What was supposed to be a short blog post about my photography inspiration for 2022 turned into a full-on tutorial about how to take photos of people using a wide-angle lens. It must be the fact that I have been back running photography tours and workshops this year and I feel very inspired!
Last month, I made an announcement on my social media. It was about me finding new challenges and inspiration in wildlife photography, working with birds silhouettes in a new project called “shapes of birds”.
Photography inspiration for 2022: Certainly not going to be about birds!
I did receive a lot of comments and support from you guys, wishing me great success for this new photography project. Only people didn’t realize I posted this on April 1st… Yeah I know, my sense of humour is hyper-developed!
No, I am not going to start taking photos of birds in a “street photography style”. No, I will not be hiding in the bushes for hours to wait for the right bird to come on the branch. Or will I?
I am all about people photography
The people who know me best and who joined me on a photography tour recently understood the joke. I mean, everyone knows I am a huge people photography lover, and I often tease my colleague Jean (who is a wildlife photographer by trade) about all the “wild” life we encounter when travelling in Vietnam: the dogs, the cats, the cows and boring little birds that are everywhere. Or basically, any animal that is still alive in Vietnam and hasn’t been eaten yet.
And I can understand people falling for the joke (don’t feel bad if you did). First I wrote this social media post in all seriousness. Secondly, I am used to challenging myself to shoot new things or to shoot in a new way to keep feeling inspired and trying new things. So that was kind of usual coming from me.
Yes, I am all about people photography, because I do love the contact and interaction with my subjects. And I live in Asia, which is very much about people. The streets are constantly busy, there is a high concentration of people per square meter, and people are easier to approach and photograph than in Western countries (which is by the way a topic I will be developing very soon thanks to interviews I am producing at the moment).
But I did decide to challenge myself this year. As usual, I need a new project for the year. As I spent 2021 building and launching my online photography courses, I am spending 2022 relaunching all my photography tours around Asia, starting with central Vietnam, North Vietnam and Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. (I am hoping to launch Iran again in 2023, and I really wish we were allowed to travel to Myanmar again!).
And what I would like to work on in the coming months/years is getting better at taking photos of people with a wide-angle lens. Because it’s hard!
People photography with a wide-angle lens: a messy business.
Why do I find it interesting to take photos of people with a wide-angle lens?
Because it’s pretty unusual and very very challenging. Over the past years, I ended up with very interesting images using my wide-angle lens. And it all started…
Yeah, I am not making this up! It was a revelation, happening right in front of my eyes, and it changed my photography style forever.
IT was I think my 3rd or 4th photography tour in Myanmar, and I took with me my Canon 16-35mm lens that I previously bought to shoot a resort in Hoi An. I never used such a lens for people photography and I thought I could give it a try. At the time I was shooting with a Canon DSLR and I was shooting almost exclusively with my 50mm at very wide apertures. Like at 1.4. All the time.
We decided to go and visit a new area while we were driving towards Inle lake. And we were extremely lucky to encounter a group of Pao people in full rice harvest, in the region of Pindaya. After that day I added Pindaya to the photography tour itinerary. Believe me, it’s so good!
And this is when it happened. I put my wide-angle lens on, and I instantly went low on the ground to keep my background clean (more about that later on). And it happened.
I instantly got hooked and I started using this lens more and more. I practised with it as much as I could and took it to busy places when travelling through Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. As I will talk about later on in this post, these are ideal locations to practice how to use a wide-angle lens when shooting busy scenes.
But it’s just not that easy
There are several problems when using wide-angle lenses to photograph people. First, there is going to be A LOT in your frame. This means it is going to be more difficult to compose a “clean” and “organized” composition. Basically, something that is not going to look like a random mess.
Secondly, and in my opinion, the most difficult to handle, is the distortion that happens when shooting on a wide-angle lens and placing elements in the corner of your image. It looks… very bad. Objects look very bad, so imagine people!
I believe shooting busy scenes involving people can be extremely interesting and original when using wide-angle lenses. So many elements in your frame are moving and unpredictable, and including as many as you can lead you to more original and creative images. Because when taking photos of people it is a lot about body gestures and the unexpected things happening.
How to take photos of people with a wide-angle lens
In this particular case, I am of course not talking about taking portraits with a wide-angle lens. We all know that this isn’t a good idea and the perspective of the lens will make your subject’s face look very very flat.
I am specifically talking about taking photos of groups of people and finding scenes where there is a lot happening. Which is going to make it even more challenging!
In terms of lens, I am using the Fuji 10-22mm on my Xt2 and Xt3, which is equivalent to a 17-40mm on a full-frame sensor. It is wide. This is the lens I mostly use for architecture photography when I take photos of hotels and resorts.
This is the type of focal length that makes you have to watch for your own feet in your frame…. which adds an extra challenge!
Find busy scenes
Because close up portraits on a wide-angle lens look bad! I think for people photography, you can either shoot some types of “landscape with people” or some busy groups of people, being very close to them.
As much as I love adding people into my landscapes (or to be more precise, in my case, adding some landscapes around the people I meet!), I find that taking photos of groups of people with a wide-angle lens is much more challenging and interesting. I end up with compositions that are unexpected, given the fact that most “elements” in my frame are moving. And there is no way I could possibly anticipate what everyone is doing.
In this post, I want to talk about how you can get close to groups of people and photograph them with a wide-angle lens. How can you capture a scene that is potentially just a huge mess and organize it to make it more “readable” and easy pleasant to look at? It is about composition and anticipation.
