Wide Angle World

The world has gotten wider, at least photographically speaking. If we look back at the photography of the past, going all the way back to its origins up to the mid-Twentieth Century, the view is shaped predominantly by what photographers would call standard lenses. We see scenes of a world in which the proportions, the scale, and the relationships between elements are more or less natural. Things seem normal.

As lens technology advanced and wide angle lenses became more common and more affordable, first for rangefinders in the 1950s and then SLRs in the 1960s and beyond, our view of the world began to distort. Photographers started using wides to get closer to their subjects, creating a more intimate feeling, pushing distractions further into the background. While often effective in the hands of photographers who knew what they were doing, the cheap consumer wides that proliferated in the 1970s and 80s started a trend that continues to this day: a world of unnatural distance and unintended distortion.

To be clear, when talking about wide angle lenses, I’m referring to lenses with focal lengths around 28mm and wider. 35mm is marginal but close enough to normal (~43mm) that I’m ruling it out of this discussion.

At its most basic, the problem is the common misconception that wides are intended to “get everything in.” Sure, you can use them that way, but in most cases this leads to boring photos with tiny, if any, visible details. “What’s that little dot? Oh, that’s the Statue of Liberty.” This is not good photography.

Some street photographers used wides to achieve a distinctive look to their photos. Garry Winogrand is seen as one of the pioneers, and Bruce Gilden has pushed the boundaries between photographer and subject about as close as they can go. Few people possess the vision of Gilden or Winogrand, far fewer than own wide angle lenses. Unfortunately, this lack of vision has done nothing to suppress the overuse of these lenses. I’ve even read numerous pieces dismissing street photographers who use normal lenses for lacking the courage to “get in close.” Nonsense. Getting close to a subject with a wide lens is not a prerequisite for good street photography; if it were, no one would know the names Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, or Kertesz.

Which brings me to the great modern democratizer of photography, the cell phone camera. Much ink has been spilled over the years extolling the virtues of democracy, so rather than make a poor attempt of my own to describe the impact of this device on photography, I will simply quote Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” The cell phone camera, in short, is a device that has made countless multitudes think that they are possessed of photographic vision, and its wide angle lens is in no small part responsible.

Mimicking the human field of vision, cell phone cameras seem to fall around the 24-28mm mark at their wide end. This, along with the wild abandon that comes with the cost-free medium of digital, encourages users to blast away quite freely, pointing their phones in the general direction of their subjects, which all too frequently includes themselves. Extensive depth of field (wide angle lens plus tiny sensor) plus autofocus is a hell of a drug.

But while the field of view of these lenses might be similar in breadth to normal human vision, the view they present is quite different, because cameras are not eyes. Humans see the world in little focused chunks, scanning around to build up a detailed picture in the mind. Cameras just take it all in at once, and in doing so introduce all sorts of weirdness as lenses bend light to bring the far edges into the frame. Even the best wide angle lenses used carefully will create some distortion in the vast majority of situations, and when’s the last time you saw someone using a cell phone camera carefully?

The net result of the profusion of cell phone photos is that the world (as portrayed photographically) now looks distorted and distant. Prominent foreground elements (especially in the hateful, narcissistic “selfie”) are overwhelming, seemingly intruding into your personal space, while at the same time excluding contextual elements, or at least pushing them out to the margins. Where a family snapshot taken with a Brownie Hawkeye presented a natural (if often a bit distant due to the tightly-framed viewfinder) perspective, that same shot taken with a cell phone jammed in close (because you have to get yourself in every picture, for whatever reason) makes Aunt Claire and Uncle Bob loom ominously over the foreground, while their new Buick Electra (and their golden retriever Rusty, who is relieving himself on said Buick Electra) are tiny and far away, like toys left strewn about the yard.

I will resist the temptation to play pop psychiatrist here, but it certainly seems to me that the wide angle view of the world is emblematic of the complaints we hear so often about an increasingly disconnected society, with each individual absorbed in their own little world, willfully ignorant of everything happening around them. If people continue to see the world through their screens, even when the real thing is right in front of them, their view will be shaped by the cameras used to present it to them. Theirs will be a wide angle world, full of distortion and artificial distance. Personally, I prefer a little more reality in my representations of reality.

 


5 thoughts on “Wide Angle World

  1. You make some really great points here. I generally agree with you: the look of a normal lens is fading away, and it’s a poverty. But let me offer a counterpoint.

    Cell phone makers have optimized their cameras for their primary uses, and wide angle really does serve well for them: selfies and landscapes.

    I do a lot of documentary photography on my road trips and when I’m trying to get a lot of info into the frame, my phone really does a brilliant job of it (in good light).

    It does have limits when I want to move in close, such as to photograph a flower. The wide-angle distortion at close range leads to an unnatural look. But it’s good enough when all I want to do is send it in a text message to say “Hey, look at this!” to my wife.

    1. Jim, you’re absolutely correct that cell phone makers (and indeed camera makers) are giving their customers what they want; they’d be fools to do otherwise. My complaint is not with the basic commercial arrangement, but with the nature of the demand. Aside from selfies (about which the less we speak the better) and utilitarian day-to-day convenience shots, I don’t think the wide angle viewpoint really serves as well as many people think. The idea of using wides for landscapes is lost on me; I’ve shot the vast majority of my landscape stuff with normal lenses, and of the remainder, far more worthwhile shots were taken with telephotos lenses (~90-135mm) than with wides.

  2. Interesting discussion. I think using a wide lens for landscape, the overall composition has to make an impact. You can’t hope to have wide angle plus intimate detail.
    I know I’ve quite often been on holiday somewhere with a dramatic landscape, tried to capture it with the widest angle possible (and sometimes with a 180 or 360 panorama feature on a digital compact of camera phone) then nearly always been disappointed when I’ve looked at the shot back home and everything is so small. If I could have a print of such a photograph that was at least a couple of metres wide, it’d probably be more pleasing.
    But most of the time, using a normal lens, having less in the frame, but being closer and free from distortion usually makes for a more satisfying shot.

    1. The idea of the vast, all-encompassing landscape is appealing, but as you note, printing such a thing is either going to be massive or disappointing.

      In most cases, a frame full of rich, visible detail is going to be stronger than one of scattered, distant hints of something interesting.

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