Street photography can be one of the most accessible genres of photography – after all, you can pretty much do it anywhere, anytime. And the essence of photojournalism/street photography is the summation of emotions, reality, and a story in a single image. You can take good street photos with any lens, but personally I am a big fan of wide angles.
Part of this stems from visual context in an image. The background in a street photograph or a photojournalistic image gives viewers a visual cue as to what is going on. To completely remove the subject from its context may be aesthetically pleasing, but detracts from the visual meaning behind the photograph.
Historically, photographers who have used wider focal lengths for street and documentary work have done so because they show much more context than telephoto lenses, which tend to flatten the background and isolate the subject. Such lenses include the 24mm, 28mm, 35mm and 50mm focal lengths.
One common rookie mistake is to use a wide aperture to blur the background of every image to make it simpler. When I first started serious photography, I was taken by fast aperture zoom lenses and prime lenses. Shallow depth of field sometimes became a crutch.
Shooting with a wide lens has many challenges to creating a great image. Here are five things to note when shooting wide:
1) The Background
In my early days of using wide lenses for street photography, I often ignored any elements of the frame crossing the background. I often had to crop the image significantly, or not use it at all! Getting the background right demands patience and care. You can wait for your background to empty itself before clicking the shutter, or you can use it intentionally to add to the message of your photo.
The nature of wide angles is that more elements will appear in the image – so, there needs to be more care and discipline in using those elements constructively.
2) Stretching and Subject Distortion
Often, since you are so close to your subject with a wide angle lens, you will see your photo stretch and distort toward the edge of the frame. Take that into consideration if you don’t want your subject to look like an alien! In my experience, any focal length wider than 24mm equivalent has this tendency to stretch human subjects beyond reality, since a photo’s perspective is very exaggerated when you are so close to what you’re photographing. If your subject is in the center or farther away in the frame, this may not matter as much.
3) Composition, Alignment, and Lines
Similarly, the alignment of elements in your frame can appear to change when using wider focal lengths. Be mindful of any lines in the composition. While it is harder with a wide angle lens to maintain straight-looking lines in the background, it is achievable with care.
Though it is best to get it right in camera, Adobe Lightroom’s perspective correction tool can often rescue images, albeit with some crops or pixel interpolation. If using a zoom lens, barrel distortion may also be prevalent. Try to find ways in the composition to hide that, or correct it later at the expense of some cropping in post-processing. A simple shift of a few inches can change the image when shooting with a wider lens.
4) Including More Elements
The effect of shooting wide can also allow you to include more elements in the picture. This leads to a greater relationship between the subjects and their surroundings.
5) Depth of Field
With a wider lens comes more depth of field, and less ability to blur the background. At a focusing distance of 3-4 feet, for example, almost an entire scene can be sharp if shot with a 24mm lens. While this lends itself well to storytelling, isolation is sometimes an issue. Get closer to your subject if you need to get some isolation, and use a wider aperture. Even then, you will see more detail in the background than with more of a telephoto or long focal length.
Shooting wide can be a fun way to shake up your photojournalism or street photography. If you try it, I think you will find it very enjoyable!
Thank you to Photography Life reader Alvin Ho, based in Singapore, for submitting this article as part of our 2018 guest post contest. You can see more of Alvin’s work at his website.