Wide angle photography: Seeing the world at 20mm

Denver Pavilions sign
The “Denver” in the Denver Pavilions sign above the mall is enormous and very photogenic, but doesn’t fit in the frame from anyplace it’s visible at anything longer than 24mm. Everyone makes this picture. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I’m making 2013 the year of wide angle photography. I’m making an effort to see the world at 20mm after previous obsessions with other focal lengths.

As I said in my review and retrospective about my first year with the Nikon FM2n, I’ve previously found myself focusing (no pun intended) on 200mm, 135mm and then 50mm lenses. So this year it’s the 20mm.

Of course that doesn’t mean I’m not shooting with any other lenses; it just means the 20mm lives on my camera day-to-day.

Shortly after getting the Nikon FM2n and the 20mm from Dean Krakel, I put a roll of film through and took the piano photo down below a ways. I didn’t really feel like I understood wide angle shooting; I have several other 28mm and 24mm lenses on other cameras.

When I got my DSLR, the first three lenses I had were the 18-55mm kit lens, a Sigma 10-20mm and an 18-200mm — so I had a lot of wide angle available. But of course, on the APS-C sensor in the Canon 30D, wide really isn’t that wide.

So, of course, I turned to the internet. I found a 2008 article on Ken Rockwell’s site, which I have often found to be a good starting place for Nikon information, entitled “How to Use Ultra-Wide Lenses.” I was inspired by Rockwell’s words and a few of his photos.

Denver Dry Goods building
The first floor of the Denver Dry Goods building housed the ever-present Robert Waxman Camera when I was a kid. You couldn’t live in Denver in the 1980s without seeing or hearing a Waxman’s commercial or ad. They were bought by Wolf Camera parent Ritz in 1998, though, who closed or shrunk most of their stores in the last few years, including vacating the space they occupied in the Denver Dry building for over 20 years. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first thing I saw through 20mm eyes was a building. Several buildings. Of course, working in downtown Denver, I’m surrounded by them. So I may have to study up more on architectural photography. If nothing else, the perspective of the wide angle lens from street level has me thinking about spending more time with my 4×5 downtown trying to correct some parallax error.

Or I might have to sell some cameras or some blood or a kidney and get a Linhof Technika like the pretty red one I played with recently. Man, what a camera. But I digress.

Curry-Chucovich House
The Curry-Chucovich House with the Denver Sheraton and Republic Plaza buildings in the background. The lonely brownstone survived attempts to raze the block for a skyscraper in the 1980s and after nearly 130 years it stands amid the parking lots its neighbors became. (Daniel J. Schneider)

More than its ability to get a big scene into a small frame from a short distance, shooting at 20mm forces a lot of perspective on the viewer. Along with color and leading lines, size can draw the viewer’s eyes to things in your frame, letting you put a small or nearby subject into a whole lot of context without getting lost in the trees.

And with short focusing distances — the 20mm hits the infinity stop at around 20 feet, so it spends a lot of time there — even something a few feet away at f/5.6 leaves everything out to infinity in focus. The challenge shooting this wide is lines.

Jimmy John's delivery
A delivery by bicycle leaves a Jimmy John’s sandwich restaurant on 16th Street Mall in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Converging Verticals

Even though the Nikkor 20mm is a rectilinear lens — which means that unlike a fisheye lens, it keeps straight lines straight — that only applies if you keep the horizon level in your frames. Even tilting up or down a few degrees starts to distort images and lead to the converging verticals problem.

Converging verticals isn’t necessarily a problem, though. In the photo of the Denver Dry Building above, I feel that it reinforces the size of a building that, when it was built, was almost unbelievably huge and imposing, giving it a sense of grandeur and towering height.

Below, the Sheraton Downtown Denver hotel gains an even greater sense of immensity with the lines tilting inward at near-45° angles. It’s not quite how you’d see it with your eyes, standing on the sidewalk, but it’s not far from how your brain would interpret what you do see.

