Best Travel Lens? Go Ultrawide
Planning a holiday? Andrew Fildes explains why ultrawide zoom lenses are so good for travel photography.
travelling I've discovered there's one lens that spends more time on my camera
than any other -- a rather compact ultrawide zoom with an equivalent focal
length of 18-36mm.
I'm a fan of ultrawide lenses for travel photography and it's been interesting in recent years to see a significant increase in the number of compacts with wide lenses for just that reason. While most of them used to have a zoom that started at 35mm or worse, now it is not too difficult to find a compact camera with a lens that starts at 28mm and some even manage 24mm.
The trend has continued with DSLR lenses with a large number of ultrawide lenses to choose from including the Tamron 10-24mm, Nikkor 10-24mm, Canon 10-22mm, Sigma 10-20mm, Sony 11-18mm and Olympus 9-18mm. Note that all of these lenses are designed for use on reduced format sensors, where they deliver an equivalent wide focal length between 15 and 18mm.
All of these are "slow" lenses with maximum apertures of f/3.5, 4 or 4.5 closing down to f/4.5 or 5.6 at the "long" end of the zoom range. That's not exactly fast, but most modern cameras can compensate with higher ISO settings. One advantage of the smaller apertures though is that these lenses are light and compact in most cases, much easier to carry around than film-generation wide zooms.
Now it’s well known that if you go wider than 24mm you are likely to get some distortion and at the widest setting on these lenses the distortion is very noticeable. Fortunately, these distortions can be reduced in post-production, though sometimes the distortion can be used to the benefit of the image, especially in landscapes where you can crop to a 16:9 widescreen perspective or even a real panoramic style.
Another benefit of these lenses is their vastly increased depth of field, which makes it easier to get sharp images even with slight focussing errors.
Of course, the big advantage is the amount of stuff you can squeeze into the frame. That can be very handy in tight spaces. One of my first commercial jobs was to shoot a vehicle hoist that was installed in a very small garage. I was fortunate that I had a 21mm lens in my camera bag.
One thing I've noticed on this holiday is that Europeans have a habit of erecting buildings very close together! With impossibly narrow streets, taking a few steps back to frame that pretty medieval church is often easier said than done!
Continuing my list of likes, ultra-wide lenses are great for "shooting from the hip". The perspective is so wide that it's possible to take shots without raising the camera to your eye – just point in the general direction and press the button. It's a good way to photograph people without having them "seize up" in response to the camera. The error rate is large at first but once you get the hang of it, you can get some decent shots with a down-low perspective. Digital shooting is cheap so blast away and discard the disasters later.
Remember I spoke about distortion earlier and suggested it was a relatively easy thing to fix in post-production? Well, that's true, but sometimes you can make distortion work for you by exaggerating the perspective -- this seems to work well when you get up close to objects, particularly curved, geometric shapes. Experiment to see what works for you. One tip though; keep people’s heads out of the corners of your pictures – they’ll end up stretched like cucumbers!
Another tip. Have a go at pseudo panoramas. Look for suitably spread out subjects like landscapes and shoot with lots of foreground and sky. Later on, at the computer crop the excess sky and foreground to create a 16:9-ratio image. You can go a step further to an extreme "letterbox" ratio if it suits the image.
For best results, make sure you always keep the lens hood on. The sun is your enemy with an ultrawide lens. There's also a tendency to chromatic abberation, the colour fringing seen on high contrast edges. Fortunately, this isn't too hard to correct in programs like Lightroom and Photoshop.
| Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM
| Nikkor AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED
|Olympus Zuiko Digital 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 Ultra Wide||$850|
| Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 Ultra Wide
|Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HS||$650|
|Sony DT 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6||$1100|
|Tamron SP AF10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 Di II LD Aspherical (IF)||$600|
* Prices are approximate. Actual prices
By shooting very wide and including plenty of foreground and sky, it is
possible to crop to a false panorama later. However, as there is some
enlargement required, keep the ISO low and the shutter fast to minimise noise
and maximise sharpness.
It is in the nature of the wide angle lens that there is a huge depth of field. This makes it ideal for snap shooting but hopeless for portraiture where you want the background to fuzz out. Extreme wide angles have extreme DOF so dramatic perspectives are possible.
Ultrawide angle lenses produce an exaggerated perspective, which can be used to creative effect. Snail stew at a quayside food market. (Note: The centre pot really is full of stewed snails: Escargot a la Bordelaise.)
Sometimes you want to photograph something large, like a building or monument, and you can’t step back. There’s something behind you like a highway full of deranged traffic, another building or a river. You can also keep foreground details out of the picture, such as a building site in front of the subject. A wide point of view allows you to depict the entire scene from close up, although you may have to settle for a dramatic angle.