Shooting Wide To Tell A Story
There are few things that tell a story and create a feel like a wide-angle lens. Look inside the bags of the world's top photojournalists, and you'll inevitably find a 28mm or 35mm prime lens as their go-to glass. Yet, when I run my children's photography workshops, I consistently find that wide-angle lenses are some of the least used for children's pictures. Working with wide-angles not only adds variety, but it opens the doors to a whole different way of telling stories that is distinctly different from pictures captured with telephoto lenses. Telephotos excel at capturing bold, direct expressions, while wide-angles are the perfect tools to turn everyday moments into powerful and atmospheric images.
What does it mean to shoot wide?
A wide-angle is generally any lens less than 35mm on a full frame camera. S hooting wide can be approached in two very different ways. First, it can mean showing more. This is the simplest interpretation, but it has significant implications, as we'll see shortly. Second, a wide angle can be used to create a greater sense of depth. Telephoto lenses compress pictures, making things look flatter than they do in real life. Wide-angles do the opposite, making angles more dynamic and creating a greater sense of space, which also adds enhances intensity and connection. It makes it feel like you're right in the middle of things.
Why does it matter?
When it comes to storytelling, showing more can add so much. It's often tempting to frame as tightly as possible when we take pictures of our children, because those expressions are so endearing. But a wider picture can often tell a richer story. Documenting a moment isn't just showing how someone felt or how something looked. It is finding the details necessary to connect us to our past. Each element we decide to include is a clue that takes us back in time. A picture doesn't literally tell a story, after all. What it does do is present the elements necessary for us to imagine and fill in the gaps that are missing from what we see. Without those pieces of the puzzle in place, we lose the connection between the image and our past.
The picture above is one of my favorite pictures of my son. Seeing him there in my old apartment on our quilted blanket, and with his grandfather bemusedly staring at him takes me right back. I can almost smell the scent of the room and feel the quiet solitude from the afternoon light. Pictures help us remember, and showing more allows us to preserve our personal history.
While showing more tells the story, the ability to create more dynamic images can be even more powerful. It allows us to layer in more details and create a more intimate sense of space. There are so many beautiful, understated moments with our children. These moments may not enough to hold our attention as a close-up, but they show the truest beauty of parenthood. The lazy days, the small discoveries, the quirky things that only our children do - this is parenthood. Shooting with a wide angle lens gives us the tools to preserve such moments.
One day in the park, Evan just decided to grab on to mommy, hug her, and play with her. I shot this with a 35mm lens from about 1 foot away.
Using wide angles to show more
Showing more is simple. It is just a matter of stepping back a little and bringing in more background and foreground into the image. Here are some tips to get the most out of it.
1. Wide angles are very sensitive to angle.
If you step left, right, high, or low, all of the angles change. This isn't a big deal if your background is an open field, but if you're shooting in a geometric environment, and you want the lines to be parallel or perpediculer, watch where you stand and how you tilt the camera. There is nothing as annoying as having a shot just a little off balance, because you didn't step a foot to the left.
2. Look for elements that are meaningful.
Telling a story means pairing the environment with the subject. Showing the Radio Flyer wagon in the background with the pumpkin patch and corn field tells us what the image below is all about.
3. Avoid distracting elements.
Shooting wide means showing more. But there are pitfalls, as well. Bright lights and colorful objects pull the eye in their direction, so watch out for that red plastic toy or patch of light just off to the side of the subject. Trying to keep composition clean is essential in wider images.
4. Space and light create mood.
Showing more not only helps connect us with an environment. It gives our minds the freedom to wander. Space creates a sense of mood an intimacy that allows pictures to live and breathe. As a close-up, none of the pictures below would work, but the use of space gives a sense of solitude and feeling to them.
Using wide-angles for dynamic composition
If you want to use wide angles to create more drama, you'll want to get in close. Really close. Closer than you think you should. I'm often just a foot or two away when I shoot wide. This has the added benefit of automatically cleaning up your image. By filling up a large portion of the frame with the subject, it becomes less critical to have a clean background, because a viewer will have no problem being able to determine the subject.
1. Low and high angles create visual interest
Where portraits tend to work best somewhere near eye level, working with wides is often enhanced by taking a low or high position. It strengthens the visual impact, and it lets the viewer see the picture from a unique perspective.
Below, we see two examples. In the first, the low angle paired with the enhanced depth exaggerates Evan's body language and adds excitement, while the high angle in the second example helps bring attention to his grip on his cup and the charming awkwardness with which children drink.
2. Look for pattern and form around and behind the subject.
It doesn't look like it, but I'm pretty close to Evan in this picture - maybe a few feet away. I shot this with a 24mm lens on a full frame camera, so even being relatively close, it still shows a lot of background. The use of the wide-angle creates a sense of motion, while allowing for the inclusion of the dynamic pattern from the fence and shadows.
3. Small changes have large effects
The closer you are to your subject, the more smaller changesin position affect the image. Moving an inch higher can block or reveal different elements in the background and change the geometry of your subject (e.g. showing too much chin or too little of the eyes), so watch carefully for small changes.
4. Look for layering.
It's not just pattern and form that is revealed behind a subject. Because wide angles show much more background than telephotos, it's a great way to add layers of meaning to your images. In the first picture below, we see my wife Katya lying down lazily, while watching Evan. It helps give a sense as to what the picture is about. In the image after that, we see Evan's first trip to an ice cream parlor. I loved his intensity of focus, as he tried to scoop the ice cream out, but I also wanted to get enough of the room in the picture to say "ice cream parlor."
Shooting with wides adds versatility to a photographer's toolbox. It is effective in a multitude of situations, and it lends a true documentary perspective to life by helping to preserve its most important moments