Tyler’s Tips Episode 17: Wide Angle Distortion


Welcome to Tyler’s Tips. Today, I’m going to talk about how we can use wide-angle lens distortion to help tell our stories.

I love wide-angle lenses. I love the look that you can create with them and I think it’s a more accurate representation of the way that we, as humans, experience the world than tighter, more zoomed-in shots. So, I love wide-angle lenses, I shoot with them all the time. I shoot lots of architecture, which is super-wide a lot of the time, and I shoot a lot of portraits and documentary shots of people with wide-angle lenses.

But that comes with a lot of challenges because wide-angle lenses have a lot of distortion. So, I want to talk a little bit about how to use that distortion to help tell the stories and also how I like to try to avoid it in certain situations where I think it can become a distraction or it can really fight your story.

First of all, just to briefly talk about distortion in general, all lenses distort. They are taking this world, a certain field of view of this world, and they bring it down into this flat plane. As that light is bent to make it all come into focus and come into this one little spot, it inherently distorts things. So, the key is to get to know whatever lens you’re using and understand what its distortion characteristics are. That includes an iPhone. They’re great cameras, I love iPhone cameras, but also that you have significant distortion.

With wide-angle lenses, and the iPhone is a wide-angle lens as well, you tend to see that distortion more around the edges, so what wide-angle lenses do is they spread everything out. They create more separation, not in terms of focus separation, but perceived distance between the foreground and the background elements. They spread everything out.

In this case, one thing I want to do, you’ll see me looking down during this video because I have a little monitor underneath the camera. I put a zoom lens on the camera so I can talk about this framing that I did for this Tyler’s Tips Video and how I’m using the wide-angle lens distortion, and not using it, to tell the story, just as an example, so you will see me looking down a lot during this. It’s so I can see what I’m doing with my hands.

This is a moderately wide field of view. It’s about 30 millimeters on a 35-millimeter camera. That was hard to say. 30 millimeter field of view on 35- millimeter camera, for those of you who care about that, and you’ll see some distortion. Like, if I put my fingers and hands near the edges, you can see they stretch out a bit. My arms kind of look a little long when I get too excited with my gesticulations when I’m having a hard time articulating gesticulation.

Anyways, coming back to wide-angle lenses, I’ve chosen this field of view because I feel like it’s a good trade-off considering the story I want to tell. For this series of videos, the goal is to share these ideas about creating more interesting photos and techniques and ways to make photography easier. I love the backdrop of a working photography studio for that, so it is what it is. I don’t clean it up when I do these videos. I let it just be what it is.

I want that context and to get a lot of that context, I have to shoot live up to a point. With wide-angle lens comes distortion so this field of view, for my taste and this is all very subjective, but for my taste, I can live with the distortion that you see as I gesticulate. That level of distortion is okay with me considering that it allow us to get all this context in here.

To exaggerate this, I’m just going to zoom out with our zoom lens. Now, I’m standing in the same spot on the floor. The camera is in the same spot, but look how small I am compared to where I was before, so we do have lots more context, that’s great. To create sort of a nice comfortable size for my face in this video, I got to get a lot closer to the camera.

Now, look at how crazy the distortion gets. It exaggerates everything and you can see the exaggerated distortion in all the things in the room. You can see my piece of foam core that I use to block the light from this window that comes in and fills in the shadow too much. You can see my couch, all kinds … And some of that’s good stuff. I don’t know. The ceiling is kind of not that cool. We don’t really need to see that. You’d see more of this great floor in here, which I love.

But it introduces this crazy distortion, and so when I start talking and gesticulating because I’m excited about shooting with wide-angle lenses, I love it, my hands start to get really distracting. That visualness, it becomes too intense for my taste. Again, this is all very subjective.

Oh, before I zoom back out, there’s one other thing I want to talk about. I’m using this mostly as an example of where I don’t feel like shooting this wide, for me, is a good idea with people. I feel like it’s too wacky-looking. Too fun house. But for architecture, we shoot at this field of view and a lot wider all the time because I think there are a lot of elements in architecture that tolerate that distortion just fine and it can actually be a big advantage.

The example is this couch over here. It’s really distorted. It’s at the edge of the frame and it’s really stretched out, but it doesn’t necessarily look like it’s not a couch. It’s fine if it’s distorted. It tolerates it much better than parts of the human body tolerate it. Like, look at my arm. Whoa. That’s really weird.

