InFusion: Wide-Angle Lenses
Posted Mar 6, 2010

At every wedding you shoot, you're the director of photography (DP). It sounds simple, just covering a wedding. But these seemingly straightforward commissions to capture and edit an event can be fraught with many more choices for the DP than following an art director's canned advertising concept on a commercial shoot. If you've moved into the world of DSLRs or are shooting with a 35mm adapter on a fixed-lens camera, one of the most important and challenging choices you'll make is which lenses to use and when to use them. The insider track on lenses has to begin with defining the purpose of the shoot. The purpose drives all the choices you make about filming/photographing an event-even the radical (but now viable in some circumstances) choice of using only a cell phone and the great apps from Chase Jarvis. It's a radical idea, perhaps more suited to an art or editorial project. But my point is that without purpose, you can't get off the starting line of your race to establish style and feel.

Keeping typical wedding and event scenarios in mind, various agendas probably exist under the radar, and I ask volumes of questions to try to get them out in the open. Have you ever noticed how brides and MOBs (mothers of the bride) don't usually agree? Or they give polite lip service to each other, but later, the MOB tells you, "I know my daughter wants x, but I don't care how long it takes to make all the extended family groups." Or from the other side you hear, "I'll go through the motions for Mom, but my fiancé and I really want to sneak away for a really edgy session on the street outside the hotel."

What's a videographer to do? Say "yes," of course! In the next breath, make sure your fee covers all the requests, and pack the right equipment to do everything asked of you.

‘Previz'
With all these special requests to consider and the variety of shooting scenarios they create, previsualize your requirements for lenses, lighting, sound, and time—the "Big Four," in our experience. Starting at the end of the list, we have to stipulate that time is the predictable, evil taskmaster. We've found that a tightly orchestrated agenda (one mother gave me a schedule in which every time span was allotted to 5 minutes) is as deadly as the client with a totally loose and undefined program. How many of your clients expect you to magically be in several places at once? That happens all the time at conferences, where many speaker programs start at the same time. It's a given that the very beginning or end of each session is likely to afford the most interesting and least disruptive stills and action/sound bites. A good deal of mind reading and preknowledge of your subjects comes in handy here! It's no different from having "bridal radar," a sixth sense that alerts you when something spontaneous is about to happen at the reception.

Having the right lenses instantly available helps you to get time back on your side. The practice of prethinking for the purpose will soon make your lens choices intuitive.

Working the Wide Angle
In this column, I'll focus on the easiest and most familiar lens to videographers: the wide angle. Event work lends itself to big drama-the beauty shot, the grand sweeping overview. If your standard kit contains just one extra lens, it's bound to be a wide or wide attachment.

Here's what wide-angle lenses are good for:
• A grand view that can make any venue look like a palace
• Handy coverage of tight angles, small rooms, and crowds
• Variable-distance action and movement; up-close and personal impact
• Scene-setter cutaways
• Very forgiving wide depth of field
• Fairly easy focus pulling, because you don't turn the ring very far

And here are the cons of working with wide-angle lenses:
• Close objects appear disproportionately large
• Possible edge distortion and color fringing (a rainbow effect appearing on crisp edges)
• Adds unattractive weight to human subjects
• Makes it physically harder to get pinpoint sharpness, even with auto focus

Wide-angle lenses dramatically change perspective, creating a serious departure from the normal visual relationship of people and objects in the environment. Stylistically, brides prefer this edgy effect more often than their more old school "as we see it" mothers. For example, a bridal shoes close-up in the foreground will look huge in comparison to girls getting dressed in the background, though they may be only 8'-10' apart. This gives you instant artistic impact-and incidentally instant Bokeh.

Celebrity chef D. Daniel Young
Celebrity chef D. Daniel Young is portrayed with a wide-angle close-up and lots of depth of field, clearly establishing him in his element at the farmers' market in downtown Denver.

Bad Wide-Angle Scenarios
Beware of wide-angle use on groups, the very situation when it would seem the most logical choice. Two problems confront you: First, consider a wedding party portrait pose in a long, single row. You probably want action footage passing down the line, person to person, often getting pretty close up to grab fun expressions and joking snippets of live conversation. A Guerrilla Track dolly shot or steady cam works well for that.

