Photographic Myths and Platitudes – ‘Landscape Photography Lenses’ (Part I)

(NOTES: This article has been updated periodically since its original publication. And, yes, there is a Part II.)

A recent discussion got me thinking once again about another “myth” of landscape photography, namely that there are certain lenses that are appropriate for landscape photography and other lenses that are not. There are several categories of myths in this area, including but not limited to the following aspects: focal lengths, zooms versus primes, maximum apertures, expense, etc. While I could have a lot of fun (or not!) starting with the zoom/prime question, I have saved that for Part II. (Short preview: I think that “zooms or primes?” may be the wrong question, the image quality implications are not as simple as you might think, and I use both… but tend more and more to rely on zooms.)

Instead, I’ll start with…

Focal Length

The trigger for my recent thoughts was a comment someone made during a discussion of the suitability of a certain type of lens for landscape photography. I had made a point concerning a 85mm prime that I sometimes used, and the other party wasn’t real thrilled with my point of view. Several rebuttals to my thinking were offered, but the one that was offered as a sort of trump card was, essentially, that using a 85mm lens for landscape seems like a very inappropriate choice, and it would be better to use a wide-angle zoom like a 16-35mm lens.

While many landscape photographers, especially those who have done this for a while, know better, it is surprising how many people assume it to be accepted wisdom that proper landscape photography is done with ultra-wide to perhaps normal focal length lenses, and that the first and perhaps only lens that a landscape photographer would want would be such a lens. (Again, I’m not getting into the prime v. zoom question here – I’ll save that fun topic for a later post. :-)

In my view, the best answer to the “what focal length is best for landscape?” question is the focal length that works best for the photograph I am making right now. My current kit, based on full frame DSLR bodies, covers focal lengths from 17mm to 400mm. While I frequently work with less than the full kit (when backpacking, for example), when I’m not constrained by weight or other limitations I carry lenses to cover this full range and typically use most or all of them. What follows is an overview of some of the lenses I use, accompanied by some photographic examples and a bit of explanation.

(Although I happen to use Canon gear, you can easily translate this to similar equipment on other brands. I also shoot full frame, so if you shoot a cropped sensor camera my lenses would give you “longer” telephoto angle coverage but lack the ultra wide coverage. You would generally  convert the focal lengths I mention here by dividing by the “crop factor” for your camera. For example, if I mention 50mm and you use a 1.6x crop factor camera, you can divide 50 by 1.6 to calculate that a 31.25mm focal length would give you the same angle of view.)

Ultra Wide Angle Zoom

My primary ultra-wide zoom lens is the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS lens — 7ou can read my initial report on the lens here. Lenses like this one (for a long time I used the I use the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 lens) are the type that many assume to be the “typical landscape lens.” Indeed, they can be very useful for landscape photography. One iconic type of landscape image juxtaposes some very close and “intimate” subject (perhaps foreground flowers or rocks) with a more distant “grand” landscape subject (such as a mountain peak, sky, clouds). Ultra-wide angle lenses allow you to include, obviously, wide swaths of subject matter in the frame, and their larger DOF can help when both close and far subjects are included.

This photograph of Sierra Nevada lupine flowers in a meadow with (aptly named) Picture Peak in the distance is an example of this sort of shot – the lupine flowers were mere inches from the camera position.

A photograph of an aspen grove, made with the same lens, exemplifies a somewhat different use of the ultra wide angle lens. Here I had a couple of issues to deal with. First, I wanted a lot of aspen trunks in the frame, yet I wanted to be inside the grove – I couldn’t shoot from a distance away, so the wide angle let me be very close to the foreground trees yet include a big chunk of this grove. In addition, I wanted the trees to appear to recede into a lighter distance.

Why not use such a lens all the time? The answers are many and probably fairly obvious. The ultra wide lenses have what might be termed a “distorting” effect on the scene, increasing the apparent size of close objects relative to the greatly diminished apparent size of those further away – in a sense these lenses can tend toward being all about foreground, or else about just putting a ton of stuff into the frame. Odd distortions can become very distracting if the horizon is not in the center of the frame – though correction is possible in post in some cases. These lenses are perhaps not so effective for isolating a subject from its surroundings (though it can be done), they generally don’t create soft background blur if you need it, and – to be honest – as effective as the “very close foreground object with smaller background subject” approach can be, it can also quickly become a landscape cliche when overused.