What the couch does over here for our composition, it adds this wonderful leading line. That line is exaggerated and made more dramatic, which I think contributes dynamic energy to this image in a good way. So, if it were an architectural image, I love the distortion. If it’s an image with people in it, I don’t like the distortion.

So, let’s come back to our sort of middle-of-the-road position on the zoom lens, which is what I like for this composition. Again, we got a nice amount of context. You can see that this is a studio, you can see two corners of the room, which really helps define the space. There’s enough distortion that you get a really strong leading line down this side. But it also, and if I’d back up to where I usually stand, is around here, it’s more comfortable. That wackiness, if I move my arms around, it’s not as distracting. They’re not getting stretched out as much.

Now, if we take that idea a little further and we zoom in, you get to see my beard up close. This is standing in the same spot. Now, this about 50 millimeters or so on a 35-millimeter camera and we have a lot let context, but we also have a lot less distortion. So, if I were to make myself about the same size by backing up and sort of scooching down a lit bit, what you see here now is a lot less distortion. My hands don’t get stretched out nearly as much. That’s a good thing, I think, in the context of shooting people.

But it comes at a cost and, that is, we’ve lost a lot of context here. For my taste, again, it’s my story I’m trying to tell here, so I get to choose, I don’t like it. I don’t like how we’ve given up a lot of the story. You can’t see as much of the studio. We don’t have this nice leading line. It’s not as dramatic. The foreground is less involved, less dramatic. It does have less distortion. But, for me, the trade-off isn’t worth it. So, I like it to be about here, which is where I usually shoot these videos.

There you go, an example how you can work with wide-angle distortion and make decisions to help tell the story. So next time you’re out shooting, whether it’s with an iPhone or a fancy camera, with a wide-angle lens on it, think about how you can make sure that distortion is helping tell the story you want to tell and not introducing problems into your photo that are fighting your story.

I hope this tips was helpful. As always, if you have any challenges or ideas around photography that you like me to discuss in a future episode, shoot me an email and I’ll work it in. Thank you for your time and I’ll see you next time.


Tyler’s Tips Episode 1: Put The Camera Down


Welcome to Tyler’s Tips. Today I’m going to talk about how sometimes the best thing you can do for your photography is actually put the camera down.

                        Who’s had this experience? You see something amazing: a child running through a field, a rainbow with a sunset, maybe a child running under a rainbow and a sunset. Wow. Oh, my God. Bust out the camera. Click a photo. Done.

                        Then you’re headed home. You’re driving, hopefully somebody else is driving, or you’re sitting on the couch, and you’re like, “I’m going to post that sucker.” Then you go on there and you look at Facebook and you get ready to put this photo up, and you look at it, and you’re like, “Oh, God. It didn’t feel like that at all when I was there.” I’ve had that experience many times.

                        Now this trick I’m going to tell you is going to help reduce the number of times that happens. So, you’ll notice how I said, “It didn’t feel like that.” One of the toughest things about photography is that in the real world, we see and we experience all these things, and then we feel something.

                        And photography that works is like taking that and squishing it into a little rectangle and showing it to somebody else, and it works. They feel what you felt. It’s magic. I absolutely love that about photography. It’s also really hard to do because what we tend to want to do is we see it, and we feel it, and we’re like, “Oh, my gosh.” And then we start shooting away like Yosemite Sam, and it doesn’t actually work.

                        What works is taking a second and stopping, and when you feel that, what you do is you put the camera down, or you even resist the urge to pull the camera out of your pocket, and take a second and say, “Wow. What is that that’s so powerful?” And you can do this really fast once you get good at it. But why do I want to take this picture? What’s cool about it? What am I feeling? And how can I share that feeling with somebody else?

                        What this is is a very simple, fundamental building block of creating a story. If we know what it is that we feel and what we want somebody else to feel, that’s the beginnings of our story. And then we know what our story is. We can figure that out. Then we can make decisions about how we’re going to shoot that photo. “Oh, maybe it’d be better if I stand over here. Or maybe if I ask this person to do this over there with the light in a different place. Or maybe I should move that car that’s bright pink out of the background of my photo before I take it because that’s going to be really annoying, now that I think about it, when I try to post that sucker.”

                        Anyways, these are all the things that will come to your mind quickly and very obviously if you can stop and think for a second. So, there is my tip for the day. Take a second before you shoot, and think about, “What does it feel like and how can I create a photo that’s going to help communicate that feeling to somebody else?”