The Geometry of Photography

By , June 27, 2014 7:27 am

or How to Avoid Boring the Audience with Your Wide Angle Lens

Photography is a surprisingly complex visual puzzle. In addition to using a lot of numbers, it is rife with its own jargon: the inverse square law, the exposure triangle, circles of confusion, lighting ratios, the rule of thirds, and on and on.

One excellent use for a wide angle lens is to utilize the directional elements of an image, called leading lines, to draw the viewer into the center of an image, as in this November 2012 high school playoff football game.

One excellent use for a wide angle lens is to utilize the directional elements of an image, called leading lines, to draw the viewer into the center of an image, as in this November 2012 high school playoff football game.

One thing I see again and again, and hear described and debated, that is directly related to the geometry of photography, is the misuse of wide angle lenses. Many images that make very poor use of wide angle lenses pass through my hands every day. Not only do I see tons of images shot with wide angles that simply fail to fill the frame with a basic subject (like group photos with the group in the middle of a mostly empty frame), I also see wide angle images that fail to grasp the most fundamental concept in photography: storytelling.

Proper selection of focal length is one of the ways we tell the viewer our story, but it doesn’t end there. Once we have mounted our 18mm or our 85mm or our 300mm, we can’t just sit back and let it do the work. I see a lot of web forum posts with titles like, “What’s the best portrait lens (or wide angle, or telephoto, etc.) for my Camcon 9000?”

The answer is, of course, “that depends.” And it mostly depends on you.

The most important thing you can do with a wide-angle lens – and I can’t emphasize this enough – is use near-far relationships to invite the audience into your image. Without this essential storytelling element, wide angle shots, particularly landscapes, can easily bore the audience.

Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to...

Here is a very dull photo of some rebar by the side of the road, shot with a 12mm lens. Compare to…

…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.

…same scene, same lens, same exposure, same light, but with a very different result. Essentially, all I did was move.

In the end, the success of your images made with a wide angle or ultra wide angle lens will sink or swim on how you use it. It requires a willingness to give up boring, easy perspectives and work to find ways to tell your story with the lines and angles that are available with these incredible tools.

2 Responses to “The Geometry of Photography”

  1. Wil C. Fry says:

    Excellent. I certainly fall into the category of people who bought lenses before quite knowing what to do with them. Wide-angle is one of my (many) weak points though I occasionally get nice ones by accident. Thanks for laying it out there.

  2. Xavier says:

    A willingness to stand or move to the odd spot. I like that.

    To stand apart, much to ponder there.

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