the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

EYES WIDE OPEN

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A quaint old workshop, but it’s inside a room that is too small for everything in it to be shown with a standard focal length.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I DUNNO. IT MAY BE BECAUSE WE ASSOCIATE WIDE-ANGLES LENSES WITH LANDSCAPES. You know the kind of images I mean: vast canvasses of sprawling geography that seem to draw our eye enormous distances between left and right sides of the frame, enforcing an idea that we have to “get everything in” when composing our image. Perfect solution: Wiiiiiiide-angle! No cropping of a cool mountain or a winding river needed! Hey, all you trees, crowd in together, willya?

In reality, I almost never use a wide-angle lens for exposition of big subjects. The lens can magnify distances, especially front-to-back distances, that I don’t particularly need to magnify, and so I use a normal focal length and just stand farther away from the scene. I believe that wide-angles are not designed to “get everything in” your picture. They are best used when they put you, yourself, farther inside a scene. Most wide shots fail because they are taken from too far away, when the feeling of “being there”, of having yourself immersed in a scene, is only accomplished the closer you are to the action. Or if you think of it in sonic terms, consider how more immersive stereo feels if you create the illusion that you are amongst the musicians instead of across from them.

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Same room, now shown completely by moving in closer and using a 24mm wide-angle.

With this in mind, I think that wide-angles are absolutely essential when you find yourself in a cramped space, whereas using a normal 50mm width in such a situation, as seen at the top of this page, heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. More than half the detail in the medium-sized workshop in the image is simply lost, including the space’s entire left side and ceiling, both of which are loaded with interesting information. Snap on a 24mm wide-angle, however, as I did in the second view, and the room opens up, even though I am leaning physically farther into the room’s doorway than I did when using the 50. Instead of using a wide-angle to back up and “get everything in” (what? the door frame? the outside of the tool shack?) I placed myself further into the scene and let it, if you like, wrap around me.

Composition is part instinct, part inspiration and part calculation. Focal lengths can operate counter-intuitively in some situations, but ahead of the right tool comes the right idea. When both arrive at the scene together, the good stuff happens.

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