shoot, I started looking for angles. Thankfully I came to realize that the structure of the building had a very interesting ceiling. If I shot from a low enough angle I could try to eliminate distracting elements and primarily focus on details, leading lines, and composition structures above. This is making use of the benefits talked about in part one of this article.
For this image I utilized my Sigma 24-70mm lens at 24mm. The scene, however, even with the somewhat interesting overhead structures would fall flat unless I could introduce movement or some sort of dynamic element with the model. Because she was wearing a flowing dress with a lot of movement, I had her move and wrap the fabric around me. By shooting wide angle and laying on the ground, as the fabric flew toward and above the camera, the wide focal length exaggerated the size. Furthermore, my low height and wide angle extremely exaggerated her height, making her appear as if to tower above me… an impossibly tall and powerful woman.
I had the model move and wrap her fabric around me. Because of my focal length and angle, the model appears incredibly tall, as if she towered toward the ceiling. Furthermore, her dress seems even larger and more impressive because of the lens choice.
In the end I decided to express the concepts of ‘twins’ by mirroring the scene in Photoshop, making too elegant and dominant figures in my frames appearing as if joined by their cloaked dresses. Here shooting wide angle (24mm) was essential for the drama created by her height and movement of the fabric.
To see the complete behind the scenes of the making of this image, check out The Concept.
Let’s look at another example of how wide angle was utilized to exaggerate the height of the model to create a graphic image.
I was photographing around 125th Street in Harlem along the river for a fashion editorial for Zink Magazine. It was an overcast day, and I was extremely excited when my wardrobe stylist pulled out this incredible dress. The fabric in the dress extended long beyond her arms, and I really wanted to make a clean, graphic and dramatic image. Shooting against a texture background like a wall or bridge (the other environments around me) would have detracted from the shape of the dress.
Instead, I asked the model to stand up on a bench, and l lay on my back, grabbing my Sigma 24-70mm 2.8 lens. Shooting a 24mm, I was able to isolate the subject against the sky. Her black structure now created dramatic contrast to the scene behind her… making her a graphic cross-like figure. Furthermore, by shooting at a low and wide angle, I was able to make her appear extremely tall like a statue, thus creating drama and an imposing figure.
Wide Angle to Set the mood:
Finally, utilizing a very wide angle lens can help set the mood. For example, when the subject is small in the frame it communicates a feeling of loneliness and abandonment, or perhaps feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, if you utilize the wide angle lens to make the subject tower in the frame, this communicates power, overbearingness and grandeur.
Tip: To avoid an ‘up the nose shot’, don’t have the subject staring straight down at you. Have them look off to the side slightly. Furthermore, if you find the nostrils still a bit too distracting, back your camera and body position away from the subject (further back). If you are too close to the subject’s body, you will amplify the undesired effects of shooting at a low angle, including ‘up the nose’ shots.
Let’s take a look at an example where my lens choice significantly impacted the mood of the photo.
I was teaching a Sigma-sponsored workshop in a stunning old mansion outside of Nashville, Tennessee. I had styled the shoot to have young women in Victorian looking dresses to fit the overall feel of the mansion. Though the place was well taken care of, it still had an empty and forgotten feel to it, giving it an air of mystery. Upon entering the main doors you entered a dark, windowless room without light and with stunning paintings on the walls. As we were shooting on the property, the caretaker of the home told us about the ghosts living in the house and on the property. I decided to create an image to represent the atmosphere of the house and the story the caretaker had shared.
The entry room was most striking to me, and I wanted to house to feel vast and dark. For this reason, I had the model open the doors, allowing light to stream around her. While my camera (on aperture priority) wanted to shoot the model as a silhouette because of the bright summer light behind her, I switched over to manual exposure mode and dramatically ‘overexposed’ the image. I allowed the highlights to blow out and wrap around the model. At first I tried my usual wide lens, a Sigma 24-70mm 2.8, but it didn’t capture the space or the moment I wanted. Lying on the ground, I switched over to my Sigma 12-24, and left the lens as open as possible (12mm!). Shooting so wide angle made the room seem to warp somewhat around the lens, and made the space look vast.
I centered the model to emphasize the symmetry of the room. I wanted the image to look dark and ghost-like, and thankfully the light streaming behind the model actually created a bubbled lens flare around the model that was perfect for this effect! Or maybe it was a ghost.
To emphasize the creepy mood of the image, I asked the model to peer uneasily to the side of the room, as if looking for what secrets it contained. Finally, by making the image black and white, the eye could focus primarily on the light, composition and expression instead of the rich colors of the furniture and walls.
By shooting such an extreme wide angle I was able to create a significantly more dynamic shot that exaggerated the size and tension in the room, and allowed me to capture the scene to fit the mood.
My wide angle kit:
I’d love to wrap this article up with a discussion of the most frequently used wide angle lenses in MY kit. I shoot primarily with a full frame camera, so if you shoot a crop sensor, your lens solutions would likely vary.
My most frequently used wide angle lens is my Sigma 24-70mm 2.8. It is an extremely flexible and versatile option. If I know that I want to be able to zoom in, and be able to achieve both wide angle and somewhat closer crops, this would be my go-to lens. This was a must-have at all events and weddings I’ve ever shot!
If, however, I know that I want to create a lot of drama and really capture a wide scene, then Sigma 12-24mm lens is a must-have. While I use it a lot less frequently than my 24-70, it often creates much more dramatic results. When I am trying to capture dramatic structures or create unusual angles, this would be the lens I’d utilize.
Finally, I’ve recently added the Sigma 35mm 1.4 lens to my wide-angle kit. The lens is extremely sharp and allows me to achieve narrow depths of field. If I am shooting a wide angle scene, but still want blur in the background from a narrow depth of field, this would be my lens of choice. Furthermore, it is incredibly sharp and the result images are breathtaking!
Tip: If you shoot a crop sensor camera, be sure to check out Sigma’s 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM | Art lens for a solution that gives you the best of all worlds– wide angle, wide aperture, and the flexibility of zoom!