Wide-Angle Lenses and the Art of Inclusion

Because wide-angle lenses have a wide field of view, they make it considerably more difficult to exclude unwanted visual elements. Rather, it becomes much more critical for the photographer to make given elements in the scene relate to one another in a visually pleasing way; hence, I like to call wide-angle photography the “art of inclusion.”

Compositional complexity increases when working with wide-angle lenses. You have to figure out ways to simplify the design to make it effective. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 6 seconds.

Although the fundamentals of good composition do not change with lens choice, different lenses can lead to significant differences in approach. In Telephoto Isolation: The Art of Exclusion, I discussed using telephoto lenses to isolate visual elements and simplify a scene. This approach requires one to think critically about which elements are important to a composition, and which elements distract from the composition—something I like to call the “art of exclusion.” In this post, I swing to the other side of the pendulum and discuss using wide-angle lenses and the "art of inclusion."

With chaotic scenes such as this rain forest, wide-angle lenses can be very challenging to use. A good strategy for success is to make important objects look more prominent by getting closer, and by using the wide angle of view to shrink less important objects (that are farther away) in size and importance. Olympic National Park, USA. Sony a7R IV, Venus Optics 12mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.8 seconds, focus stack blend.

The challenge of working with wide-angle lenses is that, by taking in a broader view of a given scene, compositional complexity increases. Simply put, working with six visual elements is easier than working with sixty. Good composition requires skill no matter what lens you use, but finding a way to successfully include elements rather than eliminating them is in many ways more challenging. Of course, working with longer lenses has its own unique challenges, and even telephoto isolated scenes can be extremely chaotic.

This desert scene is especially chaotic, so I had to be very careful with my framing and position to ensure a coherent design. Gold Butte National Monument, USA. Sony a7R IV, Tamron 17-28mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.4 seconds, focus stack blend.

The trick to successful wide-angle use, especially when working with a chaotic scene, is to find compelling ways to order and structure the often wildly disparate elements included within your composition. One strategy I use is to incorporate visual anchors into my compositions, which are bold, eye-catching, graphic shapes that attract the eye, to create order. For most landscape compositions, this visual anchor is a foreground object, and the photographer exaggerates its size and importance by getting close.

I made this wide angle photo in an "ice cave" along the south shore of Lake Superior. By getting close to the ice shard in the foreground, I make it appear larger and more important in the final composition. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, USA. Sony a7R IV, Venus Optics 9mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, multiple exposure and focus stack blend.

When working with wide angle lenses, objects close to the lens appear abnormally large relative to more distant objects, and distant objects appear abnormally small. Not only does this exaggerate scale differences and thus enhance the appearance of depth, it also helps simplify the composition: potentially distracting background elements, when reduced in scale, can often be effectively rendered less noticeable. The viewer focuses their attention on what's relatively big, and by making your foreground really big by getting close, you draw the viewer's eye to the visual anchor to start their exploration of your composition.

I got extremely close to the cholla cacti in the foreground, making them much more prominent in the composition. This, combined with the intentional underexposure to render much of the scene in silhouette, allowed me to simplify the visual design. Gold Butte National Monument, USA. Sony a7R IV, Venus Optics 12mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/125 second, focus stack blend.

Different focal lengths can have a clear impact on photographic style, and can yield very different artistic results. Personally, I’m an unrepentant wide-angle junkie, and I just love the way the world looks from behind a super wide lens. No matter which end of the lens spectrum you end up on, strong compositional skills are necessary to create compelling images, and focal length is but one of many factors that may influence a composition. Even if you eventually develop a preference for a certain focal range, it is important to try to master both the arts of exclusion and inclusion.

About the author

Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.