Using a Wide Angle Lens For Your Nature & Wildlife Shots

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We spend our time trying to get closer to animals and nature, to photograph them and to see the intricate details they possess. We can sometimes become so focused on getting in close that we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. More often that not, I have failed to capture and animal in its natural environment and put some perspective into the lives these wild animals lead. This post will hopefully help us step back, and take a look at the scene: manage lines, contrasts, natural light and scale. Just a few aspects to keep in mind when using a wide angle lens to photograph wildlife.

I recently purchased a wide angle lens, the Canon 10-22mm EFS. It was my goal to get into some sort of landscape photography, but when exploring through the reserve and testing the lens, I was amazed at the types of images popping up on my screen. However, there is much to a wide angle lens, and it is not as simple as point and click. But by doing a bit of research one can slowly get to grips with certain aspects that will make using a wide angle lens so much more beneficial.

Scale:

With wide angle lenses, it is easy to lose the subject in the image if it is not going to be scaled up on a massive print. Each image will have a completely different feeling and impact when printed at different sizes. Eg: A print of a mouse at 4×6″ as apposed to the same image printed at 20×30″. The latter is completely unnecessary.  The use of scale in a wide angle photograph is also useful to consider when you want to illustrate perspectives of size.

Sheet Lightning - Rich Laburn

Using the foreground subject of a tree, the sheet lightning is given a sense of scale and perspective as it runs across the sky.  Photograph by: Rich Laburn

Below are just a few examples and brands to look out for. Each will come with its own price range and  quality. Do your research, it pays off. (There is certain terminology that narrows down wide angle lenses and ultra wide angle lenses. But for this we will refer to anything below 35mm as simple wide angle.)

Canon:

Canon 10-22mm F3.5-4.5 EFS
Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8 L II USM
Canon EF 20mm F2.8 USM

Nikon:

Nikon AF 18-35mm F3.5-4.5 D
Nikon AF-S 10-24mm F3.5-4.5 G DX ED
Nikon AF-S 12-24mm F4 G DX IF-ED

Sigma:

Sigma 10-20mm F3.5 EX DC HSM
Sigma 20mm F1.8mm EX DG ASP RF
Sigma AF 18-35mm F1.8

Tamron:

Tamron 10-24mm F3.5-4.5 DI II LD

Tokina:

Tokina AT-X 11-16mm F2.8 PRO DX II (CANON)

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Dramatic contrasts in black and white, whilst a herd of elephants drinks at the pan. Photograph by: Mike Sutherland.

Composition is everything:

Wide angle lenses are sometimes confused as lenses that are used to fit things into a frame without having to move further away from the subject. This is not the case. These lenses are for putting the viewer right in the action and it may take a bit of bravery or dirt to get right in the face of your subject. These lenses generally have a close minimum focusing distance, which allows one to get up close and personal. With wild animals this can become a little tough. But try your best.  When composing wildlife with such a wide lens, it is worthwhile trying to show other elements which will enhance the story around the subject matter.

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In this photograph, I tried to showcase the leopard in a Marula tree looking across the vast expanse of the bushveld. As leopards are solitary animals, this tells a story above and beyond a simple photograph of a leopard. Photograph by: Mike Sutherland.

Edges and Lines: 

Wide angle lenses are not fish eye lenses that tend to distort everything especially lines, that become curved. Wide angle lenses keep lines straight, however they do distort, but not technically, they distort artiscally and when used in the correct manner they can produce amazing results. On the edges and the corners, wide angle lenses will stretch the corners and the edges and they will also exaggerate any misalignment within an image. But they keep these lines straight and it is good to use this exaggerations to your advantage.

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Alot of wide angle shots are based around lines, especially if there is no subject matter like a towering Elephant bull. However, when it comes to lines it is a personal choice and it is good to explore. Some prefer to have lines leading in the from bottom left corner and some from the sides. It is all about experimenting and finding your niche.  Photograph by: Rich Laburn

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Note how the corners of the Leadwoods and indeed the photograph take on an expanded perspective.  Some wide angle lenses can have this effect on an image.  Photography by: Mike Sutherland.

Near Far Relationship:

With telephoto lenses, i.e: Zoom lenses, the relationship between objects is not exploited. These lenses tend to squeeze everything onto the same plane and compress ones perspective. Wide angle lenses do the opposite. They push the background very far and pull the foreground very close. They also expand spaces. The will make small spaces seem bigger by pushing horizons further away. Eg: The will make a small tree look massive in the context of the background.

Stormy Sky - Rich Laburn

Note how far the horizon is pushed back into the photograph, this perspective dramatically increases the size of the foreground image. Photograph by: Rich Laburn

Controlling Natural light:

This is a very tricky part to wide angle photography. It is very difficult to ensure ones exposure is correct with wide angle lenses. There tends to be a large variation in the light across the image as a whole, leaving some parts of an image overexposed and others underexposed. The human eye would naturally adjust for this as we look in different directions. One mechanism is to use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter (GND) to overcome uneven lighting, another is to take multiple exposures of the same image and then create a single image with an increased Higher Dynamic Range.

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This image was exposed perfectly for the colours in the sky. This exposure, however, left the foreground in complete darkness.  Although the photograph works, if there was a herd of elephants or a pride of lions in the foreground, using a Neutral Density Filter of HDR techniques would be a worthwhile option to explore. Photography by: Mike Sutherland.

The use of a wide angle lens for me opens up many doors, it allows me to explore a side of photography I never knew before and it has excited me to challenge myself. I have only had this lens for 6 weeks now and so many of the images need some work, but thats what practice and learning is all about. It leads to better knowledge and further understanding. But, in essence, this is about passion, it is about capturing a moment that moves you and it is about creating memories that will forever be with you.

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The journey.

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A subtle sky.

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Amazing time in the open areas.

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Sunset memories.

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Amoungst the clouds.

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Pay attention.

I encourage you to try some techniques out for yourself and please leave some comments about the pictures and how you think they may be changed for a greater impact.

Written by: Mike Sutherland
Photographed by: Mike Sutherland, Rich Laburn & Elsa Young

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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