Denver Sheraton
The Sheraton Downtown Denver Hotel on Court Street, adjacent to the 16th Street Mall, was the Adams Mark Hotel until recently, but began life as a Hilton. Its I. M. Pei tower is the last remaining building of Denver’s once-great Zeckendorf Plaza. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Deep Field

A symptom of the short focusing distance and wide field of view is incredible depth of field. Even at very wide apertures, the depth of field is astounding. Unfortunately, this means that if your subject isn’t really sharp, it’s pretty obvious.

As Petteri Sulonen points out in his Mastering Wide-Angle, a wide-angle photograph is much like any big view to the human eye — a feast of details to hunt and examine — which can bring more attention to the areas that aren’t as sharp as you wish.

In the photo below (which I’m still quite pleased with, mind), the depth of field at f/4.0 was still a couple of inches even at about 6-inches from the subject. Even that, though, wasn’t enough to keep the tuning pegs higher in the photo in focus, which now distracts me a little in this image. I think the same photo at f/8 would’ve given me the sharpness I now realize I wanted on the piano strings, not just the hammers.

Piano hammers
The hammers and soundboard of an upright piano on 16th Street Mall in Denver. The Downtown Denver Partnership’s “Keys to the City” program has rolled out a dozen or more pianos on the Mall each of the last few years. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Getting Close

What I’m finding really works is using the wide angle to get right in the middle of things and bring the viewer along with me. Rather than filling the frame with a lot of noise from distant or unrelated scenery, getting very close lets you fill the whole frame with relevant information.

Below, the entire scene of the mechanical bull ride at the 2013 National Western Stock Show in Denver is in the frame, including the operator “driving” the bull, the bull itself and its surrounding safety pads, the father holding his young son on the bull, and the crowd gathered to watch riders being thrown. This young father motioned for the operator to stop so he could safely dismount with the boy before being thrown.

Mechanical Bull controls
Operating the mechanical bull ride at the National Western Stock Show, Jan. 20, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Riding the mechanical bull
The mechanical bull ride proved challenging for kids and adults of all ages at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Jan. 20, 2013. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Foreground

In a bigger scene, wide angle photography lets us bring the foreground to life in a big way. The effect, to the viewer’s eye, is almost like a pop-up book. They eye is immediately drawn to the subject, but explores the frame to see the context and make connections, and is dragged back to the subject time and time again.

16th Street Mall planter
A planter on Denver’s 16th Street Mall with the One Civic Center Plaza and Colorado State Capitol buildings visible in the background. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Background

Leading lines let us draw the view to a certain point. Below, the newel post on the banister of the grand staircase in the Colorado State Capitol aims straight for the center of the dome. Above it, concentric rings pull the eye ever further up into the dome itself. It works because in this image (made with my Minolta XE-7 and a Rokkor-X 24mm f/2.8 — a stunningly sharp lens) the wide angle lens brings in the ceiling below the dome and even a little bit of the second floor balustrade, which mirrors the circular architecture of the dome above.

The newel post is in the foreground, but isn’t quite in focus. It serves as a leading line, but also disappears a bit before the eye gets to the small, dark dot in the center of the dome’s inner ceiling.

Colorado State Capitol Dome
The inside of the dome and rotunda at the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver in December, 2011, on the last day tours of the dome were given before a major renovation began. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Going forward

As I move forward through this year of shooting so much wide-angle, I’d like to focus more on people. Jacob Maentz has some really nice examples of environmental portraits made at wide angles. I used my 20mm a lot shooting at the Underground Music Showcase in Denver late last month, shooting bands and individual performers. I’ll try post something soon.

I’d also like to do more landscapes. Not necessarily like Ansel Adams’ great landscapes, but I’ve recently re-discovered the work of Colorado’s adopted photographer John Fielder, and Benjamin Rasmussen’s work, particularly his HOME collection, are simply incredible.

If you have suggestions, links, inspirations or any other thoughts as I obsess over wide angle, please add them in the comments below.

UPDATE: I’m going to try replacing this lens with a Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 Ai-S I picked up on the cheap. I’ve seen some very favorable reviews, this one being the most detailed.