Wide-Angle and Fish-Eye Lens Buying Guide

While telephoto and zoom lenses get all the drama via their ability to capture compressed space and selective focus, wide-angle lenses, in the hands of experienced photographers, quietly and consistently deliver pleasing panoramas, luminous landscapes, amazing architecture and superb street shots. Here's a quick guide to wide angle lenses, both prime and zoom.

Prime wide angle lenses constantly deliver optically superior results compared to most zoom lenses, but because they are non-zooming lenses they require less complicated construction and therefore can be had at bargain prices. On the other hand, wide zooms are convenient and the better quality ones can rival primes for image quality.

I love my wides. They are naturally good choices for low light photography as the wider angle tends to reduce camera shake artifacts (although image stabilization doesn't hurt), and you can buy them with big apertures so you can still get nice, blurry backgrounds and pleasing bokeh.

Are you ready to go wide? Here are four suggestions to help you get the most photographic pleasure from your wide-angle lens.

1. Embrace the optical distortion. While modern a 35mm prime will deliver virtually no distortion and a 28mm will produce minimal amounts, straight lines will inevitably start to bend along the edges of an image as you use shorter and shorter focal lengths. You can either fight this by using the lens distortion correction feature in Photoshop (generally applied to RAW images) or you can incorporate pillow distortion into your image and appreciate the unique transformation this distortion applies to reality.

2. Learn environmental portraiture. The big nose and exaggerated forehead look that's typical of close-up photos of faces gets old quickly. Flattering head-and-shoulder photos are not likely when shooting wide. Instead, back up, use the lens's deep focus to show your subject in their environment...their home, workplace, or if you're on vacation, show the vista surrounding them. 

3. Take it all in. Shorter focal lengths produce images with greater depth of field than images shot with longer lenses at the same aperture. Choose a small aperture and you can render the entire scene, from a close element all the way to infinity, in sharp focus. This is great for Ansel Adams-like scenics (yes, he used f/64, but with a large-format camera; you can get similar depth at f/8 or f/11 with a 21mm or wider lens). 

4. Take it to the streets. Any street photographer worth his salt will tell you that a telephoto lens not only makes you look like a voyeur, but it forces you to work too far from the people you're photographing. A wide-angle lens such as a 35mm or 28mm lets you work from a few feet away—a more intimate distance. At the same time, if you're shooting between f/5.6 and f/11 you should have plenty of depth so you can juxtapose interesting background elements with your subject. Working close is one of the secrets of good street photography, and a wide-angle lens makes it possible.

Now, let's look at some great wide-angle lenses (Prices and availability current as of Sept. 3, 2015):

Photo © piovesempre /iStockphoto

Standard wide-angle

The range from 28-45mm (or 35mm angle of view equivalent in smaller sensor cameras) would be considered standard wide-angle focal lengths; many wide-angle zooms cover the extreme-to-standard range but could be rather pricey; prime lenses cost less, tend to be slightly sharper optically (although the casual observer my not notice the difference) and sport wider apertures. At this range, optical distortion is minimal or non-existant, making these lenses desirable for a wide variety of photos.

Uses: Standard wide-angle lenses are often used for street photography and photojournalism, as well as for travel, landscapes and architectural photography. (A handful of Tilt-Shift wide-angle lenses are designed especially for architecture photography, but they are expensive; a more affordable alternative is to fix distorted lines in architectural shots in Photoshop, but that's a separate article.)

Selected Standard Wide-Angle Lenses for MILCs

Selected Standard Wide-Angle Zoom Lenses for APS-DSLRs

Selected Standard Wide-Angle Lenses for 35mm DSLRs


Photo ©  KuznetsovDmitry /iStockphoto

Ultra wide-angle

Ultra wide-angle lenses take in a much wider angle of view, and are in the 10-24mm focal length range. There are specific individual lenses, but you are more likely to find zoom lenses that cover this range.

Uses: The shortest of these lenses are almost fisheyes, and you can have fun with the proximity distortion that is their trademark. These are great lenses for eye-catching travel photography photos, and to a lesser extent, may be used by photojournalists working in tight quarters.


Photo © Mason Resnick

Selected Ultra Wide-Angle Lenses for MILCs

Selected Ultra Wide-Angle Lenses for APS DSLRs

Selected Ultra Wide-Angle Lenses for 35mm DSLRs


Photo © KoTourist /iStockphoto


There are two kinds of fisheye lenses: Full-Frame Fisheye, and Circular Fisheye. A Circular fisheye is what most people think of. These lenses take in a 180-degree hemisphere and projects it as a circle within the frame, surrounded by black. A Full-Frame fisheye (16mm on a 35mm sensor camera and 10mm on an APS sensor camera) take in a 180-degree angle of view when measured corner to corner, and the horizontal field of view is around 147 degrees. The image fills the entire frame, but has the same characteristic barrel distortion as a circular fisheye.

Uses: Fisheyes are generally novelty lenses and are used for special effects, although some architecture photographers use them to capture wide spaces, then correct the rectilinear perspective in post-production.

Selected Fisheye lenses for MILCs

Selected Fisheye lenses for APS sensor cameras

Fisheye lenses for 35mm cameras



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