When you first start on your photographic journey, you will often hear the term “perspective”, and in particular, “changing your perspective”. Perspective is a fundamental element of photographic composition. Understanding how it works and how to use it is one of the golden keys of good photographic composition. But, what is it?
Put in layman’s terms:
Perspective is the way our eyes perceive distances between subjects and the relative sizes of those subjects.
In other words, we perceive smaller objects in our field of view to be further away due to size. For example, a distant mountain is very small in our field of view. But we don’t perceive the mountain to be small in actual size. Our automatic understanding of perspective allows us to perceive the mountain as a large object that is far away. To think of it a different way, consider the sun and the moon. In our skies, they both appear to be roughly the same size, yet we know the sun is many, many times bigger. It appears to be the same size because it is much further away.
So, let’s get on to the use of perspective in photography. First things first. Let’s dispel one myth that many a novice photographer has been told by an uninformed peer. Perspective does not change when you change your lens from a wide angle to a telephoto. If you take a photograph with a 200mm lens, stay in place, then take exactly the same photo with a 14mm lens, the perspective within that image will be exactly the same. The only thing that has changed is the field of view. However, if you take that 14mm lens and then move forward to fill the frame in the same way as the 200mm lens, then your perspective has changed.
In short, changing your perspective is about changing position in any direction; up/down, right/left, or forwards/backwards, for example. It is also changed by the angle at which the camera is pointing. Given that knowledge, how does perspective relate to photography? How can we use it to our advantage in composition? This article will consider three main ways to use perspective to your advantage.
Shot from the same position, perspective does not change with different lenses
1. Wide angle perspective
Let’s go back to that 14mm lens we were just discussing. This is a very wide angle lens, and using any wide angle means we need to understand perspective. As we said, to get the same image as the 200mm lens would capture, we would have to walk forward to the subject. However, if we did that, we would notice through the 14mm lens that the apparent distances between our foreground and background subjects would appear to get bigger. That is the change in perspective. This is one of the reasons that landscape photographers use wide angle lenses; they give huge depth to the image.
Now, let’s assume our subject is a tall building. In order to show the whole edifice, we might need to tilt our camera upwards. This changes our perspective, but can also introduce a sometimes unwanted side effect: converging verticals, or the way that the straight sides of the tall building appear to be converging together. To counter this, we would need to change our perspective, either by moving further back, so we don’t have to point the camera upwards, or by getting higher, again so the camera is pointing straight at the building.
Whilst converging verticals might be an unwanted effect of perspective, if we take those same converging lines and put them down on the ground – as with, for example, a dead-straight road – we have a powerful compositional tool: leading lines. If we shoot our road at eye level, it may seem an average composition, but if we get down low to the ground, we again change perspective and create a more dramatic image.
Using a low angle with a wide angle lens for dramatic perspective
Using leading lines to show perspective
2. Telephoto perspective
As we said before, changing lenses to change perspective springs from a misunderstanding. Much of the confusion stems from talk about the compressed perspective of telephoto lenses. In fact, that compression actually comes not from the lens itself, but from our position and the fact that the telephoto lens has a much narrower field of view than the wide angle. This is why, with a telephoto, the subject and background seem to have less distance between them.
When we combine this knowledge with an unobtrusive background and a shallow depth of field, we get the classic telephoto shots. By using perspective and shallow depth of field with a telephoto lens, we can isolate subjects either from their background or from other similar subjects nearby but on a different focal plane.
The foreshortened perspective in this telephoto shot comes from positioning
3. Forced perspective
The last area we will look at in perspective adds a little fun into the mix. As we have already discussed, a lager object, further away, can appear the same size as a smaller object nearby. Because we see in 3 dimensions, our eyes and brains can differentiate between the two. However, photographs are two-dimensional. Because of that, we can play with perspective a little. With careful positioning, we can make our subject appear to be the same size as a building or monument in the distance, maybe a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or holding the top of Big Ben in his or her fingertips. Playing around with this fun look at perspective is a great way to understand it in greater depth.
Knowledge of perspective is a key area in anyone’s photographic development. Understanding it, and how to use and change it, unlocks huge creative potential in any image you shoot. The easiest way to get to know it is to just take many images of the same subject from many positions with different lenses.