Wide Angle for People





Nothing is quite like photographing people – for me at least. It’s such a pivotal experience on many levels. Of course it’s about finding a way to capture the essence of a person – or his or her soul, as has often been stated. But it’s also about connecting, and about the personal exchanges happening between the photographer and the individual(s) being photographed. There is the human aspect of photographing people as well as the creative aspect of the process. When the two really bond the experience can even be elevated to a spiritual level. That’s when the interaction levitates beyond the human and physical realm, when the exchange transcends into an illimitable relationship. Finally there is also something very personal and self-reflective about photographing other people. You learn about yourself in the mirror image of the other person, you widen your social skills, you discover new facets of human existence, you expand your universe and not the least you break through some of your inhibitions every time you confront another fellow human being with your camera. Anyone who has photographed on the street knows how intimidating it can be to approach a total stranger. It’s very challenging and daunting. Among other emotional strains you have to face your own fear of being turned down. But when you do break that initial inhibition the result is always an exhilarated blissfulness.

There is more to it, though. The human exchange is not only a personal incentive; it becomes a very visual part of the final image. It’s almost as if it gets ingrained in the expression of the photograph. The exchange between the photographer and the photographed will indisputably make an immense visual footprint on the emotional content of the image. That is of course if there is a human exchange in the first place. For that very reason a valuable part of photographs of people will be missed out if they are captured with a longer lens – simply because the exchange will be missing. Then it becomes more about light, forms, moment and the photographers sole vision at the moment of capture. Which of course there is nothing wrong with; it just becomes a totally different kind of image. But if we want to capture that feeling of exchange between the photographer and the person being photographed, we as photographers need to get close. That’s where the wide angle lens helps, because it forces us to get close.

This is one reason to use a wide angle lens to photograph people. Another is the wider angle itself. It places the person in its surroundings; you get a connection between the person and his or her environment, which adds depth – literally and figuratively – to the visual content. With a telephoto lens the background get squeezed out of the frame because of its narrower viewing angle. In addition; often whatever is visible of the background will be blurred because of smaller depth of field caused by photographing with a telephoto lens. This can of course be a benefit when you want to isolate the person you are photographing, but will on the other hand not reveal anything of her or his environment. It simplifies the visual language, which again can be a quality you want to utilize. But when the environment is important the wide angle lens is the right choice. A third benefit of using a wide angle lens is its manner of isolating the subject. When you move in close with a wide angle lens the person you are photographing will become the bigger visual element within the frame, while the background and whatever is in the background will become much smaller and thus relatively more insignificant. This turns the focus of the viewer to the person in front and thus isolating him or her in a more symbolic way.

When using a wide angle lens to photograph people there are a couple of things to look out for, particularly the closer you get and the wider angle you use. The wide angle lens will distort the subject in various ways. For the same reason it isolates a person against the background it will emphasize elements sticking out towards the lens. So if you photograph a person head on and very close, the nose will be much closer to the front lens than the rest of the person. The person being photographed will most likely not be very happy with the result, because the nose becomes a gigantic monolith while the rest of the face gets distorted the other way around to a narrow, stretched out head towards the background. To avoid this you will either have to back up a little of find another angle to photograph the face from. Make the person turn the face a little bit to either sides will remedy the distorted nose. Some other facial parts will still be victims of distortion of course, but that might not be visually disturbing of even very noticeable for an untrained eye. This is by the way why a telephoto lens of 80-135 millimetre (for a 35 millimetre frame) is regarded as a perfect portrait lens, since it renders the proportion of the face in the most natural way. But then of course you defy the purpose of wanting to use a wide angle lens.

