Why Super Wide Angle Lenses are Not Recommended for Group Photography
Springtime in the Big Apple. It's been years since I've last experienced it. Normally, I'm never here when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. But as chance would have it, an oversight from my last trip forced me to return unexpectedly. How very unfortunate - another long haul flight. Still, I suppose there are worst mistakes in life. At least it gave me an excuse to milk a week of shooting into three weeks of gratuitous content on the blog during a slow news cycle.
Still, what to pack? The heart always wants to bring more, but prudence knows from experience that ambition is often left in the bag. Still, can you really blame the heart for being ambitious? When the opportunity presents itself, the last thing anyone wants is to be caught with their pants pulled down. So the natural inclination is to bring more, given the option of a do-over will be quashed by distance, once the visit is over. Besides, it's now or never.
In packing more, we lose sight of why we take photos when we're off in far away places. It's to save the many keepsakes that bring us back those moments, worlds apart our ordinary lives, when we lose ourselves completely in doing as the locals do. Still, it's difficult not to obsess over thoughts of topping up on what to bring. In doing so, we're essentially limiting the scope of the photo opportunity to what our gear can do for us, as oppose to capturing the experience.
We all want to take the perfect picture, especially during our travels. But, bringing more gear will not turn the tides in your favor. It's just too much to always prepare for each photo opportunity with just the right pairing of camera and lens. And, the minute you shift focus away from taking the shot to fumble around your bag, you're sacrificing the decisive moment. Admittedly, you'll still get the shot. But, you'll lose that special something that initially caught your eye.
Though, I suppose you could always remedy this lag in capturing the decisive moment by taking out your gear all at once and have them at the ready. With multiple cameras cascading down your body, there wouldn't be a need to fumble inside your bag. However, the added weight that's slung around your neck and shoulder will eventually take its toll on you. It won't feel good, and it won't be fun. It will just make the whole experience feel an awful lot like work.
Besides, the last thing I wanted to do was look like a charicature of Dennis Hopper, as he first appeared, late in the film Apocolypse Now. Because of that, I decided to economize by bringing only what I needed - which was a primary camera with a fast 35mm lens, and a backup camera with a fast 50mm lens. In a perfect world, the discussion should have ended here. But old habits die hard, especially for a pack mule outside his comfort zone.
So on mid flight across the Pacific, I was beginning to have second thoughts. Perhaps I'm not bringing enough gear? In order for me to achieve what I need for the blog and provide Anna and Lydia with proper travel snaps, I would need a lens that facilitates quick candid documentation. That means a lens that can get close enough to mitigate photobombing, while still ample enough to capture them both with New York still clearly captured in frame.
At cruising altitude, the door would seem as good as closed with all my bags already packed. But instead of waiting for the proverbial window to open, I wedged my foot into the door to keep it from closing. Inspiration struck me. What I needed for the week was a super wide angle lens. And as luck would have it, I remembered seeing a copy of the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH, just a month earlier at the Leica Store in Soho.
The 18mm SEM was a lens I had originally considered, but ultimately decided against, because of how ugly it was. It might seem like a superficial reason to reject a lens, but I really did not like its inelegant solution for attaching filters. Nevertheless, I was in a bind. Desperate times calls for desperate measures. So upon landing into JFK International Airport, I messaged Craig after hours at the Leica Store in Soho my urgent request.
Since starting this blog, I've generally had favorable results with super wide angle lenses. As such, I really had no reason to believe I'd experience any noticeable challenges with the 18mm SEM. And despite my write-up discussing why group shots are better left between the 28mm to 35mm range, I thought I knew enough to overcome the demands of documenting two subjects properly with a super wide angle lens.
Much to my surprise, I was wrong. Of an entire day of shooting, with well over 200 frames shot, I only managed to salvage twelve usable images for this blog post - and splitting hairs at that. The 18mm SEM did not help me facilitate my objective. But to be fair, the issue has nothing to do with this specific lens. Rather, it has everything to do with why a super wide angle lens should not be used in group documentation.
What seems to be at odds with super wide angle lenses when used in group photography is how relative distortion between multiple subjects impacts the look of a captured image. In other words, one subject is generally less distorted than another. Because of that, the subject that's more distorted will never look quite right, given a basis of comparison of another subject in-frame that seems relatively more normal. As a result, the overall image will always look off.
Mitigating distortion is possible in group documentation with super wide angle lenses. But it's much more trouble than its worth. To capture everyone in-frame as favorably as possible, extra attention is needed in bunching the subjects together near the center of the frame, with all their appendages tucked-in and on the same focal plane - all for the sake of eliminating unwanted and unintended incidents of distortion. That leaves no room for any spontaneity in documentation.
Also worth noting is the issue of photobombing behind the subject with a super wide angle lens. Although the incident of photobombing in front of the subject is greatly reduced with closer focusing at the wider angle of coverage, dealing with what's behind the subject is a different matter. Because of that wider angle of coverage, falling victim to photobombing behind the subject is almost a certainty, if the background isn't a wall. Again, no spontaneity.
Long story short, after one long day of disappointment, I shelved the 18mm SEM, and went back to the safety of a 35mm lens. Again, this is not to say that the 18mm SEM was at fault. It certainly wasn't. However, if getting once-in-a-lifetime travel snaps of friends and family is important to you, then I would strongly advise against packing a super wide angle lens. For this reason, the remaining photos on this post and most of this Big Apple visit was taken with a 35mm lens.
So the moral of the story. If you're on holiday, lighten your load by bringing less gear. All you need is a lens with a focal range from 28mm to 35mm. But for good measure, bring a backup camera (in case your primary camera fails), and a lens with tighter focal length (just in case you want to bring the background optically closer in the composition). For most typical travel needs, that is really all anyone needs - assuming that lions and tight enclosed spaces are not involved.
More on the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH next week.
All images have been optimized in Lightroom. All images shot on the Leica M10 + Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH or Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Double Aspherical. Some 18mm images have been leveled and cropped slightly for composition. Title image has been cropped to 35mm equivalent, and edited with the background photobombing removed on Photoshop.