What is a Wide Angle Lens?

Why you need one and how they work

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Chances are you've heard of a wide angle camera lens before, and you've almost certainly seen photos taken with these types of lenses. However, if you're relatively new to the digital photography or videography hobby, you might not be familiar with this type of product.

While this article won't delve into shopping recommendations for wide angle lenses–for advice and top picks, see this article on the Best 7 Wide Angle Lenses to Buy in 2017 for DSLR– we will explain what a wide-angle lens is and why you might want one.

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Wide Angle Lens Definition

An ultra-wide angle lens from Nikon. Nikon

A wide angle lens' focal length is shorter than that of non-wide angle lenses, and this allows the photographer to capture more of a scene within his or her photo. Focal length is the distance from the center of lens to where your lens is focused. The shorter the focal length, the wider the field of view you'll be able to capture.

So with a wide angle lens, you'd be able to get more of a given scene in your frame, and the objects in the foreground would appear much larger than those in the background. Essentially, with a wide angle lens you're getting a larger field of view.

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Why You Might Want to Use A Wide Angle Lens

Wide angle lenses provide a large field of view. Laura Munari/EyeEm/Getty Images

A wide angle could come in handy if you aren't able to move far away to get more in your shot. For example, if you're trying to shoot a large group photo but don't have much wiggle room when it comes to where you're standing, a wide angle lens can help you get as many people in frame as possible. 

Given that wide angle lenses are perfect for capturing a wide field of view, they can also be ideal for shooting nature scenes and landscapes. 

If you want to capture an image with good depth of field (meaning that objects in the background are still relatively in focus, even if not as much as objects in the foreground), a wide angle lens can also be a good choice, especially compared to zoom/telephoto lenses, which like wide angle lenses can be ideal for capturing nature scenes.

Speaking of zoom lenses, note that some wide angle lenses are also zoom lenses, but not all. Some lenses (wide angle and otherwise) have a fixed focal length (no option to zoom) — these types of lenses are also referred to as prime lenses. The best option for you depends on your preferences and your situation. Prime lenses are typically cheaper and have a wider max aperture setting, while zoom lenses offer more options since you can control how close your framing of a shot is.

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Some Things to Keep in Mind

The horizon line here is distorted, but it actually creates a really neat effect. WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

Shooting with a wide angle lens does involve some trade-offs. For instance, the short focal length of this type of lens can lead to some distortion. If you take a picture of various objects, such as a few different bottles on a table, and some are closer to the lens than others, they may appear to be vastly different sizes even if they aren't in reality. 

More than that, even, you can see distortion with any straight lines that you're capturing; wide angle lenses can make them appear curved, since the wide field of view results in the image having the quality of being squeezed to fit. This effect is known as barrel distortion.

Apart from distortion, wide angle lenses have the potential drawback of not emphasizing focus on specific parts of an image. This makes sense, but if your goal is to capture the details on a flower in a larger nature image, a telephoto (zoom) lens may be a better bet, since you can focus in on this specific area of the image and lock in the focus there.

Bottom Line

Wide angle lenses are ideal for landscape photography and any other scenarios where you want to get as much as possible in the frame without moving too far away from the subject. As you can see, there are plenty of use cases for this lens–it isn't an accessory that only the most professional and experienced of photographers will want to have. Just keep in mind that this type of lens can cause some distortion. As long as you know what to expect with a wide angle lens, however, you'll be well on your way to creating some great images.