Another feature to be aware of when photographing with a wide angle lens is the distortion that happens towards the edges of a frame. This is due to the projection of a three-dimensional object onto a flat image sensor and as such not a flaw of the lens itself. But it will distort a face quite obvious when it’s place towards the edge of the frame. Again the wider the lens the more distorted the subject will become. You can place a lot of different objects close to the edge without the viewer noticing the distortion, but we have a small tolerance for any abnormal alteration of human faces. It’s still possible to place human beings out towards the edges of the frame, but you have to play with angles and distances and simply move around the person and take a lot of photos to make sure the distortion doesn’t become a liability. This said, though, I have photographed people close up with a 16 millimetre lens, shot portraits of them and placed them towards the edge and been able to do so without much noticeable distortion. You just have to play and experiment.

Have you ever photographed people with a wide angle lens? I challenge you to give it a try. It will be fun – and challenging. And, yes, you will feel intimidated, but still, give it a try. If you haven’t photographed people with a wide angle lens before, I assure you that you will return with quite some different pictures than you usually do.






115 thoughts on “Wide Angle for People

  1. Ja, jeg ser helt klart ditt budskap så tydelig gjennom bildene dine du viser i denne posten, og gjennom det du skriver og foreslår i worksshopen….. mange gode tips her, for å unngå for mye forvrengninger,- for de få gangene jeg har prøvd, har det ikke sett bra ut i det hele tatt….. nå skal det forskes. Har en 10-20mm og en 17-70mm til cropkameraet. Hvilket ville du foreslå å teste ut først? Burde ha skrevet på engelsk, men uff, så dårlig sånn på sparket…..
    Beste hilsen Monica 🙂

    1. Takk for hyggelig tilbakemelding, Monica. Jeg foreslår at du setter på 10-20 mm. Det tvinger deg til å holde deg til en vidvinkel. Med 17-70 er det litt for lett å la seg “friste” av telen. Men begyn å fotografer i området 15-20 mm, og når du føler du har kontroll her, kan du gjerne utvide til hele zoom-området.

  2. Love these pictures – they give different feeling from every one of them.

    You hit me on the head about fear of confrontation to a total strangers and fear of being rejected to take people on street or go about daily life. My once experiencing this was not bad one (from personal encounter rather than photographic merit) but I that did not help me do anymore.

    I assumed these were taken around 24mm on 35mm sensor?

  3. I use wide angle lenses for people frequently so as to capture the person in their environment. Nice series of pics above.

  4. Always an educating read, Otto. Not all of your topics falls within my Photography interest. But, you’re style of teaching is so easy and applicable, that I am always certain to pick up tips and techniques from you.

  5. Very true words. Many years ago shoot with Raul Touzon in Mexico, all he talked about with me was getting in close & becoming part of the people ~ and that meant not using my favorite zoom which could keep me away from people. You say it well, using a wide-angle for portraits and street shooting makes the photographer become part of the scene and as you have shown in your images, the opportunity to create unique and beautiful photos.

  6. Such a wonderful series of images, Otto. I don’t often photograph people. I’ll give this a try the next time I do. 🙂

  7. Shooting with a wide angle lens is something I haven’t done a lot of, especially faces. It will be fun to try and to experiment. I love how your photos actually make the viewer feel how the subject relates to their surroundings. Really interesting.

  8. What a great collection of images and expressions. Same for me, as Robin writes, I don’t often photograph people, but I’d like to give it a try and you sure have inspired me to use the wide angle for this purpose! This is a great tutorial to save, thanks a lot, Otto!

    1. I am happy you feel this is inspiring – and I really hope you will give photographing people with a wide angle lens a try. I think you would do great work. Thanks, Dina.

  9. These are really beautiful Otto. I would have never known it was a wide angle lens you were using here until you mentioned here.
    I think it may necessary to have the kind of feeling and interaction you mention for the depth of sensitivity you achieve here.

  10. Your images inspire. I’ve steered away from people as subject (except for family and friends). Street photography is the exception. I usually use my iPhone for street photography, because it is less intrusive. Any suggestions–needless to say the Smartphone is limited, but still can produce adequate depictions. Always, always enjoy your commentary and your thoughtful way to present the information.

