Guest Blogger Aaron Nace | How to Capture the Real & Surreal with a Superlative Lens

Published June 27, 2012

Today’s Guest Blogger Aaron Nace is going to show you tips on creating and compositing fantastical images with a lens he considers to be one of the best.

Aaron is a Chicago-based photographer and retoucher who combines elements of reality and fantasy to create his images. Aaron has taught Photoshop and photography to over 100,000 people, and his images have been viewed over 15 million times on Flickr alone.

He is also the founder and president of, which offers daily videos, advanced tutorials, featured photographers and more. Aaron is one creative, hard-working guy, and we’re thankful he has the time to show you guys some of the magic behind his work!

The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II is what I call a “superlative lens.” It is very different from anything you can get from a point-and-shoot or an iPhone. It is at an extreme, and the images that it produces reflect that extreme, bringing the viewer into another world.

“Superlative” lenses really have to stretch the extremes, so not many lenses fit in this category. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L II is a superlative in that it allows you to photograph with an extremely shallow depth of field. Anything longer than 200mm at f/2.8 I would also consider superlative, as it compresses an image far more than the human eye does. Using one of these superlative lenses will make your photography stand out.

Include More

Using the 16-35 on a full-frame body like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III will allow you to get extremely close to your subject while also capturing the entire environment. If you are shooting in an amazing environment this is a plus. If your location leaves a lot to be desired, you may choose to shoot at a longer focal length in order to crop some of it out. Sometimes your environment may not be great on its own but can be enhanced with lighting. In this example you can see how the original photo includes too much.

The back door is in view, and light is spilling into the scene from many directions. Instead of trying to change the environment physically, you can alter its appearance with light. Also a slight change of camera angle will avoid distracting elements like the back door.

In the final shot, I used a large softbox, camera left, to light the scene. A fast shutter speed allowed the light from the outdoors to go to black. Doing this made the water and the subject the focal point of the image.

Adding Drama

The wide angle lens shows off the environment and pulls you into the image. It is as though the water really is rushing towards you. Just in case you are curious, minimal Photoshop was done to the final image—we really did pour hundreds of gallons of water down these steps.

Floor to Ceiling

Using a wide angle lens will allow you to capture the floor and the ceiling of a small room at the same time. If you use this to your advantage, you can include a lot of great detail. One thing I have learned from shooting wide is that most ceilings are bare and boring.   In order to avoid the lack of detail present in the ceiling, I added a flurry of leaves to the room. Two leaf blowers were used just outside of the room, stirring up a tornado and allowing leaves to go everywhere.

These shots were composited together with the final images of the model to create a dramatic photo with detail from floor to ceiling.

Converging Lines

Straight lines made by walls and ceilings will converge more dramatically when photographed with a wide angle lens. If you can, place your subject where these lines come together, and they will help to lead the viewer’s eyes straight to the subject.


One problem many photographers face when shooting wide is getting too much in their scene. If you are using lighting such as a softbox or beauty dish, it may be very hard to keep this equipment out of the image. At the same time, not using lights may cause your image to be underexposed in key areas.   If you expose for the outdoors, the subject of this image would be dramatically underexposed. In order to expose both, a softbox was necessary.

The subject and the background are now exposed well for the final image, but the softbox is visible to the viewer. This is where Photoshop comes in. If you do have to include lighting in the shot, be sure to take a photo in the same place with the lighting moved. Then you can simply replace that part of the image. As you can see, the final shot does not contain any of those elements, allowing the viewer to focus on the subject.

Center Your Subject

If you are shooting a person, be sure to keep them near the center of your frame when shooting with a wide angle lens. These lenses cause a bit of perspective distortion, and if your subject’s face is near the edges, it will come out looking like you printed their face on a fruit rollup and then pulled it apart.


Thanks again, Aaron!

To learn more about photography, lighting, and how to Photoshop together images like these, check out They make five free videos a week and offer the most in-depth Photoshop tutorials on the internet. Pretty sweet deal if you ask us! 🙂


 Hope you enjoyed!

Caroline Bishop

June, 2012

Author: Caroline

Posted in Equipment
  • Kevin Kirchner

    So imaginative, thank you Aaron and Caroline
    I loved the model and leaf shot, and I also enjoyed the technical and artistic bits of the nude lighting exercise, and the water’s drama on the stairs was fun.
    I love my 16-35 and Aaron expanded its repertoire for me.
    Question for Aaron , Caroline, or Roger: would a Canon 200mm f/2.8 with a 1.4 extender meet Aaron’s definition of a superlative lens in your opinion?

  • JMMcInnes

    I saw interesting images and useful lens recommendations. I was not distracted by the writing yet the second comment caught my attention.
    “I have no issue with (a), but two paragraphs I stopped at (b).”
    The touchstone of good writing is whether it makes sense. The second clause of the above sentence does not.
    “The time taken to write this shows, I hope, that I want and expect things from this blog – normally I wouldn’t even bother to comment and just pass on to another.”
    Literally that means that you would not bother to comment and that you would NOT bother to pass on to another.
    Another what? Another BLOG. You have used the adjective “another” as a noun. The author did the same thing with the word “superlative”. I understood both.
    By the way – strictly speaking – dashes should always be used in pairs.

  • JL Smith

    @ the.growler:

    It’s quite possible the image is supposed to convey a really freaking comfortable couch, in so much that it “hugs” you when you sit on it naked….or something….

    Hey whatever, looks cool :0)

    I liked the article, and the leaves room shot looks really good.

  • Richard Harrington

    @ Robert McArthur:

    After reading this article and your comment, I can only feel sorry for you. Your weak grasp of the English language has apparently kept you from understanding. “Superlative” can be used as a noun. I hope you know this as opposed to simply being offended by its presence.
    All of the following examples of “superlative” the noun come from

    “The critics lavished superlatives on it.”

    “So please don’t write to us to say that we’re neglecting the latest weather superlative.”

    “Whichever superlative you choose to describe the area, there’s no questioning its draw for surfers.”

    “The magazine article contained so many superlatives that I found it hard to believe that what it was saying was true.”

    Robert, you need to know this stuff since you’re speaking to “rooms of 500+ professionals.”

  • Christian Holt

    According to Merriam Webster, “superlative” can be used as a noun, which is defined as “a superlative person or thing”… in this case a lens. So it would seem his sentence is just fine.

  • the.growler

    If Mr. Nace thinks that an image of a woman being raped by her couch is a clever ad for his services, he doesn’t need my business.

  • Robert McArthur

    I’m afraid I stopped reading the article when the adjective “superlative” started to be used as a noun.
    I’m sure the author is a great teacher, and the statement may work well verbally (I’ve talked in front of rooms of 500+ professionals).
    In reading many blogs, it usually doesn’t take long to work out whether a) the author knows what they’re talking about, and b) can write. I have no issue with (a), but two paragraphs I stopped at (b).
    The time taken to write this shows, I hope, that I want and expect things from this blog – normally I wouldn’t even bother to comment and just pass on to another.
    My RSS feed has 174 items at 10am. Normally I read this blog from start to finish, usually with a smile.

  • Awesome article! Loved it

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