How Wide is Wide Enough?

Despite the rather extreme length of the prior post on lenses, some parts were heavily abbreviated. In particular, in the section considering whether it’s worth thinking about the upgrade path to full frame when buying lenses today, I omitted one huge reason for not doing this – you can’t get wide enough on a crop camera (DX) with full frame lenses alone.  I did mention that there are really no wide primes for crop cameras (on Nikon), but this is mostly true of full frame zooms also.

Setting aside the very special purpose (and very expensive) 14-24/2.8 for a moment, it’s temping to say “not true, what about the recent 16-35/4.0 VR?” (or its Canon L equivalent)?  After all, the widest all-in-one zoom is the 16-85mm – so this gets at least as wide, right? On the surface of things, this is a true statement, and indeed 16mm (or the more standard 18mm starting point for most kit zooms) may be as wide as you need to go. Thus, the titular question – how wide is wide enough?

The problem is that a lens like the 16-35/4.0 is an ultrawide lens on full frame, but merely covers the wide end of the range on a crop camera (24-52mm equivalent). And here’s where you’re stuck in a “heads you lose, tails you also lose” situation:

  • If you don’t need to go wider than 16mm (on a crop camera), then it seems like you’re set. But then as soon as you do upgrade to full frame, you’ll find you spent $1000 on an ultra-wide full-frame lens that covers a range that you decided you didn’t need.  Oops!
  • If you do need to go wider than 16mm, then no full frame lens will do that for you.  Sure, the 14-24/2.8 will get you a hair wider for $1800, but that’s really not a viable solution.  Eventually, you’ll break down and buy a DX lens that won’t work on full frame – and also might not complement your other choices of full frame lenses.

The core of the above issue is that while lenses like the 24-70 are useful (IMO) on a crop camera, and the 70-200 even more definitively so, an ultra-wide full frame zoom covers an awkward and narrow range on a crop camera.  The “pro” recommendation to skip midrange zooms and go for a combination such as 16-35/4.0 + 50/1.4 + 70-200/2.8 is thus great for full frame, but significantly lacking when used on a crop camera.

Still, full frame aside, the question remains – how wide is wide enough? 18mm? 16mm? Less? This is a very personal question. I believe that most non-photographers don’t really have a need to get below 18mm – and certainly not below 16mm. It’s at least advisable to read something like Ken Rockwell’s article “How To Use Ultrawide Lenses” before deciding, since as he notes it’s tough to get good results.  And frankly, when you want people in the picture (which is often a main goal for the non-photographer) it’s even more difficult to use an ultra-wide well.

I’ve still got a ton to learn in this department, though I will note that for the non-photographer, “getting it all in” (criticized in the above article) can still be quite useful even if it creates a somewhat ugly picture.  As an example, consider all those indoor kids birthday parties:

I actually picked this image, shot with the Nikon 10-24, because (a) it was an enclosed space where it would have been impossible to capture the whole group @ 18mm, and (b) it shows how brutally distorted people at the edges of the frame become (not due to lens errors, just due to perspective).

Given the effect on people, I find I use the ultra-wide more often to capture places I’ve been rather than people (unusual, since about 80-90% of my photos are of the people I’m with).  Still, over time, you get to learn how to incorporate people into the frame – though that’s something I’m still working on.

Here’s an experiment creating an embedded SmugMug gallery of wide angle shots; everything here is wider than 18mm and most shots are closer to the 10mm side of the equation.  You won’t see this in your RSS reader (you’ll have to open the post on the actual site to see this); clicking the image outside the buttons will take you the gallery itself on SmugMug:

Almost everything above was shot with the Nikon 10-24 which I own, but #16 and #17 were with Wen’s Tokina 11-16 – a very nice lens that’s a bit more restricted in range, but faster (f/2.8 vs. f/3.5-4.5) and I think perhaps sharper than my copy of the Nikon. The Sigma 10-20mm was another strong contender. Overall this category of lenses is pretty pricey, but quite a bit of fun – you’ll be able to capture your experiences in a somewhat unique way!

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