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I have seen some photographers apply ultra wide lenses for documentary street photography. Taking photos by ultra wide lenses of people in the street creates deeply distorted results. Now there is a question that what purpose may a photographer follow to get such results and whether these kinds of results are accepted as documentary street photos or not?

  • Hi there, do you reckon you could post some example shots?
    – NULLZ
    Apr 22 '13 at 11:55
  • Yes I do!.. I am trying to bring it up here. But please consider it as an example of such photos. Apr 22 '13 at 12:04
  • Do you mean specifically close-up, distorted ultra wide pictures of people, or just ultra wide lenses for street photography in general?
    – mattdm
    Apr 22 '13 at 12:11
  • I added two examples. Taking photos by Ultra wide lenses. Surely when you take photos by normal lenses but from close up you will have some distortions but not as well as ultra wide lenses. :) Apr 22 '13 at 12:14
  • I think I'm having trouble understanding the phrasing. I appreciate that English isn't your first language and I'm not trying to criticize, but I don't get exactly what you mean with "what purpose may a photographer follow". The phrase "to follow a purpose" is generally only used in a grand sense (as in, "to find the greater meaning of life"), and while I don't think you mean it that way, I'm not quite sure what you do mean. (Do you mean what process a photographer follows to get such results? That would be a very different question.)
    – mattdm
    Apr 23 '13 at 14:51

This style of photography using an ultra wide angle lens clearly goes against the ethos of documentary photography since it

  1. presents the subject in a unrealistic way.

  2. forces you to get so close to people that you influence their posture or expression, thereby altering what you seek to observe.

It is however, a perfectly valid form of artistic impression. The wide angle gives a surreal look to images by dramatically enhancing the foreshortening effect.


I concur that this is not documentary photography at all. Documentary photography seeks to capture things as they happen and as they were seen and to capture the emotion of the event. This kind of a style is very surreal and honestly, (imho) the sample photos are rather poor even for use of a wide angle lens.

Using a wide angle lens like this is the equivalent of taking photos in a fun house mirror. There is no apparent rhyme or reason to the stylistic surrealism of the way the subjects are distorted. It doesn't really add anything to the story the photo tells (at least for me).

Generally I see wide angle lenses used more to capture crowds and large amount of action (wide angle can help with the feel of action in some cases) or where the subject itself is already surreal and the added surrealism benefits the feel of the imagery.


Although the photographer of the example images has categorized the samples you show as "documentary", they're certainly not straight documentary. They're probably not really even properly called portraits; they might be called caricatures.

But you ask what purpose a photographer might have in making photographs in this way, and that I think is straightforward: the photographer wants to make something that looks interesting and different, rather than yet another example of the same thing over again. We may argue about whether it's successful, but the purpose of this approach is clearly to make a photograph that looks different from the expected.

In fact, in this particular series, the distortion appears to have a specific artistic purpose; in addition to the "documentary" and "street" tags, these are labeled as "conceptual", and are part of a small series provocatively titled "An Enemy of the People". (To see all seven, start with this one and then click next.) It seems very likely that the literal strongly-distorted views of ordinary people on the street is an intentional statement related to that title.

So, while the purpose of a distorted-perspective street shot may simply be humor, or nothing more significant than a way to force a new perspective onto an old scene, it can certainly be used in other ways as part of a photographic vocabulary.

  • This question is not about criticizing the example photo or trying to find motives of photographer on wrong assumptions as it has been criticized by experts of photography 2 years ago but it was an example photo to get what distortion in photography means. Apr 22 '13 at 16:29
  • I'm not criticizing the photo. And, it's your question, so I can't really argue, but you actually specifically ask what the purpose of taking a photo in this style might be. Nothing in photography or in any art has any meaning without understanding the motives of the photographer or the perceptions of the viewer.
    – mattdm
    Apr 22 '13 at 16:32
  • Surely you are right but it is a general question not subjective and I think some methods in photography can start new genres with similar motives of photographers. Apr 22 '13 at 17:38
  • I don't understand what you mean by that last comment. I don't think it's subjective either, and I give a general answer. What am I missing? Are you saying that you think these photos were really intended to be literal documentary ("with same motives")?
    – mattdm
    Apr 22 '13 at 17:43
  • I am not talking about example photos. The question is clear. Apr 22 '13 at 17:44

With a normal or tele lens, you can easily focus on a detail and compose a few elements into a shot. With a wide angle, and especially ultra wide-angle, the camera is going to capture everything, so the image will be chaotic and full of possibly distracting details. So the pohotographer is going to have to work to try to make some order out of that chaos, and is necessarily going to have to get closer to his subject, like any wide angle photography really, so that there is somewhere for the eye to focus and not just a mess of background with no real subject.

By getting closer to the subject the shot will have a more intimate feel. Not like the photographer is a distant observer, but more part of the action. As a result the photographer is more likely to be noticed and more likely to get a reaction from his subjects, whereas with longer lenses you can often catch people unaware.

So for documentary photography, using a wide angle is going to most likely capture images of people who are quite aware of the camera, but you will get closer and more intimate with the subject, and you will also capture more of the surrounding environment with the shot.

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