To anyone who might be new to landscape photography, wide angle may seem a little counterintuitive because a wide angle lens makes everything look smaller, and you’re out there to see all that beautiful, large landscape scenery. So you might be asking yourself, well, why would I want to make that look smaller? Anyone who has already had some experience with landscape photography knows that wide angle photography is kind of “where it’s at.” It’s really the bread and butter of landscape photography.

The real question is when do you want to go wide? Not every landscape scene is going to be conducive to wide angle photography. There are certainly types of scenes where I’m definitely going to be reaching for a longer lens. But there are some specific types of scenes where I definitely want to go wide.

Unite the Land & Sky

Probably the single thing that I’m looking for the most when I’m doing landscape photography is really dramatic weather and skies, and a wide angle lens allows you to unite what’s going on in the landscape down below with what is going on in the sky above.

It’s bringing together heaven and earth. So when there’s a lot of big clouds in the sky, and I want to have lots of foreground, that’s when I go wide. And you’ll see with a lot of my landscape shots that I’m actually going vertical because you need that vertical perspective sometimes to get everything in frame, from foreground to the big dramatic clouds in the sky.

When giant storm clouds are building in the sky, that’s when I make sure that my wide angle lens is at the top of my camera bag. I know I’m going to be using it pretty much exclusively. And so I’ve got a little formula that goes like this: big clouds + close foreground = extreme photo awesomeness.

And this is really where you’re going to make your best landscape photos—when you have these really dramatic sky events going on at sunrise and sunset. Basically, I spend most of my time just waiting for these things to happen, and I scout out compositions ahead of time so that when I do get that amazing light and color in the sky, I’m ready to go.

Interior Expansion

Another thing that wide angle lenses are really good at is expanding small cramped interiors. Architecture photographers know that if they want to make a room look bigger, they reach for a wide angle lens. As a landscape photographer, you might be out doing grand landscape photography a lot, but every now and then you might find yourself in a small cramped interior, like a slot Canyon, or maybe wedged under a small sandstone arch. Or, as the case may be for me with this photo below, I was exploring a bunch of small sandstone caves along the south shore of Lake Superior, and in the winter they turn into ice caves.

They basically freeze on the inside, and there’s a lot of water that’s seeping through the sandstone that creates these icicles that hang down from the ceiling. And it’s really quite beautiful. So for this scene, I was squeezing myself into this tight space and using that ultra-wide perspective to open up this small space and make it look more cavernous and make it look much larger than it was.

Once you start working with a wide angle lens, if you go with a focal length that you’ve never really used before, at first you might not know quite what to do with it. But once you figure it out, you start seeking out compositions that would be ideal for that focal length. That’s something that I do with my wide angle lenses. I find I’m stuffing myself as much as I can into these really small, tight spaces, looking for really interesting, unique, kind of jammed-interior shots. Having that wide angle of view just opens everything up and allows you to bring in all these shapes and textures that you might be finding.

Near-Far Compositions

Another thing going ultra-wide does is it allows you to make things that are actually really tiny look a lot bigger. At first that sounds counterintuitive because you’re probably thinking, doesn’t wide angle make things look smaller? Well, it does. But if you get close to something with a wide angle lens, it’s going to make it look much bigger. It’s going to make it look bigger than something that’s far away, and this lends itself to a landscape compositional style called near-far. You can do this near-far composition with any lens, even a long lens. If you have like a near element and a far element that are juxtaposed, you could capture that with a long lens, but it’s a lot easier with a wide angle lens to get this near-far look. It’s a little bit more difficult with a telephoto lens.

Basically you’re juxtaposing a foreground object, something that is literally at your feet, against that background scenery. In a good near-far composition, that scenery gets pushed to the background. It’s really not the subject anymore. The subject is really the relationship between the foreground and the background. And of course that’s just a binary. Sometimes you might have multiple layers—you might have foreground, middle ground, background, sky. But the point is, wide angle lenses are especially well suited for near-far compositions, as you can get really close to a foreground element and exaggerate its importance relative to the background.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IanPlantScreenshot-2024-04-29-at-10.52.54-AM-686x1024.png

Forced Perspective

Now let’s talk about a concept in art known as forced perspective. It’s a powerful visual effect that challenges viewer perception, and it adds a lot of visual interest to the work. As I’ve mentioned, a wide angle lens makes everything look really small. But if you get close to something, you can make it look bigger. This is what is called forced perspective, which is basically changing the relative scale of objects using focal length and your position relative to each object. So you zoom out to a wider focal length to make everything look smaller. And you zoom in to make it bigger. So basically, with a wide angle lens, as I mentioned before, the background scenery shrinks. And then when you get close to your foreground, the foreground elements grow. So the foreground ends up, in a lot of landscape compositions, being bigger than the background scenery, even though the foreground object is actually a lot smaller, giving you that forced perspective effect.

So, now you have some ideas of when and why to go ultra-wide with your landscapes!

Don’t forget while you’re going wide: get close. Get close to your foregrounds in particular and really work to exaggerate that forced perspective effect. Get really creative with it because it’s going to be the key to making dynamic landscape compositions that really draw the viewer into the scene.

And remember that when you’ve got big clouds, That’s when you’re going to reach for your wide angle lens, and you’re going to find a really great foreground. And together, those are going to create extreme wide angle photo awesomeness. And that’s what you are looking for.

Once you start shooting wide, you’re going to find it hard to stop, and it’s going to change the way you see the world. And suddenly you’re going to be looking for nothing but these extreme wide angle compositions. I know that’s what’s happened to me. I’ve become a total wide angle junkie. If you want to learn more, you can find me at Hopefully one of these days, I’ll see you guys out there in the field and we can work together with some of these wide angle landscape techniques.

This article was excerpted and adapted from the KelbyOne class “The Ultra-Wide Landscape” with Ian Plant.

Ian Plant will be one of our esteemed instructors at the ON1 Landscape Photography Conference, a KelbyOne Live online event. Click here to check out the schedule and see what Ian will be teaching. Keep reading below for more information.

Ready to elevate your landscape photography to new heights? KelbyOne Live and ON1 are teaming up to bring you the ON1 Landscape Photography Conference, June 18-19, 2024. Unlock the secrets behind planning, shooting, and developing awe-inspiring landscape images. Learn from instructors who are not only seasoned photographers but also masters of leveraging ON1’s powerful tools and features to streamline and enhance the landscape editing process. Learn all about the conference and reserve your ticket!