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Ultra-Wide Lenses Need to Be Used with Restraint

Published: 21/06/2010

A reader recently told me, "I know you don’t think the 14mm (full frame) lens is suitable for RE work, but I have found that to be quite the opposite! I have the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (the finest lens I have ever owned hands down for RE work!!) & I use it @ 14mm 75% of the time. I just crop as necessary to get what I want. You really ought to reconsider your opinion on a 14mm lens as not suitable for RE work".

First of all I want to clarify that I agree with this reader. The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is one of the finest ultra-wide angle lenses on the planet! And it's not that a full frame 14mm isn't suitable for real estate it's that when shooting below 24mm you get more perspective distortion. Some visually sophisticated viewers of your work will notice perspective distortion and other less visually sophisticated viewers won't.

What I mean by perspective distortion is the shape of the pot in the little potted tree in the bottom left corner. We all know that this pot has a round top but round objects in the corners of photos shot with a wide angle zoom at 16mm like this shot will appear oval. Rectangular tables won't look rectangular and floors sometimes take on some strange looking slopes. All objects in the corners have this wacky look but the only ones viewers notice are the objects that they have expectations about. It's like converging verticals, we know walls are vertical and when they don't look like we expect we notice.

When I got my first full frame camera body and a 16-35mm zoom I was just like the reader that uses his 14mm all the time. I was in LOVE with 16mm! I swear I didn't take the lens off 16mm for a year! During this period, I had potential buyers that accused me of trying to deceive them by making rooms look bigger than they were. I had one of our listing customers characterize photos with perspective distortion as having a "cartoony look" and my wife would complain that some rooms in our listings looked like they were "bowling alleys" and send me back to reshoot.

What I pointed out to the reader in love with 14mm, is that you can get away with this visual "foolishness" when shooting for some real estate agents because they are that visually sophisticated. But you won't get away with it if you shoot for an architect, designer or even an agent that subscribes to Architectural Digest! Ever notice that you don't see 14mm and 16mm interior shots in Architectural Digest? It's because AD's target audience is a visually sophisticated.

So, I'm not saying, "don't use your wide angle at 14mm". I'm saying use it with restraint. Use it at 14mm in those funky little powder rooms or small rooms. Try to stay close to 24mm unless going wider is essential and when you shoot wide pay attention to objects in the corners of the photo and try to minimize those long straight bowling alley lines.

Larry Lohrman

13 comments on “Ultra-Wide Lenses Need to Be Used with Restraint”

  1. Understand what you are saying. But... getting more (especially interior) in view is of primary importance. Viewers want to see MORE. Ultra wide angle does that. Some distortion is expected and accepted. Shooting up to 10mm is way better than many other alternatives. My most important tool is the 10-20 Sigma lens.

  2. My clients are directly the buyers and sellers. I have sometimes the feedback that our photos are excessively distorted. But this feedback is from tourist buyers, who won't buy anything anytime soon.

    My satisfied clients, the ones who really sell and buy, often thanks me for the good photos. They see the distortion, too, but understand it's obligatory to show the whole room. The seller thanks me because they look good, and the buyer thanks me because I show him everything.

    And honestly, 24mm is too near of modern 200€ compacts (see the last DPreview shoot out) to show obviously the added value of a RE photographer. For me, the 90° horizontal FOV is _the_ interior perspective. [18mm equivalent]

  3. I have found that generally if you take too wide of a shot, the Open Home visitors are somewhat taken aback, especially when they say "it just looked bigger on the Internet." )TIP: to fix this issue.......recompress wide angle photo with something like PTLens Perspective Horizontal slider .....I'm sure there is probably an equivalent in many other programs too)

  4. I would like to learn more about this.

    I understood that perspective distortion (NOT converging verticals) was a function of two things: camera position and print (screen) viewing distance. That is, for a fixed camera position the distortion depended only in the lens to subject distance. That is: a 135 format (24x36 mm) sensor camera at a fixed position would exhibit the same perspective when an image from a 12mm lens was cropped to give the same angle-of-view as an uncropped frame from a 50 mm lens.

    In most PFRE applications the camera location is limited and the lens-to-subject(s) distance is fixed – such as in the corner of a rectangular room. Suppose there is an attractive fire place on the right wall and a unique bay window centered on the on the far wall at a right angle to the fireplace wall. We decide the best angle of view is from the left side of the bay window to the right side of the fireplace. There is a large circular wood bin on the right side of the fireplace. Our goal is to minimize the oval distortion of the circular wood bin while still portraying the room's attractive features.

    With an APS-C sensor camera the angle-of-view that spans the bay window to the fireplace is achieved with a 12 mm focal length. The wood bin is the closest subject to the camera and significant oval distortion is present. Now a 135 format camera is used with a 18 mm lens and the frame has the same angle-of-view as before. Because the camera-to-subject distance is identical, the the circular wood-bin will display the identical oval appearance as observed in the APS-C sensor image.

    Because it is more difficult to manufacture a 12 mm lens with the optical quality of an 18 mm lens, it is likely the 18 mm lens image will be superior optically. The DOF will be less than the 12 mm image's DOF (when the same aperture is used). But does the 18mm lens image have less perspective distortion?

    Is keeping the camera as far away as possible from the scene the only way to minimize the distractions like oval distortion?

  5. @Marc- Good to hear from you again!

    "And honestly, 24mm is too near of modern 200€ compacts (see the last DPreview shoot out) to show obviously the added value of a RE photographer. For me, the 90° horizontal FOV is _the_ interior perspective. [18mm equivalent]" Yes, I think you might be on to something! I've never thought about it from this perspective!

  6. I too went from a cropped sensor, using a Sigma 12-24 lens, to a full-frame 5D with a 16-35 zoom. Larry's experience mirrors mine exactly. I too went nuts with the added field of view at 16mm on the full-frame for about 6 months. I did get some complaints about the rooms looking distorted. Since then, I have been using 21mm or 24mm focal lengths when I can get back far enough from the subject. I agree, that sometimes one does need to use super wide focal lengths, but when possible, I use 24mm, and get much nicer looking images. I also have the Canon 14mm, which I use about 3-4 times per year when I need to capture more, and simply cannot move back any further.

  7. I absolutely agree with Larry. I started shooting RE with a 5d and a 24-70, then I thought I needed something wider and I bought 17-40. I started shooting 17 like crazy, got my first complains and also some critique from a collegue who shoots interiors for magazines. I realized I was really distorting images and spaces too much. I now shoot most of pictures with a nikon 28 shift (excelent) and when I really need something wider, I take the 17-40 and I try to keep it above 20.
    I could shoot some properties just with the 28 and I m really proud of it! Of course you need the right house but believe me it's the best thing you can do:with the same focal lenght, a moderate wide angle, you can keep relationship between rooms and spaces, almost natural perspective, and won't get any complain. I think the most important thing, really tiny stupid but important thing....are you really sure you can't step a little backward??

  8. I did that as well when I started. I have a Sigma 10-20 and shot almost exclusively at 10mm, I try not to go any lower than 12mm (14mm or higher preferred) now unless it's really necessary.

  9. That plant pot is one of the better examples I've seen to illustrate subtle distortion. Saw the same thing happening to my head in an image last week.

    Suppose it just depends on the market. If a home or condo was likely to be bought by a geeky type of citizen, it could be equally likely that an unusual photo would capture their attention.


  10. An old topic i know but what causes that sloping feeling (floors & counters sloping to toward the edge of the fame) with images taken at 24mm and how is this corrected / avoided? Any advice? Thanks

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