Going Wide: How To Use A Wide-Angle Lens

How many of us question how wide our camcorder lenses will go? Most serious hobbyists are up on zooms–even the beginning videographer will demand a 15x lens (with 30x digital, please.) In the meantime, there’s a whole wide world hidden right in front of us. We don’t need the probing zoom to unlock it–we need a wide-angle lens to free our vision.

How Wide is Wide?

A camcorder lens pulled all
the way back to its widest position is the definition of a normal
view through a camera. This is usually similar to the view you’ll
get through your point-and-shoot still camera, though there is
some variation in the widest settings in consumer camcorders.
Any view that is more magnified than this widest setting is said
to be "zoomed." Any wider view than that offered by
your regular lens is considered wide-angle. To see really wide
vistas with your camera, you will likely need a new lens accessory
called a wide-angle adapter. (See the accompanying sidebar for
a list of manufacturers that make wide-angle adapters for consumer
camcorders.) These clip-on units work with your original camera
lens and gather in a bigger panorama than its normal view.

The Eye, Reality and Distortion

Many photography instructors told us that the normal view through a lens mimics what the human eye sees. It doesn’t. The only comparison we can make between normal lenses and wide-angle lenses is based on what our own eye actually sees–and I don’t know about you, but my eyes see much more than what is visible through the average camcorder lens.

The wide-angle lens, then, can be a tool to capture reality. The wider view may seem unfamiliar on a TV screen, but it’s very familiar to our eyes. It captures more of the surroundings and subject; it presents them to us all at once in natural relation to each other. Think of the last footage you shot of a mountain; how realistic would it have been to videotape the mountain one tiny spot at a time?

The wide-angle lens needn’t be a slave to reality, however. Some of the most stunning video comes from errors, or distortion made by a really wide lens. When the corners of the image curl around, and more of the world is visible than your eyes thought possible, the effect is striking and we transcend our normal perception. The wide angle can both represent and overcome the very human limits of our vision.

Putting the Viewer in the Scene

Sometimes you need to really grab your video audience. You want to thrust them into a situation that they can’t ignore. The uncanny sense of reality provided by a wide-angle lens might be just what your video requires.

How does this work? By taking in an entire vista in one shot, the viewer’s eye is free to roam. All of the detail, all of the encompassing sense of a location, is available to your viewer. Like in real life, the audience must decide what to glance at and focus on.

We’ve all had the sense, in a wide-angle shot, that we could step forward and be engulfed inside the scene. This can be comforting (in a scene of a child’s nursery), exhilarating (on a craggy mountaintop) or intimidating (in the establishing shot of a rough biker bar).

One creative way to use wide-angle shots is to establish a first-person point of view. By cutting wide-angle shots with reverse angles showing someone’s face, our experience becomes that person’s point of view. In this way, we create a sense of connection between the actor and the audience.

Expressing Relations

You can use the wide-angle lens to do more than just express a physical space. By arranging the elements in your shot, you can still control where the audience looks. The viewer is free to look anywhere in your wide shot, but that doesn’t stop you from directing the audience’s eye. By controlling these elements and their onscreen relation, you push the audience towards understanding the material. The French called this staging of film subjects mise-en-scène.

Controlling the people and things in a shot can be startlingly expressive, especially when using a wide-angle lens. Bringing objects very close to the lens and sending people deep into the background create whole new visual relationships. We can achieve the perspective of the wide shot while still foregrounding all of the needed detail. For an example of this, check out Citizen Kane. This is the movie that pushed wide-angle techniques further than any other.

By picturing our video as a set of relationships within a shot, we can communicate effectively and efficiently. Changing positions within a single shot tells a story of changing power and relationships. A character moving forward in a wide-angle shot looms closer, dominating everything else. Bringing different people to the forefront changes our point of interest without relying on editing separate close-ups. In this way, one wide shot, planned carefully, may carry the weight of a dozen closer shots.

