When it comes to building up your cinematic lens collection, a wide-angle lens will probably be quite high on your list. But what does a wide lens do for your filmmaking? What are the dos and don’ts of wide-angle lenses? And what’s a wide-angle lens vs a fish-eye lens?
What is a wide-angle lens?
The technical definition of a wide-angle lens is a lens with a focal length shorter than the size of your camera’s sensor. That means if you’re shooting with a 35mm camera, any lens with a focal length of 35mm or shorter is wide-angle. To be even more precise, when a lens has a focal length between 18 and 24mm, it is ultra-wide-angle; fish-eye lenses are specialist ultra-wide angle lenses that usually have a focal length below 18mm, often closer to 10mm, making a fish-eye a very, very wide-angle lens. The angle of view with a fish-eye lens is around 180 degrees or more, and barrel distortion is very obvious in fish-eye lens images. Barrel distortion will make the lines in an image look as if they are bending inwards - like a barrel.
So that’s the technical definition. But what does a wide-angle lens mean for your filmmaking?
A wide-angle lens will give you a wider angle of view and let you fit more of a scene into your frame, a telephoto lens gets you close, a ‘normal’ lens resembles a human-eye view and a wide-angle gives you a sweep.
It follows that an ultra-wide-angle lens will bring an even wider perspective to your shot, while a fish-eye lens will give you an almost circular and very distorted view. Fish-eye lenses are great for very specific purposes, but you wouldn’t want to shoot a whole movie with one!
Wide-angle lenses will also make anything that is very close to your lens appear disproportionately large compared to subjects and objects further in the background. This can be useful, but it can also be tricky, so proceed with caution.
How and when to use a wide-angle lens
The first and most obvious use for a wide-angle lens is to shoot an establishing shot and introduce your audience to a scene. A wide-angle lens will give your audience an overview of the time and place for your story, allow them to orient themselves and get a sense of scale and the overall picture.
Being able to take in more of a scene means that wide-angle lenses let you capture more of a character’s movement and body language. You can see how someone interacts with the entire scene, rather than just focusing on small details in a closer shot.
If you’re going for a long shot, then a wide-angle lens will help you make the most of it.
Finally, a wide-angle lens will help you immerse your audience in the scene and story. The view from a regular or telephoto lens can make it feel as if your audience is observing a conversation or a scene and puts a distance between them and the subjects. On the other hand, a wide-angle lens creates a more subjective view and plunges your audience into the action and brings them closer to the characters. Rather than listening to a conversation, they’ll feel a part of it.
How to get the best out of a wide-angle lens
The first recommendation to get the best out of a wide-angle lens is probably what not to do! Unless you are looking for a distorted effect, don’t get very close to your subject with a wide lens. Barrel distortion means that you will exaggerate their features and give someone an unrealistically large nose or too big a head or feet depending on the camera angle you’ve chosen to use. That might be exactly what you want or need, but doing it by mistake would be very unfortunate.
When you are shooting with a wide-angle lens, it’s very easy to think, ‘Oh! That looks great! We’ll go with that!’ but while it looks pretty, there’s no obvious focal point. When there’s nothing clear cut for your audience to focus on, they will search around the screen, trying to latch onto something. It’s frustrating and can result in them losing interest or even patience. Always ensure that you have a definite subject in a wide-angle scene.
To help draw your audience’s attention to your chosen subject, think about subject placement, depth of field, lighting and leading lines. Do what you can to direct their focus where you want it to be.
Wide-angle lenses are great at accentuating movement. Combined with a dolly shot, a wide-angle lens can really move your audience into and through a scene, adding to that immersive effect. Any kind of movement with a wide-angle lens will create a dynamic shot that draws your viewers into the scene. Try it and see!
Finally, make sure to watch for distortion. We’ve already seen how a wide-angle lens can make something close to the lens appear unnaturally large. They can also make it look as if straight lines are curving inwards to the center of the frame or as if buildings are tipping over.
Wide-angle lens recommendations
I would always recommend that you consider your needs very carefully before spending money on a new piece of equipment. Maybe you actually need something else first. Or perhaps a different piece of kit will give you better value for money or push you to be a better filmmaker at this particular time. But whether you are looking for a smartphone camera accessory, a DSLR wide-angle lens or a specific cinematography lens, there are plenty of options on the market.
DSLR cameras have hundreds of compatible wide-angle lenses, both prime and zoom. For example, if you’re looking for a Canon wide-angle lens, as well as at least 21 Canon-made lenses, there are 3rd-party lenses from Sigma, Samyang, Tamron and Tokina. 3rd-party manufacturers are always worthy of consideration; they make great lenses and are often reasonably priced. Prime lenses tend to be cheaper than zooms, as are lenses just for APS-C cameras, rather than full-frame.
For an affordable Canon wide-angle lens, think about the Canon EF 24mm ƒ/2.8, which fits both full-frame and APS-C cameras.
Tokina makes fish-eye lenses in both Canon and Nikon mounts.
If you’re still not sure or wondering which lens is best for you, try before you buy. You might have a friend with the piece of gear you are interested in who might lend it to you. Or you can always hire gear from a professional company, there are plenty out there. Finally, think about buying 2nd-hand lenses, too. Just be sure to purchase from a reputable dealer to avoid scams or gear that hasn’t been properly maintained.