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Why Super Wide Angle Lenses are Not Recommended for Group Photography

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.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - On the first day of the visit, after leaving the Leica Store in Soho. A safe group shot at super wide angles. Both subjects seated with their face and appendages on almost the same focal plane, bunched together at the center of the frame.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - Another safe group shot with all the subjects standing on the same focal plane in the middle, with the legs elongated near the bottom of the frame. The only notable issue are slight distortion on the head, near the top of the frame.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - Here is a better version positioning the subjects in the middle, except in this case, the heads of each subject are now in the center of the frame, mitigating distortion of the face.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - At minimum focusing distance, distortion is even more evident, even slightly outside center of the frame.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - This image demonstrates the extent of contortion necessary to offset distortion when the subjects are on different focal plane. Here, Anna is extending her body forward, so that her head is on the same focal plane as Lydia. Also worth noting is how Lydia's torso is slightly leaning forward, in order to place her upper body on a similar focal plane as her lower body.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - Probably the safest possible image capture on a super wide angle lens. Everyone posing on the same focal plane, with all appendages tucked-in, while standing tall in the middle of the frame with heads in the center - photographed from a normal distance with a wall for a background.

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.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - Closer focusing distance, with noticeable distortion of the head slanting towards the corners. At Ladurée in Soho.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - Distortion not as much of an issue when there are no heads in-frame.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - With Lydia and Anna seated further from the center, and at closer focusing distance, distortion is evident. It's even more evident on the people in the background (but less so with the ones further away caught in the mirror).

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - The first of the cherry blossom - as promised. Just so perfect on a spring day.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - Much of the distortion was mitigated by the menu. Still, the waiter is noticeably distorted. But that doesn't matter as much, given the context of the waiter relative to the documentation.

Leica M10 + 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH - Extreme distortion at minimum focusing distance. Best to cut off the heads in the framing.

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. 

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Here's Anna at Balthazar, on the last day of the visit - shot wide open. Since I don't have enough usable photos at 18mm, the rest of this post will show how much easier it is to shoot at 35mm.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - A spontaneous photo of Lydia. Also wide open.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Not exactly the best photo with even a 35mm lens. But could you imagine how ridiculously far away that playing card stuck to the ceiling would be on a super wide angle lens?

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - An easy photo of Lydia and Anna seated by the bar. The people in the background are not obtrusive, since they are evenly distributed while providing environmental context.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - At 35mm, there isn't as much of a need for the subject to lean forward to match focal planes between head and appendages. Also worth noting is how much less of an issue seating deeply is, with regards to the subject's thighs spreading out, at 35mm. But the wider you are, the more this spreading becomes exaggerated.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Left half of image pasted from another image. Reduced distortion makes this kind of editing much easier.

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.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Less distortion at 35mm with faces on different focal plane. Here at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, in Central Park.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - On different focal plane at a distance, size distortion is visually imperceptible.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - At 35mm, capturing spontaneously is much easier - especially at a distance, when there is no one photobombing you.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - But I suppose it's easy not to get photobombed, when you're at a residential part of Central Park, on the Upper West Side. In Hong Kong, this might not be possible.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - On a big boulder. A simple photo. No effort in documentation. Although I could have positioned Lydia a little lower for better framing.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Of course, shooting at 35mm does not guarantee perfection. Much of a successful image capture still depends on your subjects not squinting. Here, with Anna's face pasted from another image from this set.

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.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - 35mm is ample enough to get sufficient environmental context. Here with cherry blossoms.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Now Lydia with cherry blossoms.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Lydia under a tree, with Anna still behind the hill working on an Instagram moment. Without any object on a closer focusing plane, distortion is seemingly absent.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Anna and Lydia up a tree. At 35mm from longer focusing distance, there's virtually no distortion of the subjects worth mentioning. Although the cherry blossoms on the top right corner are noticeably more pronounced.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Now Anna and Lydia captured from a distance at an irregular angle. At 35mm, distortion is rather manageable, despite being evident with Anna and Lydia's lower body becoming more substantial towards the right bottom corner.

Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA - Captured with camera overhead. No need to observe extra attention in getting the subject to pose, for the sake of mitigating distortion.

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.

Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH

Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH

The Role of Familiarity in Making a Better Photograph

The Role of Familiarity in Making a Better Photograph