Lessons from the Shot: The Psychology of the Wide-Angle Lens


 by Stanley Leary

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Some folks choose a telephoto lens to see how close a subject can appear - say a bear, for instance. These same people doubtlessly chose a wide-angle lens so they can get-it-all-in the picture - usually a landscape picture.
If these people studied the work of professional photographers they would probably be surprised to find that the pros do just the opposite. A professional photographer picks the lens (tool) to use based on what that tool will allow him to do. It is the same for a professional carpenter; he picks a tool to carry out a certain task.
Robert Capa, a famous war photographer once said, “If you pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Mr. Capa wasn’t advocating the use of longer lenses, he was telling us to physically get closer, to become more involved and intimate with our subjects.
A telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens help us to tell the same story in different ways. The choice of which lens is like a writer choosing which words to use. It depends on what needs to be said.
A telephoto lens not only brings subjects closer to the viewer, it makes objects in the photograph appear closer together than in reality. A wide-angle lens does the opposite. Objects appear further apart than in reality.
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Keeping the rendition of special reality in mind consider perhaps the most creative or powerful use of a wide-angle lens; when you are especially close to someone with a wide-angle lens a lot of the surroundings are included. This is great. The viewer sees not only the subject, but their environment as well.
By using our feet and not just our zoom lenses, we’re able to make “environmental” portraits. We can now show what they look like and were they are and/or what they are doing. It is now easy for our viewers to relate to our subjects. The photo carries a great deal of information.
I love to show where someone works and what he or she does for a living. By getting close, the subject is predominate and not a little speck in the middle of a photo. I can have the person pause whatever they are doing and just casually look at the camera and if I time it just right I can show them at ease with a pleasant expression. Shooting close, the photo may become personal with the viewer, because the photographer became personal with the subject. You can’t communicate what you don’t experience with the camera.
Why does a photo feel more personal when the camera is closer to the subject? The wider the lens the more you get this feeling of being there.
Be aware of a couple of issues when shooting wide angles close up to a subject.
It’s difficult to use a wide-angle lens close without distorting the people and the surroundings. The wider the lens the more pronounced the distortion. A moderately wide lens, like a 28mm, is much easier to use than an extreme wide-angle like a 20mm or wider. Of course, the wider lenses seem to help with creativity – when used correctly.
We’ve all seen shots where the walls look as if they’re falling forward or backward or the clock on the wall and the place on the table are ovals instead of circles. This type of distortion, converging lines, can be used for good, but rarely; the general rule is to avoid these distortions. Practice helps.
Keep the subject out of the corners of the picture to avoid bending their head or body out of shape. Keep them out of the center as well, because it creates a negative tension (but may be that’s what you want). Using the super wide-angle lenses is a real balancing act. Nothing is cut and dried in creative work.  That’s why two photographers can cover the same story and produce completely different pictures. 
Working close to someone can make you and the subject uncomfortable. To avoid the “in your face” quandary, remember some of these tips to maintain a comfortable shoot while close.
First, tell them what you wish to do and get their permission before you move in for the shot. A funny thing happens when you do this—they usually get a little excited, are cooperative, and feel like they’re involved, rather than simply the subject.
Second, they understand that you (and/or your client) consider them valuable. You want to include them in the project.
Third, most people (regardless of what they may say) are flattered when they’re asked to be in a photo. However, some may need help to make it enjoyable.
Telephoto lens can help make a great head and shoulders portrait without too much distortion. 
Working close to people with wide-angle lenses tells their story in an intimate and personal way. Watch the distortion, the composition, and the uncomfortable feeling of your subjects. Use the background to help tell the story. Keep it simple and enjoyable.