Wide to Short Telephoto Zoom

My lenses in this category are the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II Lens and the Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS Lens. (An article at this website looks at these and several other options of this type including the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4.0L IS Lens.)  24mm is actually quite wide, and unless you are really going for the extreme ultra wide effect, it may be wide enough for you on a full frame camera. 105mm is not a very long telephoto, but it is often quite useful for landscape shooting. In general, if I am going to work with only a single lens – as I sometimes do when backpacking – this seems like the most useful zoom to take.

On a week-long southern Sierra Nevada backpacking trip a few years ago I shot with only this lens. By cranking the zoom down to 24mm I was able to produce some of the wide “near and far subject” images like those often made with the ultra wide lenses, as in the following example photographed in the far reaches of the Upper Kern River basin.

The next day I was able to make use of the longer focal lengths from this same lens to quickly photograph some fellow backpackers as they crossed a sub-alpine meadow. Here the image stabilization (IS) feature frequently found on such lenses was also very useful, as I had to shoot hand-held since I did not have time to take out and set up my tripod. While I almost always do use a tripod, there have been several occasions when the ability to shoot hand-held in low light has made the difference between getting and not getting a shot.

Telephoto Zoom

The image-stabilized versions of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens and the CanonEF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM Lens. Some people are surprised to find that a telephoto zoom is tremendously useful for landscape photography – and not just for photographing wildlife or for avoiding taking steps to get closer to the subject. I think that they might be surprised at the high percentage of my photographs made with this lens. I know a number of well-regarded landscape photographers who also count a 70-200mm zoom as their favorite or among their favorite “landscape” lenses. I use it much more often than I use the 17-40mm ultra wide.

The longer focal lengths have several advantages for certain types of shots. The longer lenses can help isolate subjects from their surroundings in several ways. First, the narrower angle of view let’s you “crop in the field” and eliminate distracting elements from the frame. Second, a telephoto can provide narrower depth of field, putting the main subject in sharp focus but turning the background into an attractive, soft blur. The narrower angle of view also excludes a lot of the background from the frame, sometimes letting you simplify the composition behind your main subject.  In addition, the longer focal lengths are not as subject to the types of distortion that are common with the ultra wide focal lengths. Longer focal lengths can also compress distance and juxtapose subjects more closely. And, despite the oft-quoted advice to “zoom with your feet,” there are times when this simply isn’t an option – when your feet would have to move you a mile or two before the light changes or when your feet would have to take you to a hundred feet beyond the edge of a cliff!

I often use this lens for close photographs of subjects like trees and branches and leaves and flowers, as I did with this photograph of fall aspen leaves in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Aspen Leaves, North Lake - Colorful autumn aspen leaves at North Lake, California
Aspen Leaves, North Lake

In the following example I photographed this grove from a greater distance using a longer focal length which let me fill the frame with the tree trunks and create a very flat geometry from their arrangement – producing a very different effect from that seen in my ultra-wide photograph of another aspen grove earlier in this post.

Since I use this lens so much, I’ll offer a third example. (Trust me, I could offer many more… ) In this case the lens was simply the right focal length to bring the elements into the composition. Moving closer to the main mountain would have left the important foreground hills out of the scene (and taken miles of driving!) and a wider lens would have included a lot of “stuff” that would have been superfluous to this image.

Long Telephoto Zoom

For this purpose I use the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens. (For years I used the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens, the previous version of this lens.) While many people understand how this lens can be useful for shooting subjects like wildlife, they are frequently surprised to hear that I regard it as a very useful landscape lens. I have made some of my favorite photographs with this unlikely lens.

It has a tremendous ability to isolate subjects, both by drastically narrowing the angle of view to exclude extraneous objects and by generating very narrow depth of field. Its ability to compress distance also can create very dramatic juxtapositions of near and far subjects and bring together elements that might seem too separated if photographed with a shorter focal length. Incidentally, its wide end at 100mm is not all that much different than the wide end of the 70-200mm lens, so in some cases it can almost replace that lens, especially when paired with the 24-105mm lens.