  11. Interesting article. I don’t own a wide angle lens and have been purposely photographing people only in recent year or two, now you’ve given me food for thought. Thanks! ~SueBee

    1. It does take some courage and willingness to step out of the comfort zone. But that’s how we develop as photographers and human beings. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ann-Christine.

  12. I’ve honestly never used a wide angle on people, quite simply because I’ve not seen any that I like (photos, that is, not people!!!). However, seeing these here, puts another perspective on it for me. Thank you for the inspiration, Otto!

    1. No, I don’t always ask permission to photograph people. On the other hand when you go in close with a wide angle lens, there is no way you can photograph people without their consent. Whether I ask or just look for their reaction, doesn’t really matter, it’s still the same. I never ask for a release form. When they obviously let me take their photo, that is permission enough for me. On the other hand I would never use these photographs in a commercial for instance. Thanks for your comment and questions, Elen.

  13. Getting up close and personal is what a wide angle lens is all about and if I were to replace rocks and fences and all maner of other interesting foreground objects in the landscape Otto, I would opt for the wide angle. These portraits demonstrate why this makes so much sense. Smashing post!

  14. Nice tip about the wide angle lens. I always find that the personality of the photographer influences the direction of the portrait that is taken. Beautiful portrait shots!

  15. These are all beautiful wide angle shots Otto.

    You’re so right. Getting close is often what its about. I use wide lenses for 60 per cent of my portraiture, especially when on the street.

    NG shooter Annie Griffiths Belt says, “Whether working for the yellow border magazine or a book project, I try to include a human element. That makes readers care about the story more than if it were just a series of pretty pictures; it adds another dimension”

    “If something interesting is happening, I’ll gradually edge as close as possible and start shooting. As soon as they see me, I wave and smile, letting them know I wish them no harm.”

    In her people-photography workshops, she emphasizes the use of short wide angle lenses, and shooting from close up. It’s “intimacy” she’s after, and “intimacy” that she encourages in her students. She is on the mark.

  16. Using a wide angle to take in the subject’s environment is something that I very much like to do, although right now it’s the fixed moderate 35 mm equivalent on my new Fujifilm x100s that I’m shooting with — and I’m delighted with it.

    And what an exhaustive write up you’ve done here, Otto. It takes in just about everything anyone would need to know on the topic. Love the photo series, too, which makes it hard to single out just one image as a favourite. I must say, though, that I’m very taken by that third one of the workers in a field.

  17. I, for one, am someone who is developing a taste for portraiture using the wide angle..I still love using the tele-photo, but as you said, the wide angle gives you a sense of the surrounding, and I find that quite interesting! Your photographs are wonderful!

  18. Thank you for this post, Otto. I can’t wait to give it a try, and yet I am apprehensive. Photographing people is a scarey thought, and I am relieved to read that you and so many others feel the same. Your words say how, your images show why. I’m grateful.

    1. I think everyone who has photographed people has been scared in the beginning. There is only one way to get over that fear, and that’s force to do it. Thanks for the nice words, Michael.

  19. Great photos and detailed post,Otto. What I never knew! I have been intimidated to take photos of people close-up (except for family and friends) and I don’t have a wide angle lens… I see what I’m missing out.

    1. Despite what I am saying about using wide angle lens in this post, I strongly believe in using whatever tools one has to one’s disposal. So if you don’t have a wide angle lens find some other way of shooting close – if that’s what you want to do. Thanks for the comment, Bruce.

      1. I appreciate the encouragement Otto. The lens I have is a Nikkor 18mm to 200mm, and I don’t completely understand focal lengths… I don’t believe that offers much of a wide angle. I do hear you reiterate now, about getting up close… and personal. I’ll go out on a limb, and try to do this more 🙂 Thanks again Otto.

  20. Lots of great tips here. Thanks. Now, where to find the courage…I know, from within. I love that first image because it made me think instantly of Iceland. Not sure why, maybe because the building in the background looks like much of the architecture in Iceland.

