ADVENTURES IN INNER SPACE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS CHOOSE LENSES BASED ON LOTS OF CRITERIA, depending on what kind of “reality” they seek to visualize. In recent years, there has been a solid return to so-called “normal” or prime lenses, glass with focal lengths of 35-85mm which produce a perspective most like human vision, fairly free of the spatial distortion seen in ulta-wide lenses. At the same time, the use of ultra-wides in television and film, even for scenes in which a dramatic viewing angle is not particularly appropriate, is on the rise as well, and the widest consumer-level wides, including various types of fisheye lenses, are becoming sharper and cheaper than ever before.
I mention cinema here because it’s only after the emergence of 1950’s-era wide-screen processes like Panavision and Cinemascope that such lenses began to sell in larger numbers to amateur photographers, becoming an active part of the hobby. By the ’60’s, ultra-wides created stunning mutations of space in films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Orson Welles’ The Trial, but, in such cases, the idea was still to deliberately distort reality for dramatic effect. Today, the most common “kit lens” accompanying a new DSLR is the 18-55mm, which at its widest, can make vertical lines bend inward in a way that is dramatic, but not a true measure of natural distance relationships. And, yes, they allow you to stand closer to your subject and “get it all in frame”, but, at that point, you’re also making a decision about whether your image is to be interpretive of reality, or reflective of it.
Extreme wides, including fisheyes, can widen to 8 or 9mm, making the bending of lines so severe that the image elements seem to form a circle, with all lines arching sharply toward the center. And depending on what your image’s particular “reality” is to be, the distances of objects from front to back within the frame are also intensely exaggerated. Things which, in a “prime” lens image, appear just ten feet apart, can, in a fisheye shot, seem half a football field from each other. TV and film shooters exploit this big-time. If you’re shooting within a cramped interior and need to balloon its scope to suggest a larger scale, an ultra-wide really opens the place up. Medium-sized studios used in political debates now appear cavernous: ordinary city buildings shot wide for a crime drama take on intimidating height and depth, appearing to occupy entire blocks.
In the above image, if I want to make the viewer a little dizzy and daunted at the top of this rather modest escalator, I must use an ultra-wide to cheat, to trick the eye into concluding that it’s actually standing at the top of a sky-high ski jump. The tricky thing about ultra-wides, however, is that they mutate everything in the frame. And if part of that “everything” includes humans, your subjects can be taffy-twisted into some very alarming dimensions. Anything wider than about 24mm is downright uglifying for portraiture, unless a stylized effect is part of your interpretation. Lenses are not mere recording equipment. Their limits, biases, and faults can be exploited based on whatever kind of world you’re trying to conjure.