Ultrawide lenses are usually defined as lenses 20mm or shorter in full-frame 35mm-film-equivalent terms. That usually means 18mm, 15mm or even 12mm, but it’s not just about the focal length—you also have to account for the sensor size. On smaller sensors, ultrawide status requires even shorter lenses, down to as small as 7mm, which translates into a solidly ultrawide 14mm equivalent when used with a Micro Four Thirds system camera.
Fisheye lenses also are ultrawide lenses, but not all ultrawides are fisheyes. Fisheyes have an angle of view approaching 180 degrees—enough to take in the “whole sky.” Fisheyes are most often recognizable for their dramatic barrel distortions that curve straight lines around the center of the frame. Most ultrawides, though, aren’t quite so extreme. In its ideal form, an ultrawide lens is rectilinear—designed to keep straight lines straight.
WORKING WITH ULTRAWIDES
Even though ultrawide lenses are usually designed to minimize distortion, they still can be difficult to use. Getting close can be an effective way to use an ultra-wide, placing a focal point right up front in the composition. The lenses also can be used to fit large subjects into the small frame. This type of composition requires even more care to avoid disappointment.
For example, it’s easy to see how a telephoto lens compresses the scene, shrinks the depth of field and generally isolates the subject to create simple compositions free of distractions. But just as telephotos show a little, ultrawides show a lot—sometimes too much. If you’re not careful, your scene can be full of extra information and distractions that make for a less cohesive composition.
Even more than compositional challenges, the biggest mistake new ultra-wide shooters make is that they’re not careful with the precise positioning of the camera. Small movements make big changes to the composition, even creating significant optical distortions.
With your eye to the viewfinder, working with an ultrawide is all about watching two things: lines and edges. Because ultrawides show so much, composing with them requires extra-special scrutiny of the outer edges of the composition and elements closest to the lens, where minimal movements have a huge impact on the composition.
Every tilt and twist of an ultrawide lens creates massive changes to the lines in your composition—including walls, doorways, trees and people. That’s how you end up with photographs in which parallel subjects such as buildings and trees diverge within the frame, seemingly pointing in different directions. For parallel lines to remain parallel, there’s one trick that always works: Keep the camera’s sensor parallel to those lines.
For example, when working in a confined room with the camera positioned level (and therefore parallel with walls, doors and people), the lines in the scene won’t diverge. Tweak that camera position just a bit, though, and watch the scene go haywire. Unless you’re deliberately trying to use those divergent lines as creative compositional elements, if you want the straight lines to remain parallel, you must keep the camera level.
What happens when you have to tilt up just a little bit to get the top of a crucial element in the frame? The lines begin to point outward at the upper corners of the scene. Sometimes this effect is a desirable one. But when the distortion isn’t an intention but a consequence of the composition, the only way to fix it (short of recomposing) is to turn to the computer. Thankfully, this is a fairly straightforward and often effective solution.
For small distortions, the Lens Correction filter in Photoshop makes perspective changes quick and easy. (It’s also effective for repairing barrel distortions.) Simply adjust the Vertical Perspective slider to the left to repair distortions caused by tilting an ultrawide up, known as “keystoning,” or slide to the right to repair distortions caused by looking down.
If you find this repair isn’t quite enough, a little more powerful control comes from the Transform > Perspective tool. If the camera’s tilt isn’t directly vertical, but rather canted to the side as well, the Distort, Skew and Perspective adjustments in the Transform tool allow you to control lines at the edges of the frame independently. These corrections require working in layers, and ultimately cropping out the now missing corners of the new composition, but with enough room in the original framing that it’s a solid fix for most ultrawide distortions.
Most editing programs contain some sort of distortion correction. Photoshop Elements, for example, has the Correct Camera Distortion filter for fixing keystoning and parallax from ultrawides, or you can use plug-ins and stand-alone software like PTLens and DxO Optics Pro that are designed for exactly these repairs.
Computers also come in handy for another ultrawide fix: filtering. Because many ultrawide lenses have a convex front element that can’t accept optical filters, or their view is so wide that filters cause significant vignetting, many photographers find that filtration with ultrawides can be achieved more easily in the computer. Some ultrawides do accept internal filters at the rear of the lens, but even these can be problematic. When working with a polarizer on an ultrawide landscape, for instance, the angle of view is so wide that the polarization isn’t consistent across the scene—making for a photograph with uneven, inconsistent blue skies.
ULTRAWIDE LENSES TO CONSIDER
Canon’s EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM zoom lens provides ultrawide coverage for sub-full-frame cameras like those in the Digital Rebel lineup. In 35mm-equivalent terms, this ultrawide lens actually zooms to a moderate wide angle covering a 16-35mm range. The fast and silent ring-type ultrasonic motor complements full-time manual focus—which can focus on subjects as close as 9.5 inches. Three aspherical elements and a Super-UD element keep image quality high across the zoom range. The lens accepts 77mm front-element filters. Estimated Street Price: $750.
For full-frame, prime-lens shooters, Canon’s updated EF 14mm ƒ/2.8L II USM is a fast lens with redesigned optics that include two aspherical elements and two UD elements. Such high-tech optical innovations are designed to minimize aberrations that hinder contrast and sharpness—particularly at the edges of the frame. The 114-degree angle of view stops just short of a fisheye, making the image quality that much more impressive. This quality, unfortunately, doesn’t come cheap. It accepts gel filters internally. Estimated Street Price: $2,200.