But your coverage will not be complete without the wide overview of the whole lineup. You need a still for the album. A cutaway could be good for the video, with focus critically on the center. If the posed line
is quite long, you'll need lots of depth of field, say an f/8, to keep the far ends of the line sharp. That's because camera lenses are not flat-plain focus like projection lenses.

Worse, should a lens get out of alignment, it's really disheartening to find out in post that one side of your group is sharp and the other side gets gradually more and more blurry. Be aware that extra-wide lenses almost always show some curvature distortion toward the outside and, possibly, annoying color fringing on sharp edges of the subjects.

The size-relationship problem alone can cost you a job if you make the wrong lens choice. Recently, we were thrilled to be commissioned for a women's team sports league. For typical group shots, the league's previous photographer arranged players in four rows. His wide-angle shots gave each of the ladies in the front row a good 20 extra pounds, and those in the back had pinhead-sized faces. No wonder the league changed photographers in a hurry!

Bad wide-angle scenario
Here's what not to do: Wide-angle distortion can bend people unnaturally, as well as make those in the righyt foreground gigantic in comparison to the bride. No, I didn't take this one!

If faced with this scenario (a tight place where a wide-angle lens is the only choice), here's what to do to minimize this problem:
• Stand on a chair or platform to look down on the group. Because you're tipping the lens down, you're beginning to equalize the difference in distance between the back rows and the front rows.
• Use one fewer row if possible; three rows never seem to be as distorted as four.
• Pose heavier-set people farther back, overlapping shoulders to minimize bulk.
• Elevate back rows by any means possible, and have back rows lean forward a bit to minimize the physical distance between them and the row in front.
• Make sure light does not fall off row to row; smaller faces situated in the back look even worse if they're darker.

Framing and Positioning for Wide-Angle Shots
Another choice you face when using a wide-angle lens is where to place the center of interest. Videographers, this is the time to think like a still photographer! If you place people farther away from the camera, they become part of the background wallpaper with wide angle; a pinpoint. Is that your intent, or do you want to emphasize some action or emotion in relationship to a panoramic scene? In that case, subjects must be almost unnaturally close to the camera.

Dancing is a great time to exercise a wide-angle lens. Mix right in to the action. Distance is not your friend for the cinematic look. Intimacy of range draws the viewer into the image context. Action comes alive. This is a place where the wild sound of the crowd and chance comments by guests heard over the music of the band will raise the value of your video over the years.

Cinamatic magic
Cinematic magic happens if you're ready for it! With a 28mm lens and camera held above my head, all I had to do was watch for the expressions. Bokeh too!

I know, I know! You'll say that the heroic music track over fast nonlinear cuts is what is winning awards. But clients have a funny way of liking a hefty dose of reality. Great sound is not just for the wedding vows. Hearing Grandma's laugh when she cha-cha's with her favorite nephew is far more valuable than the theme from Pearl Harbor-especially in 5-10 years when that laugh and her comments have become our only memory, near and dear to our hearts. I predict that live sound, captured and manipulated as carefully as in Hollywood, will become more and more a client must-have and the deciding factor in your bottom line.

The Last Word
Here's the last word on wide lenses: My signature wide is a zoom, 16-35mm. I like it because I'm always mixing right into action and crowds, and the zoom gives me flexibility in situations where I may not be able to step forward or back to control distance and composition. (I've got some great secrets for amazing lighting for tight places, stills or video, in upcoming columns, so stay tuned.)

Fisheye
Fabulous fisheye shots, such as this one at the Greek cathedral, supply equal scene-setting drama that never goes out of style.

Other wide angles you might want to consider are a medium-wide 28mm (an inexpensive lens from most manufacturers) and a fisheye or ultrawide. This last will be for special uses only, possibly only used once or twice on a job and not so often for commercial work. It's all good! Next time: normal lenses.

Sara Frances  (studio at photomirage.com) with husband/partner Karl Arndt collaborate in their own unique brand of Fusion as “Foto-Griots” whose work has evolved past photojournalism into what they call “Storytelling from the Heart.”