The first example is a personal favorite of mine. I made the photograph the first time I used the 100-400, and immediately understood how it could let me produce certain images that I simply couldn’t create without it. Not only did the longer lens allow me to include the human figure in the lower corner, but the foreshortening of distance it produces let me fill the frame with the receding layers of huge surf and rocks.

Fisherman, Winter Surf - Big Sur fisherman casts into the roiling winter Pacific Ocean surf.
Fisherman, Winter Surf

I have also used it, perhaps surprisingly, for intimate photographs of trees and plants. While I could easily have used a shorter focal length and gotten closer to the grasses in the following shot, the long lens was key to making the photograph work. First, the very narrow depth of field from the long focal length let me limit the sharp focus to a narrow band containing the main subject, while the background grasses and water (you couldn’t tell that is is water, could you?) ended up with a very nice “bokeh,” or blurred effect. Even better, the background behind these grasses was actually very busy and complex, and the long lens let me restrict what was included in the distance to the very narrow angle of view of this lens and create a much simpler and less distracting background.

Cattail and Grasses, Morning Light
Cattail and Grasses, Morning Light

What about primes?

For this discussion of the issue of focal length alone, I restricted myself to mentioning zooms – but I also use primes for landscape shooting on occasion. I’ve written more than enough words for this article… so that subject is addressed in Part II!

Lenses mentioned in this article

The following list includes lenses mentioned in this article, with links going to site-sponsor B&H Photo. If you found this article helpful in making a lens decision, please considering clicking these links to make your purchase from B&H. Your price will be the same and you’ll help support the website. Thanks!

This article is part of my Photographic Myths and Platitudes Series

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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37 thoughts on “Photographic Myths and Platitudes – ‘Landscape Photography Lenses’ (Part I)”

  1. Personally my favorite landscape lens is the 28mm. This lens doesn’t throw the background out so far away and you can still get in some decent foreground. It’s always been a favotite of mine and I’ve tried them all since the late 60’s.

  2. Great article. My most used lens for landscapes is a 24-90mm, on APS-c, equivalent to 36-135mm on full frame. I use it throughout the focal length. If I need wider I use a 10-20mm or my 15mm. It all depends what you are photographing and how you want to capture it.

  3. Saquib Nehal: That is a very good question… and a very common one. I wrote an article that may be useful to you – you can find it here: Beginner Question: What Lenses Should I Get For My New Camera?

    The short answer is that there is no one correct lens or set of lenses for landscape photography. The choices depend on many things including your personal shooting preferences (some prefer wide angle and others prefer telephoto), what you will do with your photographs (huge fine art prints or share electronically) and more.

    Certainly there are a number of people who like the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. They appreciate the fact that they can cover a very wide focal length range with a single lens – no need to change lenses or even own more than one – and are willing to sacrifice a bit of image quality for that convenience.

    Good luck with your decision!


  4. Hi, to all wonderful photographers. I am a a little bit confused about which lens to go for landscape photography .I have Canon eos 60d 18-55 mm lens that some times i find litle bit difficult to do the required with it so,i am planing to get 18-200 mm lens .
    but i don’t know will it do what i need in landscape photography.
    Please suggest me a brand and a lens i should buy.
    thanks and Regards

  5. Thanks Dan, great post. I take inspiration from your photos whilst on my tramping trips into the New Zealand mountains. I have taken encouragement from the fact that ofttimes you restrict yourself to a single lens because of backpacking weight restrictions. It is encouraging to know that the standard 17-40 and 24-105 zooms can take such incredible photos in the hands of talented people! Keep up the good work. Alan

    1. Thanks for writing, Alan, and thanks for your kind words.

      Sometimes it seems like it will be difficult to give up the full range of lenses I might like to carry, but sometimes it just isn’t possible to carry that much weight. (Though perhaps I’m just not tough enough. Last summer I ran into John Sexton and Ann Larsen in the Yosemite back-country. They were each carrying about 30 pounds of medium format film photography equipment! That is about twice the weight that I carry.)

      I do think that I and perhaps you as well tend to “see with the lenses we have.” Even when I think I’m going to miss my longer lenses or my primes, once I’m actually on the scene and making photographs I rarely actually miss the lenses I don’t have with me.


