Posted by: kerryl29 | December 26, 2009

Wide Angles in Tight Places

From my perspective, there is exactly one, undeniably paradoxical, rule as it applies to photographic composition: there are no rules. There are plenty of guidelines, but no hard and fast rules.

This is a broad subject I’ll undoubtedly return to in future blog entries but for the moment I want to focus on a tiny subset of this overarching point.

There’s a broadly held belief that the use of wide angle lenses in landscape photography is primarily limited to the revelation of open spaces. The wide angle, this thinking goes, is the kind of thing that can be used at the seaside, or the desert, or to take in the majesty of mountain peaks reflected in alpine lakes.  And, of course, wide angle lenses can be used with these scenes with marvelous effectiveness.

But as I alluded in an earlier blog entry, my home region of the American Midwest is seldom included on lists of landscape photography hot spots, largely because it’s lacking many of the “grand landscape” scenes that seem to fit the traditional wide angle straight jacket.

Does this mean that wide angle lenses are essentially inappropriate for Midwest landscape photography?  Absolutely not, as far as I’m concerned.

Forest Phlox, Fort Harrison State Park, Indiana

I’m a big believer in the notion of taking what the landscape (and accompanying conditions) give you, but a bit of creative thinking can allow for the use of atypical techniques without violating this “prime directive.”

The Midwest is full of tight spots, but I’ve found it remarkably receptive to wide angle photography.  Now, I don’t want to make it sound as though I use a wide angle exclusively while photographing the region, or even primarily for that matter.  But I do go with the wide angle approach a significant minority of the time.

St. Louis Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

One of the advantages I’ve found when using a wide angle lens in confined places is that the landscape itself has a natural inclination to eliminate one of the biggest potential disadvantages of wide angle lenses:  the tendency to include too much in the frame.  A thick stand of trees in a forest, for instance, or a dominant rock wall in a riverside canyon, has the benefit of blotting out all sorts of potential compositional distractions despite the broad angle of view endemic to the wide lens.  Additionally, the proximity of the background to the shooting position in these tight places–the aforementioned stand of trees or canyon wall, for example–can remove the perspective distortion that results with wide angle usage:  important but distant elements being substantially reduced in size (and, by extension, compositional importance).  This phenomenon is commonplace, of course, when wide angle lenses are used in wide open settings.

Pewits Nest State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Pewits Nest State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Sometimes pushing back against the conventional wisdom can produce pleasing results.  If using a wide angle in a narrow spot can be the ticket for interesting landscape imagery, how about trying a telephoto in open spaces?  You can probably guess the result, but we’ll leave that discussion for another entry, somewhere down the road.



  1. omg–I love this post. The St. Louis Canyon photo is beyond words.

    • Thanks very much!

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