Which focal length best approximates our peripheral vision? I had a hunch that it might be one of my wide-angle focal lengths. To find out, I searched the internet to back up my gut feeling with some hard evidence. It turns out there’s no definitive answer. And that has to do with the nature of peripheral vision and how wide-angle lenses see differently from human eyesight.
The main difficulty in comparing wide-angle lenses with peripheral vision is the fact that peripheral vision doesn’t suddenly stop full-force. Instead, it slopes off gradually. We see sideways, but it becomes dimmer and less distinct. Color acuity also declines as you approach the boundaries of your eyesight. That’s because the receptor and ganglion cells are denser in the center of the retina than they are at the edges.
A top-notch wide-angle lens, on the other hand, can have edge-to-edge sharpness with almost no decrease in brightness or color accuracy. So in addition to mimicking the wider view of peripheral vision, a wide-angle lens can expand that human capability by letting you see clearly—in effect—what you’ve been missing all those years.
We often mentally focus on a specific area of the visual field. As photographers, we can similarly focus the viewer’s attention by opening up the aperture of the lens to narrow the depth of field. Alternatively, we can use the deep-focus capabilities of a stopped-down wide-angle lens to create a scene that’s sharply focused throughout.
If you go the deep-focus route, your wide-angle view becomes a broad canvas onto which you can apply light much like a painter. And like a painter, you may choose to leave some areas dark and mysterious, even if the underlying objects are tack sharp. Large swaths of darkened areas can fire up the viewer’s imagination. As the great cinematographer John Alton wrote in his book on photographic technique titled Painting with Light, “where there is no light, one cannot see; and when one cannot see, his imagination starts to run wild.”
Think of the traditional Chinese paintings where the white areas seem to flow naturally from the contours of the landscape, reaching far inside to balance the overall composition. Within the Chinese tradition, the edges default to white, giving the painting a dreamlike quality. It suggests that the painting is floating in empty space. In the Hollywood film noirs from John Alton and fellow cinematographer Gregg Toland, the outer-edges also default to a featureless monotone. The film noirs use black instead of white to achieve their dreamlike, floating quality.
You could argue that vignetting echoes the decreasing brightness that we see in the corners of our peripheral vision. Vignette might be a result of the lens design, such as the recently revived Leica 28mm Summaron-M. It might be added artificially during processing as a visual effect. Or you might intentionally look for real-life scenes that have dark areas in the peripheral parts of the image. That last option may be the most satisfying, because you end up with images that are more naturally lit, instead of being systematically or artificially imposed. And like the outer-edge white in traditional Chinese paintings, this intentional real-life vignetting can extend deep into the image, suggesting that darkness is encroaching onto the subjects within.
Over the past few years, I’ve re-watched many of the Hollywood film noirs from the 1940s and 1950s (as well as the silent German films from the 1920s) in an attempt to absorb their shadow-emphasized photographic lessons. I’ve tried to find street scenes, spot lighting, and diagonal structures that might allow for similar deep-focused compositions with isolated pockets of pictorial interest. These are some of those images. All were shot with a Leica M Monochrom camera and 21mm Super-Elmar-M lens.
I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but I really do think that the Monochrom with a Leica wide-angle lens is an ideal combination for these kinds of shots. Together, they provide the rich detail and subtle gradations that are key to recreating a shadow-based film noir experience. The Monochrom’s lack of a color-separating Bayer filter boosts the overall light level, increases the dynamic range, and makes the ISO noise seem less digital and more film-like.
With the photo titled Tokyo International Forum #3, you can see how natural shadows and a wide-angle perspective can create an expansive interior landscape. The subtle gradations along the floor are sharply textured with fine details. And the dynamic range is smoothly rendered from pitch-black shadows to brightly illuminated sunlit areas. It all feels appropriately true-to-life. Interestingly, the two human figures echo the directional movement of the shadows. The foreground uniformed figure has an open stride that appears to be pushing the shadow patterns outward. While the reposed background figure reflects the closer tighter-packed patterns that help to center the composition.
In an urban environment with an abundance of tall buildings, it can be a challenge to photograph a building with a wide-angle lens without capturing some of the surrounding buildings. Don’t think of that as a drawback. Instead, it’s an opportunity to create epic landscapes with shadows that stretch far across the city. In the photo titled Manhattan Buildings #33, the shadows provide a natural vignette that directs the viewer’s attention from the lower corners to the upper center of the image. The strong diagonal lines reinforce this directive pull. Here the extreme diagonals and rippling shadows suggest a mountain peak that suddenly appears through a break in the storm clouds.
The peripheral perspective of a wide-angle lens provides an opportunity to create complex compositions that mix natural reflections with pools of isolated light. The photo titled Manhattan Store Window #28 is a good example of this. We see these kinds of reflections and shadows all the time, but tend to tune them out as we go about our daily lives. In this regard, color can be a distraction. In limiting the color palette to monochromatic hues, we can more easily imagine that the reflected and non-reflected objects are part of the same spatial plane. The viewer’s interest in this photo could be piqued by a curiosity to determine the source for each element. And if the photo is successful, the viewer might also enjoy the composition for its own sake—as a collection of objects that have randomly fallen into a pleasing arrangement.
Back to the idea that we can seek out environments where light naturally vignettes, the photo titled Grand Central #4 shows what you can achieve with just a little patience. At certain times of day, the streams of light in New York’s Grand Central Terminal become bright and more distinct. Then it’s a matter of waiting for individuals to unsuspectingly move into a position that completes or balances the composition. Expect plenty of near misses as your main subjects hit their marks, but the image as a whole is marred by having too many people in the way. You could stage the results by asking people to move into the optimal positions. Though with that approach, you might lose an element of spontaneity or randomness.
While there may not be a direct correlation between wide-angle lenses and peripheral vision, there is enough overlap that it could be useful to explore creatively how wide-angle photography might mimic or augment this physical phenomenon. If a 35mm or 50mm lens depicts the world as seen looking straight ahead, then a wide-angle lens may be better suited for exploring the world more comprehensively—with a view that encompasses and even emphasizes the surrounding space.
This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom, X Vario, and Q. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.