  6. Dan,

    Good article. I just finished a 5 week road trip through the southwest, and I used the 24-105 more than all other 6 lenses combined.
    One question for you. I have all the lenses you do except the 70-200 zoom. Since there is no gap between the 24-105 and the 100-400, what place is there for the 70-200? Everyone seems to love this lens, but I am having a hard time justifying its purchase with those focal lengths already covered.

    1. Thanks for posting, Jack. You raise a valid question about the overlap between the 70-200 and the 100-400, especially if you combine them with the 24-105 as I do. For a lot of photography I think that you could do quite well with the 100-400 instead of the 70-200. The longer lens is especially good in the overlapping focal length range and here the aperture advantage of the f/4 is very small. I think that the 70-200 gives me slightly better image quality in this range, but I have to admit that this is more of an impression than anything I can prove. In the end, any difference – if there is one – in image quality in the 100-200mm range has to be very tiny and probably insignificant.

      However, for me, certain other factors also play a part. In very practical terms, I already had the 70-200 when I got the 100-400! But more than that the 70-200 is a much smaller and lighter lens. Since I do a lot of my photography while traveling on foot – hiking or backpacking, for example – I only will take the bulkier and heavier 100-400 when I know that I’ll need its additional reach. In addition, I find that I really need to mount the camera/lens combination to the tripod via the lens ring with the larger lens – but I can mount the camera directly to the tripod with the lighter 70-200. This saves me a certain amount of trouble in a number of situations.


  7. Nice Article Dan. A point of view I completely agree with.

    My kit for landscape runs from 14mm on up to 500mm with a couple t/s lenses thrown in for good measure. But I rarely travel light and working out of the back of a vehicle is both limiting in terms of accessibility to subject matter and liberating in terms of available equipment choices. But then I am known to use the 14mm for flower closeups and the 500 for singular trees in the middle of a distant valley in an attempt to compress fore- and backgrounds

    But, to be honest, over the years I have concluded that for work, pre-visualization is far more important than either accessibility OR equipment. Looking at a scene and knowing in advance what I really WANT to capture has become far more important than how much or how little of it I’m GOING to capture. I find myself perhaps shooting fewer “scenes” but ending up with more usable images. Pre-visualization helps me avoid those subject-less, copycat, and less than compelling topics that I might otherwise waste my time on.

    Lenses and cameras are the photographer’s version of the carpenter’s hammer and nails. Lenses are no more exciting than are hammers and it’s not nearly as much about whether a given nail wants a tack hammer or a framing hammer anymore than whether focal length will determine the quality of an image. Photography is first and foremost about thinking.

    Personally, I think that the question of which lens “to use” (as if there is a right and wrong lens) has more to do with whether one will capture the same image they have seen before — which is to say copying someone else’s work — than it has to do with which lens will give me a creative image of the scene that I will be happy with.

  8. I too enjoyed this article. As a ‘serious’ landscape photographer for over 50 years, I most often find that the lens I need for a particular shot is in my camera pack.

  9. Tim makes some really good points about the 110. As much a I love my 80mm, it’s just a bit too wide for me, and the 110 is a bit too costly for me right now. Now, I travel mainly with three lenses; 80mm, 135mm and 210mm, and sometimes a 120mm macro. I’ve found this spread works almost perfectly for me.

    I used to use a 17-35 with my small camera, but have graduated to only taking a 24-120 now. These days I rarely carry the small camera (Nikon F6) on trips, simply because airlines are so restrictive on carry on luggage (at least in Australia where I travel a lot), that carrying both 4×5 and 35mm film becomes too much of a burden (I don’t shoot any digital – I’m strictly a film shooter).

  10. I read a comment from someone regarding wide angle lenses (possibly Joe McNally) – paraphrased – wide angle means getting close with context, not that you can stuff everything in the frame.

    That concept was a good poke to get me to look at how I use a wide angle, and the resulting impact on distant objects. I’ve now found it easier to visualise shots when I think about things like context, isolation, and compression, in regard to the lenses I have with me at the time.