You need to “clean” your compositions
Finding busy scenes is great to practice using a wide-angle lens with people photography, but it can easily lead to messy compositions. The wider lens you use, the more elements you place in your frame and the more difficult it is to place them all in the right spot and create pleasant compositions.
One of the first things you can do to “clean” your messy scenes is to find a clean background (I already talked about that in my tutorial about how to photograph busy situations). And most of the time, one of the cleanest backgrounds we face is the sky.
You will see in this post that I tend to photograph busy scenes with people using my wide-angle lens from a low angle. There is a very simple reason for that: facing the sky, and having a clean and simple background, allows me to place many elements in my frame and not have any distractions or bad juxtapositions happening with the background elements.
It’s not the first time that you hear me telling you to get closer. Well, for this one, I want you to get EVEN CLOSER!
If you have used a wide-angle lens in the past, for landscape, architecture or people photography, you may have realized already that far away things appear really small in your image, while things close to you are much bigger. For landscape photographers, this is a very well known trick: place the camera very very close to a good foreground to enhance it.
When applied to people photography, it would be a pity to photograph your subjects and have them so small in your frame that we can’t really see what is going on. We miss the action, the little details and the moment. This means that if you want to see some action if you want some details or the busy action happening you have to get close.
Not only this can lead us to interesting and original compositions, but sometimes it is the only way you can capture a busy scene. In this example, in a fishing village where all the people are standing in a circle to negotiate the price of the fish. There is no way to capture what is going on in the middle of the circle. The people are blocking the view, from any angle you can find. Using a wide-angle lens and finding a spot around the circle will help you to capture the action.
You will quickly realize that one problem occurs when you get very close to your subject using a wide-angle lens. Yes, my worst wide-angle enemy. I am talking about distortion.
Avoid distortion: keep your camera straight
If you have ever photographed a high building in your life by tilting your camera up so you could see the top of the building, you know what I am talking about. The wide-angle lens is straight lines’ worst enemy. And it’s exactly the same thing with people photography.
I found myself in trouble when shooting from a very low angle. It’s like when doing architecture photography: when your camera sensor isn’t parallel to the building you photograph, the lines are not straight. It can be a pain to fix in post-production (thanks Lightroom for its automatic perspective correction function!
If you like to keep your lines straight then try as much as you can to keep your sensor parallel to your scene. The more you tilt the camera up or down, the more the lines will curve, as you can see in the image below.
When taking photos of people using a wide-angle lens, you will quickly realize that faces look horrible when placed in the corners of your images. When I shoot using the widest focal length my lens allows me to (in my case with the Fuji 10-24mm at 10mm, which is the equivalent of 17mm on a full-frame camera) and I place someone’s face in the corner, it really isn’t pleasant.
Once again, try as much as possible to keep your camera straight, and you will be able to place elements in your frame’s corners without too much distortion. It is a fine line between how upwards can you tilt, and how low to the ground can you go. If you are able to keep your camera straight, there will be some distortion twisting your subjects’ faces but it is manageable.
Use the distortion to your advantage
Combined with the fact that with a wide-angle lens, objects that are very close to you appear huge, we could think about placing something that we want to enhance. In this case, the hand of the lady picking peanuts from the floor works. Because it is a hand and not a face, the distortion is less “shocking”.
You can also use the power of the wide-angle to isolate a foreground element. If one of your subjects is in the foreground with some negative space behind (or something like a simple background) you will enhance the visual weight of this element. Not only because it will be bigger than the background elements, but also because of how you isolate it in an area of contrast, which will lead the viewers’ eyes to it.
Use a foreground frame
Another way to simplify our composition and to lead the viewer’s eyes toward our subject is to frame them using a foreground. And the closer you move to your foreground, the bigger it will appear. I also find that I can sometimes get rid of messy background elements by hiding them with something in the foreground, like a tree leaf or a dog, or anything, really!
For even more fun, and even more striking and unique compositions, try to play with people as foreground elements. It is usually much harder as they will probably be moving. It requires some understanding of the scene you shoot and some anticipation.
Once again, make sure all your camera settings are ready, including focus and exposure (I always pre-focus using “back button focus” and lock my exposure). Once this is done, the only thing you have to focus on is the people in your frame. And as soon as you see it happening, press the shutter. It also helps, when everything is moving fast in your frame, to use continuous shooting. You are going to have to take A LOT of photos if you want to capture a “decisive moment” from 2 or 3 or more people in your frame.
Use leading lines
When doing people photography with a wide-angle lens, the lines can really help you. First, they can help lead the viewer’s eyes to the main subject of your image. On top of that, they look very dramatic thanks to the distortion and scale effect.
Find a dramatic sky (or clouds)
I find that clouds can look very dramatic with a wide-angle lens, and it is possible to use cloud lines to direct the eyes towards your main subject.
Add lens flare for the fun of it!
Because a bit of lens flare can’t hurt and adds some dynamism and drama to the scene! Wide-angle lenses tend to create some pretty starburst as they usually have a lot of coating on them. Use smaller apertures like F16 and wait for the subject to move and block part of the sun.
People photography with a wide-angle lens: challenge yourself!
People photography with a wide-angle lens has been one of the most challenging things I have done in the past couple of years and has also rewarded me with some of my favourite images. So challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone. And if you’d like us to do this together, join me on one of my photography tours in Asia this year 🙂
Enjoyed reading your post on wide angle lenses for people photography. Do you have plans for a 8/9 days tour for Vietnam in 2023 to cover all the important places? Since I will fly from India, 3/4 days tours will not interest me.
Hi Shashi, I will be running my usual central Vietnam tours and North Vietnam tour next year. The North Vietnam tour is 8 days and happening at the end of August.