Think Wide

Wide-angle lenses have always been my favorites for landscape photography. I’m blaming it on David Muench. His trademark images featuring strong, point blank foregrounds with spectacular backgrounds were one of the big reasons I became interested in nature photography in the first place. I never got into large format equipment because I like the freedom of the 35mm format, and I’m too lazy and undisciplined for large format.

Grand Staircase Escalante NM
Taken at 10mm with small sensor camera. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for
getting close to foreground elements and still including the background.

The first thing most instructors tell aspiring landscape photographers is narrow your focus. Analyze the scene to determine what it is that makes you want to photograph it, and compose around that. This almost always means shooting tighter than you originally planned. And this is a legitimate technique to teach. Let’s face it, nature is messy, and a wide-angle lens is going to include more picture elements that don’t support your center of interest. The more you can tighten your focus, the more distracting elements you can eliminate, the stronger your photo is going to be.

Toadstool & Flowers
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera. I like to see the big picture.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that I like to capture the big picture. I want to see the immensity of the scenery, and this is where a wide-angle lens shines. It’s also easier to handhold a wide-angle lens if you’re traveling light (or if you’re just lazy), and because of this it’s easier to use a wide-angle lens in weird positions, positions that you may not even be able to get a tripod into. A wide-angle lens automatically provides more depth of field because it tends to make the picture elements smaller. These lenses are great for making sunstars and minimizing flares simply because they make the sun smaller.

Balanced Rock Reflection
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera.
The pothole is only a few feet across, but there are no distracting elements.

Desolate environments, places without a lot of vegetation to clutter up your image are ideal for using wide-angle lenses. Some of my favorites are Death Valley, the alpine tundra of the western mountain ranges, and the high deserts of Arizona and Utah. One thing to keep in mind is that wide-angle lenses emphasize negative space. If there is a blank spot in a field of flowers, a wide-angle lens will make that empty spot larger and more distracting.

Glacier NP
Taken at 17mm, the lilies in the extreme foreground were used to cover a blank spot in the field.

I should probably mention that Cathy prefers to shoot tighter, picking out details in the scene, and even in the most desolate landscapes, she comes back with more keepers than I do with my wide-angle lenses.