Nikon’s AF Nikkor 20mm ƒ/2.8D is a versatile and fast prime lens in a light, compact body. Not as extreme as some ultrawides, this lens makes it easy to avoid distracting distortions when shooting everything from landscapes to architecture. Close focusing to 10 inches simplifies getting close to put a key compositional element front and center, and close-range correction (CRC) minimizes distortions. The lens accepts 62mm filters on the front element. Estimated Street Price: $500.
Nikon DX shooters will love the ultrawide AF-S DX Nikkor 10-24mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED zoom lens. Designed for the smaller DX format, the lens is compact, too. Producing an angle of view that zooms from 61 degrees to 109, it creates compositions equivalent to 15-36mm in full-frame terms. Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor produces fast and quiet autofocusing, while two extra-low dispersion (ED) elements, three aspherical elements and SIC coatings provide superior sharpness and color with minimal aberrations. Estimated Street Price: $800.
For photographers working with the Olympus E series of Four Thirds cameras, the Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm ƒ/4 lens from Olympus sets the ultrawide standard. With a 114-degree angle of view, the lens is equivalent to a 14-28mm zoom on a 35mm camera. For close focusing, the four-inch minimum focusing distance is extremely impressive. Achieved by large-diameter, ED and Super ED aspherical elements, it also produces minimal distortion and aberration. Estimated Street Price: $1,800.
Panasonic shooters also have a 7-14mm ƒ/4 zoom to use with its Lumix G1 and GH1 cameras—the H-F007014. With an aperture range of ƒ/4 to ƒ/22 and 16 elements in 12 groups (which includes two aspherical and four ED optics), the lens creates an angle of view of 75 to 114 degrees, equivalent to a 14-28mm full-frame zoom, and focuses as close as just under 10 inches. Estimated Street Price: $1,100.
The Pentax SMC DA 12-24mm ƒ/4 ED AL (IF) zoom is an internal-focusing ultrawide—the widest nonfisheye for the Pentax K series of DSLRs. Two aspherical elements and an extra-low-dispersion (ED) element help produce true-to-life images. Perfectly matched with the CCD in Pentax DSLRs, the lens is incredibly small, light and inexpensive. An equivalent focal-length range of 18.5-37mm on *ist Pentax DSLRs makes it a versatile wide-angle. Estimated Street Price: $900.
Sigma offers an affordable, fast alternative to ultrawides for users of Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony DSLRs. The 20mm ƒ/1.8 EX DG Aspherical RF is an astoundingly fast prime lens with Super Multi Coating and aspherical lens elements to compensate for distortion, spherical aberration and astigmatism. That translates to sharp and accurate color images as close as eight inches. The nine-bladed aperture produces smooth bokeh for more attractive out-of-focus effects. Estimated Street Price: $670.
The 12-24mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 EX DG Aspherical HSM zoom from Sigma is another versatile lens designed for use with full-frame DSLRs—including those from Sigma, Canon and Nikon. A pioneer of the ultrawide zoom, Sigma’s 12-24mm features four super-low-dispersion (SLD) elements to correct for color aberrations that can hinder ultrawide shooting, even at its maximum 122-degree angle of view. Three aspherical elements also compensate for linear distortion and aberration, making for improved optical quality across the zoom range. Estimated Street Price: $1,050.
Sony’s SAL-1118 DT 11-18mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 zoom is for use with the Sony Alpha system’s APS-sized sensor—for which it produces an equivalent zoom range of 16.5-27mm. Affordable and compact, the lens is designed to focus quickly and accurately for wide-angle photography in confined spaces. Note that the lens is designed for the Alpha system, and while it’s compatible with the full-frame Sony DSLR-A900, the smaller image circle produces a smaller file size due to the resulting crop factor. Estimated Street Price: $700.
The fast SAL-20F28 20mm ƒ/2.8 prime lens from Sony works with both full-frame and APS sensors, although, on the latter, it doesn’t remain ultrawide (becoming the equivalent of a 30mm wide-angle on the smaller sensor format). The 94-degree angle of view can be focused from 10 inches to infinity, with deep depth of field, making near/far compositions easier to achieve. The lens accepts 72mm filters on the front element. Estimated Street Price: $600.
Tamron makes the SP AF10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 Di II LD, an aspherical, internal-focusing zoom lens constructed for use with smaller-format Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony DSLRs. Producing an impressive 108-degree angle of view, the lens delivers an equivalent focal range of 16mm at the ultrawide end to 37mm zoomed all the way in. This lens is a versatile tool for a variety of photographic styles—and at an affordable price. Estimated Street Price: $500.
The new AT-X 116 PRO DX 11-16mm ƒ/2.8 AF zoom from Tokina produces an equivalent zoom range of 17.6-25.6mm when used on an APS-C-sized DSLR. Available in Canon and Nikon mounts, the 11-16mm focal length has a slightly shortened zoom range to help maintain optical quality across the spectrum. Especially impressive is the fast ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture that remains constant no matter the focal length at which the lens is used. The One-touch Focus Clutch Mechanism allows efficient switching from manual focusing to autofocusing. Estimated Street Price: $600.
(800) OK-CANON, www.usa.canon.com
(800) 211-PANA, www.panasonic.com
(877) 865-SONY, www.sonystyle.com
Tokina (THK Photo)