  11. Tim, this may reflect an experience that I have when I go out with limited lenses or just one lens. To some extent I can find myself “seeing with the lens I have,” and in situations where I might otherwise have to decide among lenses I instead just find a way to make it work with what I have.


  12. I used a 17-40 a lot when I was just using a full fram digi. When I moved to using large format, the equivalent wide angle would be a 72 but I found that my most commonly used lens was now a 110 (24-28mm equiv).

    I think ultra wide angle lenses are used a lot because of the depth of field more than the angle of view. If people could get that ultra large foreground with a 24 or 28mm lens, they would be quite happy, unfortunately it’s pretty much impossible.

    Of course a large format also lets you use any part of the image circle so a 110 (24mm) lens is actually a 16mm lens where you can use any 25% area of it. If you use the edge of the lens, it stretches and foreground, creating a looming effect, and vice versa.

    Still – now I go back to my 5D, I use my 24-105 and very rarely touch my 17-40..

    When I started large format I thought it would be contraining only to have 3 lenses. Now I go out with the equivalent of a 24mm, 38mmmm and 60mm.

    I also have a 20mm equivalent and a 90mm equivalent but have only used them a handful of times each.

    I also thought it a ‘bone headed’ prime lens user prejudice that you should just try using a couple of lenses. Now I know I could be happy going on a trip with just a 24 and a 60


  13. Thanks for the comments, QT. You bring up a great point about recommendations to beginning photographers – in fact, it is a subject that I think about a lot and one that will come up soon in a post on the relative merits of zooms and primes.

    I think that there could be a few factors influencing this “wide lenses for beginners” idea, possibly including:

    1. The “common knowledge” (which turns out to be contrary to the actual practice of quite a few photographers!) that “wide lenses are for landscape.” Heck, I’ve probably slipped up and said something like that on some occasions in the past!

    2. The goal of many beginning landscape photographers to “capture it all” and get the large frame of reference into a photograph. As you point out, it is actually pretty difficult to do this in a way that makes compositional sense, partly because there are likely to be so many elements in the frame.

    3. Along those lines, one of the threads in developing photographic vision may be learning to eliminate unnecessary or distracting elements from the composition. Speaking for myself, I often start by looking at a scene and finding something that looks promising as a composition. Then, nine times out of ten, I begin to move closer or use a longer lens to see how much distracting stuff I can eliminate from the frame. In other words, the process (of development as a photographer and of making an individual shot) seems to involve successively eliminating more and more to leave only what is most important.

    4. There is good and interesting landscape photography done with very wide lenses. The “intimate foreground with grand background” photograph that lends itself so well to ultra wide angle lenses can most certainly be effective in a number of cases.

    Good point about the tilts/shifts business, too. When I use a UWA on my DSLR (and I don’t use TS lenses at this point) I have to be conscious of how placement of the horizon within the frame will affect this and/or plan to make some adjustments in post.


    (By the way, it was great to finally get to meet you at the opening of Charlie Cramer’s show at the Center for Photographic Art last weekend. :-)

  14. As an addendum, the use of large format cameras mitigates some of the technical drawbacks of wide-angle lenses: all lenses are “tilt-shift”, and that small mountain in the background has still plenty of detail (my 24mm equivalent is a 110mm lens !).

  15. It is interesting than wide angle are recommended to beginning landscape photographers (seasoned ones obviously do not need such basic advice), because they are just more difficult to use. Everything has to work together, the composition, light, relationship between foreground and background, which changes with every inch of camera displacement. When I was working mostly in large format, the (equivalent) focal length 24mm was used for more than half of the images, but then I wouldn’t try to shoot if the conditions were not good.

  16. That is a great point about “only so many ways,” Richard. I feel like a given “scene” may contain many potential photographs, and longer lenses are among the resources we can use to pick the particular out of the whole.

    Incidentally, you somewhat echo Michael’s point back in the first comment. :-)


  17. Love this post, Dan. Since I picked up a 70-200mm last year, I’ve been using more of it for landscape shooting and less of the traditional wide angle. I think there are only so many ways you can shoot a scene with a wide angle but with the longer lenses you have a lot more options that others are less likely to be able to replicate.