Wide Angle in Use

The wide-angle lens has many uses but some shots and ideas are better suited to it than others. Good candidates for a wide-angle lens often include one of two extremes: a large outdoor vista that is too big to be captured by a normal lens, or a tiny interior where you can’t move back far enough to see anything. Clearly, the wide-angle adapter is the friend of real estate agents, nature show producers and epic filmmakers alike.

The real payoff for the wide-angle lens comes in more unexpected places. Consider the choice of zooming in or going wide in the following shot:

A man and a woman are walking along a busy downtown street at night.

Using a zoom lens on this couple will bring them together, compressing them visually, and sending the street lights into a blurry romantic haze. The focus will be on them alone, with the city a mere colored backdrop.

By going wide, the scene acquires an entirely different sensation. A sea of lights now surrounds the couple. The brooding dark skyscrapers tower over them. The busy street seems to swallow them into the crowd. They will appear lost, enveloped by the city and alienated within a world where they are only a small part of the surrounding drama.

When you choose to go wide, you choose to present your subject in relation to its surroundings. Imagine a later scene, and how a wide-angle lens might convey meaning:

The high-rise overlooks part of the downtown area. The man steps forward to the edge of the roof.

When the man steps into this frame, we’ll place him in the immediate foreground. This single figure now dominates our wide shot of the cityscape. Rather than looking like a man ready to jump, he is portrayed as having the city at his feet. He dominates the vista. The wide-angle lens presented the city in all its glory, but the decision of mise-en-scène introduced the city to a new master.

The wide-angle lens is a tool that solves problems. It lets you capture stunning shots in situations that a normal lens can only hint at. It’s useful indoors and out. It’s a simple addition to your kit that is available at a moment’s notice.

Unlike many tools of the videographer, the wide-angle lens rewards creativity in many ways. Going wide gives the gift of a large canvas to the video artist. Your possibilities are no longer hemmed in by the limits of your normal camcorder lens. The canvas is wide open; what are you going to fill it with?

David W. Scott makes documentary and feature films and videos.

SIDEBAR 1 – Why is Width Expressed in Length?

Focal length is a term more common to still photography than to video. The importance, however, is the same for both. Focal length is the distance, in millimeters, from the center of the lens to the point at which an image is in focus (called the focal plane). In a video camera, this focal plane is at the CCD imager. Film sits at the focal plane in a film camera.

As the focal length gets longer, the more the incoming image becomes magnified. Thus, a wide-angle lens will have the shortest possible focal length. At wide angle, the lens collects as much of the scene as possible without magnifying a portion of it.

Why don’t manufacturers advertise the focal length of camcorder lenses? For focal length to mean anything, you also have to know the size of the imaging area. On a strip of 35mm film, the image area is a fixed size (35mm, to be exact). Unfortunately, video cameras use varying sizes of CCD pickups; most camcorders, however, in today’s consumer market have 1/4-inch CCDs; some of the better ones have 1/3-inch CCDs.

To compare different camcorder lenses with CCDs of varying size, we must rely on the X factor. The X factor is an easy way to judge the relative power of zoom lenses. An 8X lens will zoom from its normal position to a magnification of eight times its normal position. What’s left out is how wide the normal position is to start with. One thing is certain, however: the larger the CCD, the wider the angle you’ll get from the same focal length.

Wide-angle adapters multiply your original focal length by 0.5X, 0.6X, 0.75X or some other amount. The effect is to seemingly give your original lens a shorter focal length. The smaller the X value for the adapter, the wider your view will be. You may not be able to compute the final focal length for your camcorder/adapter, but you’ll know how much will be added to your view.

SIDEBAR 2 – Lens Accessory Manufacturers

This list is only a sampling. It is not intended to be comprehensive.

42 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011
(800) 648-5710

Canon USA
One Canon Plaza
Lake Success, NY 11042
(800) 828-4040

Century Precision Optics
11049 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
(818) 766-3715

THK Photo Products, Inc.
1512 Kona Drive
Compton, CA 90220
(310) 537-9380

150 20th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11232
(800) 943-2000

Sony Consumer Electronics
One Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
(800) 838-7669

Tiffen Manufacturing Corp.
90 Oser Avenue
Hauppage, NY 11788
(800) 645-2522

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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