    1. Yes, courage is found no other place than from within. 🙂 You “just” have to overcome your inhibitions, and then you will discover a world that doesn’t feel intimidated by your camera. The first photo is taken in Norway, but I can see the connection to Iceland. Thanks for the comment, Linda.

    1. In some occasions the wide angle lens does come in handy for event photography. But it obviously depends on access. Like photographing people on a stage you usually at least need a telephoto zoom in addition. Anyway I hardly ever do event photography any more. Thanks for the comment, Laura.

      1. Yes, true. I was thinking more about photographing groups of people are formal get-togethers or weddings. Event photography can be a very demanding field! I’m not a big fan, either.

  21. Brilliant post, Otto. You are so right – a portrait is so much about the relationship between the subject and the photographer. When shot from a distance, the emotional connection sometimes goes missing.

  22. I really enjoyed these photos. Especially the third and fifth photo. The composition in those two photos is exceptional. A good photo of people in their natural surroundings tells a story and gives the viewer an insight into what the person is all about. All of your photos here accomplishes that. Thank you for sharing. – Craig

  23. Wonderful photos Otto, I love the quite unique atmosphere in them! Very interesting to read your thoughts on photographing people. It is so true it can be intimidating but also really rewarding.

  24. Hej Otto, återigen ett inspirerande och tankeväckande inlägg. Gillar alla bilder här och det blir solklart ihop med din förklarande text. Har precis börjat fundera på en normalzoom 24-70 till min fullformatskamera.
    Aldrig ens skänkt det en tanke på att det går att nyttja till att fota människor.
    Önskar dig en skön Påskhelg.

  25. This is so helpful, Otto! Really! I didn’t know how it was you captured such amazing photographs of people. At this time I don’t have a wide angle lens, but I think this will definitely be my next purchase. You have a very respectful approach to others, and it’s easy to see why they are open to you and your camera! I really enjoyed the photos you used as examples. I learned so much in this post! Thank you.

    1. I am glad you got something out of this. And good luck with trying out using a wide angle lens. You know if you have a point-and-shoot camera that inevitably will have a wide angle, so you don’t necessarily have to buy a new lens.

  26. I don’t have a wide angle lens and I can’t afford one either, but I’m thinking about saving up for one. I actually talked about it yesterday and I said that I was going to use it for street portraits.

  27. I love Street Portrait Photography! and this is on of the best collection of street portraits I have seen recently. Also, a great article on use of a wide angle lens in street photography.

  28. Beautiful portraits Otto and excellent post too. I am planning to buy an ultrawide/wide for landscape and am stuck between the Zeiss Distagon 21 mm f/2.8 and Nikon 14-24 mm f/ 2.8. What would you recommend between the two ?

    1. It’s really not possible for me to say because it really depends on you. Both are going to be good lenses. The 21 mm is better quality, but the 14-24 is more versatile, and if you want ultra wide that is certainly giving you that.

  29. Stunning photography! I admire how you captured their souls in your photography. I wanted to to use a wide angle lens and I was posting in a photography forum, I was told I was basically an “idiot” for wanting to do so, continuing to say that “why would a model want to broaden her forehead” they just didn’t see the creative angle =)

  30. It is a nice assignment ! I love the language wide angle lenses give, I use them mostly for landscape , but I am going to try for Portraiture .. Thx for sharing 🙂

  31. I just bought the new Fuji X100T which has a fixed focal length of 22 mm (35mm on full format) and was wondering if I should try to shoot some portraits with it while I’m visiting my family over Christmas. Then I remembered that you wrote about this sometime this year and came back to this post 🙂

    It’s also funny that until recently I wasn’t actually aware that the focal length of the iphone is almost the same so in a way, I do have some experience with shooting portraits with a wide angle lens, if only selfportraits. Will definitely give it a few more trys now.

    1. First of all congratulations with the Fuji-camera. I think you will enjoy it. And then good luck with shooting people and portraits with it. I look forward to seeing the result. 🙂

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