  18. Thanks for the follow-up, folks. Lots of good thoughts here. I’ll add a few more of my own.

    1. As if to reinforce my point about there being no “official” landscape focal length, those who commented mentioned favoring various focal lengths in their work – ranging from (no surprise!) ultra wide to long lenses.

    2. I don’t know if it means anything or not, but I think I sometimes see newer landscape photographers emphasizing the use of the wide and ultra wide lenses and then moving more towards the longer focal lengths as they do more landscape work. I’m not certain that what I think I observe is actually the case or just my own perspective… and I also know that some have gone the opposite direction!

    3. I might have been a bit confusing when I mentioned “distortion” in reference to the ultra wide lenses. I didn’t mean to suggest this is a flaw in those lenses – more that it is a characteristic. I can be “corrected,” but it can also be used.


  19. Great post Dan, I think you got me motivated to start using that 70-200 2.8 a lot more.

    As far as the distortion issue goes on the ultra wide lens goes, I agree that it’s there and it does exist, but if your using Lightroom 3 the fix is a simple as pushing a button. I use a 15mm Fish on a full frame 5D and can easily correct just about all of the visible distortion.

    Keep up the good posts!

  20. Great write-up Dan. Of course, each person’s approach to photography is different…that’s the beauty of it, right? :)

    My first camera was a Konica Minolta 5D…it was a hand-me down from my wife, who upgraded to the first Sony Alpha body. My favorite lens for that camera was the Sony 18-200 lens. I found myself using the lens more in the 35 to 150mm range of the lens than the wide angle…this usage pattern taught me that wide isn’t always best :)

    When we moved to Canon, I started with 2 lenses: the 24-105 and 100-400. Both served me well and I thought I would love the 24-105, but I found that it was quite wide enough in some cases, which was strange because I had come to love the range of ~35 to 150mm on the 18-200.

    So I picked up the 17-40 and immediately fell in love. While its a great lens, the fact that I had a limited range of 17-40mm to play with while framing a photograph made me think much more while composing and preparing a photography.

    Today, that 17-40 is stuck to my 5D and the 24-105 gets little use while photographing landscapes. I’ve always got the 24-105 with me but am finding I don’t use it as much.

    Funny how my shooting styles have changed as I learn more about this wonderful hobby/passion.

  21. You’re spot on with `the focal length that works best for the photograph I am making right now’. It’s your composition that drives it, not the lens-manufacturers!

    Much of my best landscape work is 80mm – and square – yes it’s a Hasselblad with one normal lens (say, 45-50mm equivalent) because I can’t afford any more glass for it.

    I’m also cooking-up a very wide angle view of some mountains – but taken from 30 miles away across the water so they were just outlines in the haze at sunset. Panoramic stitching a dozen images taken at 200mm is the only way to handle that; eat your hearts out, 16-35mm weenies. ;)

  22. Excellent post Dan and a great comment by Michael here as well.

    I also don’t use ultra wide angle all that much any more. I do however use 24-70mm for landscape photography probably 75% of the time. Distortion is almost invisible, and it is much easier to simplify things.

    I’d love to use 80-200mm more, but I don’t quite see this way – or at least not yet.

    I think a lot of it has to do with what we photograph and how.

  23. Another wonderful article Dan. I appreciate the great information on choosing lenses. I need to remember to use my telephoto lenses more often in landscape.

    One thing I would mention is the effect a cropped sensor has on your lens choices. I have a 7D and 17mm isn’t always wide enough for me so I use the Sigma 10-20mm to compensate. Oh, and I just got the 24-105mm and used it last weekend and it is a wonderful lens!!

    Thanks again for your insight. Can’t wait for part two!


  24. Nice post on an interesting topic. I’m frequently surprised that people assume only wide-angle lenses are useful for landscape photography. I make at least 90 percent of my landscape photographs with a 70-200 mm zoom. True, about half of my very best images are made with my other lens, a 17-40. I only break out the wide angle when the light and weather are really good for grand landscapes, so a high percentage of these end up in my portfolio. But that still means that half of my top-line portfolio-worthy photos are made with a telephoto lens. The problem with wide-angle lenses, and with many landscape compositions, is that they include too much — usually too much extra, unnecessary clutter. And even with foreground/background photos, wide angles can make the background elements too small.

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