Maybe It's Time You Saw the World a Little Differently

By Roy Furchgott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 17, 2008

When Larry C. Price was a young photographer, he started out with a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera and the "normal 50 millimeter lens." A few years later, when he got serious, he splurged and added a wide-angle lens. "It opened up a whole new world," he said. That world included two Pulitzer Prizes, work for National Geographic and being named one of 17 "Visionaries" who advise the Olympus camera company in North America.

Adding a wide-angle lens to a camera bag is an easy way to improve your travel photography and the storytelling in all your pictures. But if you are a recent convert to the digital SLR, be aware that the wide-angle that comes with most cameras is not nearly as wide as it seems. Going wide ain't cheap, and it takes practice to master, but the results -- even if you don't get a Pulitzer -- are worth the time and expense.

In the glory days of the SLR, professional photographers usually carried a 24mm wide-angle lens in their bag. The 24mm is a medium wide-angle that can cram a lot into one photo. You get not just a person in the shot, but the person's surroundings as well. "It's a storytelling lens: You can tell a whole story in one frame," said Bob Krist, teacher and contributing photographer and editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine.

Consider the two photos taken by Price, shown at right. The one at the top, taken with the equivalent of a 50mm lens, is flat, lacking interest. Using the wide-angle, as in the bottom shot, exaggerates the leaves in the foreground, giving them significance and the picture some drama.

Digital SLRs can come standard with an 18mm lens, which in the days of 35mm cameras was wide enough to capture the Gobi, except that on a dSLR it's not truly 18mm.

Because the light sensor (the digital film in a digital camera) is smaller than a frame of 35mm film, you get only a portion of the picture that a 35mm film frame would get. "You are getting the sweet spot, and you are cropping out the edges," said Lindsay Silverman, a senior technical manager with Nikon. So to get the same wide-angle effect you would with a 35mm camera, you need an even wider lens.

How wide? A simple mathematical formula can tell you which size lens you need to get the effect you want. It's called a cropping factor. You multiply the size of the lens you are considering using by the cropping factor to find out the size the lens would be on a 35mm camera. (Because different cameras have different size sensors, converting to the 35mm lets photographers make apples-to-apples comparisons.)

Olympus cameras use a cropping factor of 2, so for Price to get the effect of a 24mm lens in his wide-angle woodland photo, he required a 12mm lens. In entry-level and intermediate dSLRs, Canon typically uses a conversion of 1.6; Nikon, 1.5. The conversion varies by camera model, but any decent camera shop should be able to give you the right number. The exceptions are the highest-end professional cameras, which have a sensor the same size as 35mm film, thereby requiring no cropping factor.

Once you have the lens, you need to learn how to work with it. The most obvious uses (taking photos in small spaces and capturing sweeping landscapes) are pretty self-explanatory. But getting the dynamic shots at which the wide-angle excels requires a tad more thought and skill.

"The trick is to use the foreground. Get very close to something and fill the foreground," Krist said. "Let's say you're in Munich and there is a juggler. You get two to three feet away from him, put him in the foreground, and you can still see the towers of Frauenkirche in the background." That gives the photo both a central element (the juggler) and a context (Munich).

It isn't quite as foolproof as it sounds, though. Elements in the center of the picture appear normal, but those at the edges will seem oddly warped. In Price's wide-angle woodland shot, it appears as if some of the greenery has been rearranged. "If you put someone's head in the corner of a frame, it becomes distorted -- you get the egghead thing -- so you have to be careful," Price said.

Some subjects aren't suitable for wide-angle at all. "If you are photographing horses, they look horrible: They have these long necks; they look like a giraffe when you are through," Price said.

There is a cost to this higher level of artistry. "For enthusiasts, it's not unusual to buy a lens that costs more than the camera," Silverman said. These lenses are no exception.

For the entry-level to mid-range Canon dSLRs, a wide-angle zoom, such as the EF-S 10-22mm (equivalent to 16-35mm), lists for $800. For Olympus cameras, a new lens will be available this fall, a 9-18mm (equivalent to 18-36mm) listing for $600. Nikon's AS-F 12--24mm lists for $1,400. These lenses are frequently available at a substantial discount online and from camera wholesalers.

Although a lens that costs as much as your camera can't be called cheap, it's not an unreasonable price to pay for a whole new world.

Roy Furchgott last wrote for Travel about cellphone choices when traveling overseas.

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