When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change! In technical terms of photography, the way various elements in a composition appear to be separated from each other, is called perspective. This is a matter of confusion for many especially with the proliferation of zoom lenses in the market. Now zooms come as standard kit lenses with most DSLRs and so what some of the discussions on perspective and lenses earlier conveyed, is now confusing for many.
Simply put, perspective is how the relative distances appear in a photograph. It is directly related to the distance of various elements from the camera. The position of the camera is what determines the perspective.
(Notice the electricity poles in this photograph. They all seem to be placed very close to each other. This is due to the fact that the camera was about a kilometer away from this scene and the relative distances of the electricity poles with regards to each other therefore became a small fraction in comparison to the distance from the camera.)
Moving away from the subject diminishes the relative distances between various elements of the composition (when compared to the distance from the camera). See the photograph above. This is the reason why portrait photographers favour short telephotos for creating their portfolio. Short telephoto forces the photographer to stand away from their model (in comparison to a normal or a wide-angle lens). This reduces the relative distance between the various elements in the face i.e- nose, lips, eyes, ears and the hair. The effect is therefore a pleasing compression of features and an attractive portrait. (More on portraits – Portraits)
(Croton leaves photographed using a wide angle lens)
Going close to the subjects does the opposite. It increases the relative distance between various elements of the scene (when compared to the distance from the camera). See the photograph above. This was captured with a wide angle lens by going very close to the plant. The leaves closer to the lens therefore appear to be very large compared to the leaves far away. In reality, all these leaves were just a few inches in size and similar to all the other leaves on the plant. By going close, the things appear to be placed out far from each other. (Do read this – Using Wide-Angle Lenses)
Focal Length, Distance & Perspective
The perspective depends on the location of the camera and therefore the distance. A lot of people confuse this with focal lengths too. Generally photographers say that wideangle lenses give a stretched out perspective and teles give a compressed perspective. The statement is not correct. What happens with wide-angles is that in order to fit the subject properly into the composition, the photographer ends up being close to the subject and so the perspective changes. Similarly with tele lenses, photographer is forced to step back and so once again the perspective changes. The change in perspective with focal length is due to forced change in position of the photographer.
Now this concept has led to a misconception. Users of zoom lenses are told that by varying the focal length they can change the perspective. This is totally wrong. By standing at a place and zooming in onto a subject, there is no change in perspective since there is no change in the location of the camera.
If you don’t believe this then click a photograph of a person using the tele-end of your zoom lens. Next while standing at the same spot, click another photograph of that person while the lens is set at wide-angle. Crop your wide-angle image to match the zoom of the first photograph taken at tele end. The relationships between various elements in the photograph will be the same. No change in perspective!
Some interesting ways how perspective affects our photographs
Mobile phone cameras are the worst affected. These cameras in generally have a very wide view and so forces the photographer to stand close to the subjects. In fact, while using the front camera for selfies, everyone ends up stretching their arm and then capturing the photograph. That’s less than a meter for most individuals. The result is a roundish face with large nose and small head and chin. Sometimes I wonder if that is why people end up taking selfies from top to show more hair and compensate the small lips and chin by pouting their lips?
Binoculars and Monoculars compress the scene in front because of their distance from the subjects. The result is that a distant deer might look very close to the crouching tiger behind.
Long telephotos outside the stadium, like the ones used to capture soccer, baseball or your favorite cricket, also end up compressing the scene. In cricket, the pitch (place where the players run) seems to look very small when shown from the bowling end so as to cover both the wickets. On the other hand when the same pitch is shown from the sides while panning with a running cricketer, the pitch suddenly appears like a really long distance to cover (the fact that the player happens to be from your country has little to do with this).
Use perspective to your advantage
Now that you understand perspective, learn to use it to your advantage.
- Use wideangles to show increased space. This can make interiors look spacious or your lawn look super-sized.
- Use teles to capture flattering portraits. The front to back compression looks nice on portraits.
- If you have a normal lens and are forced to click portraits. Don’t go too close to the subject. Capture from some distance and later crop the photograph to get the required composition.
- Use a selfie-stick (a useless device in my opinion) or get someone else to capture your photograph on your mobile. This will increase the distance of the camera from your face and the results will therefore be more pleasing to the eyes.