Focal Length Affects Perspective by Todd Henson

Different focal lengths alter the perspective within the frame.

If you’re like me one of your first lenses was a zoom lens. These can be very useful and very convenient, giving you a lot of options in framing your shot. But you may have also fallen into one of the traps I did, lazily using a zoom lens to change the framing of the shot without thinking about how the different focal lengths affect the perspective within the frame.

Take a look at the photographs in this post. What they are intended to show is how different focal lengths alter the perspective within the frame. If we can learn this lesson zoom lenses become even more powerful tools, letting us more intentionally choose a focal length to alter how the image looks, how one element in the frame relates to another, instead of just choosing what to include and exclude from the frame.

Example: Wide Angle Focal Length

A wide angle focal length (22 mm) stretches out the perspective, pushing the foreground and background further apart.

Wide angle focal lengths, such as 22 mm, are often used to include more of the scene. But they also have a way of making an object that is close to the camera look very far away from an object in the distance. They stretch out the perspective.

Notice in the 22 mm image how small the distant waterfall is compared to the nearby waterfall.

Example: Normal Focal Length

A “normal” focal length (50 mm) more closely resembles the perspective our eyes see.

The 50 mm focal length has an effect very similar to what we see with our eyes. The perspective is very natural. That’s why focal lengths in this range are very popular for street photography.

Compare the 50 mm image to that of the 22 mm image. Notice how the waterfalls appear closer together in the 50 mm image. Also notice how the distant waterfall is larger than it was in the 22 mm image. The perspective is compressing.

Example: Telephoto Focal Length

A telephoto focal length (80 mm) compresses the scene, bringing the foreground and background closer together.

The 80 mm focal length is at the small end of the telephoto range. Telephoto focal lengths are often used to pick out details in a scene, allowing you to exclude non-essential elements and “zoom” in on the real subject. But they also allow us to compress the perspective.

Look closely at the 80 mm image. Notice how much closer together the waterfalls are when compared to the other images. Also notice the relative sizes of the waterfalls. They look close together and similar in size. This is the compression effect caused by a longer focal length.

Conclusion

Zoom lenses are great tools not only because they let us zoom in and out, quickly framing a shot, but because they include so many different focal lengths allowing us to alter the perspective within the image to suit our vision. Start thinking intentionally about how you want the scene to look.

Use focal lengths intentionally to create the perspective you envision.

Do you want your subject to look very large compared to the background? Then use a wide angle focal length and get close to your subject. This will make the subject look large in the frame and push the background further into the distance.

Do you want to make your subject look very close to the background, maybe a mountain or monument? Then use a telephoto focal length to compress the scene and make the background look much close to the subject.

Sometimes it’s very useful to zoom with your feet instead of with the zoom lens. Pick a focal length on the zoom lens to give you the desired perspective, then move with your feet to position yourself in the correct place to line up the subject with the background.

Now it’s your turn. Head out with a zoom lens, or with multiple prime lenses, and use the different focal lengths intentionally to alter the perspective within the image. Experiment, see what you can come up with, and have fun!


Looking Back at the 2012 Andrews Air Show by Todd Henson

USAF F-22 Raptor taxiing on the runway.

I’ve been in the process of going back through my back catalog of unprocessed images. In some cases there are entire shoots I just never got around to looking at. In other instances I’m taking a new look to see if I overlooked any promising photographs. One of the events I hadn’t processed or shared many images from was the 2012 Joint Service Open House and Air Show held at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

I don’t often get to airshows but I’ve really enjoyed all I’ve been to, including this one. For me the highlight of these shows are most often the aerial performances, and of those at the 2012 show I was most drawn to the F-22 Raptor performance and that of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.

USAF F-22 Raptor

The F-22 Raptor is a remarkable aircraft, serving as a fifth generation stealth air superiority fighter for the United State Air Force. This was the first time I’d seen one of these in person. I recall when they first lit up the engines I was surprised at the sound. It was definitely the sound of a jet engine but it had this strange high pitched whine I’d never heard before. My pulse was pounding from that moment until the fighter landed. The things this aircraft can do are just amazing, seeming to defy gravity at times.

Raptor Flyby #1: USAF F-22 Raptor performing a flyby.

Raptor Flyby #2: USAF F-22 Raptor angled upward.

Below is a YouTube video of the 2012 performance of the Raptor. It’s a great video but it can’t do justice to the performance. This is the sort of thing you really do need to see in person. I highly recommend finding an airshow where you can view this incredible aircraft. Keep watching to the end of the video and you’ll also see the USAF Heritage Flight with the F-22 Raptor and the World War II era P-51 Mustang flying in formation.

USN Blue Angels

The Blue Angels are the United States Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, flying six F/A-18 Hornets. Blue Angels pilots are extraordinarily skilled, something anyone who has seen them can attest to. They fly in some amazing formations, at times within 18 inches of one another. As with the Raptor demonstration, my pulse was racing throughout the entire Blue Angels performance.

Blue Angels Flyby #1: USN F/A-18 flyby at an angle.

Blue Angels Flyby #2: USN F/A-18 performing a flyby.

Blue Angels Flyby #3: The underside of a Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet.

Blue Angels Flyby #4: A pair of USN F/A-18 Hornets flying in formation.

I highly recommend seeing the Blue Angels in person if at all possible. But if you can’t below is a YouTube video of the entire 2012 performance.

Most of these photographs are available as wall art in the Shop with titles of Raptor Flyby and Blue Angels Flyby.

Choice of Aperture for a Clematis in the Garden by Todd Henson

One day while visiting my folks I was taken by the sight of this beautiful purple clematis flowering in their garden, hanging from a black metal trellis. Thankfully I had my camera with me that day, though only a single lens, the 16-35mm f/4. I don’t often use this lens for photographing flowers, but it seemed like a good time to start.

The photos in this post show 3 different angles I tried when photographing these lovely flowers. They weren’t all that high off the ground so I used the 35mm end of the zoom to focus in on the flower without too much distracting background. Then I experimented with framing and with aperture.

I most often use the 16-35mm when I’d like a lot of depth of field. Wide angle lenses are usually good at providing this. But when photographing these clematis I was more interested in a shallow depth of field. The widest aperture of this lens is f/4 and that ended up being the aperture I used for my favorite shots of this series. I did, however, create 2 images at f/8 to show you the difference this makes.

I held the lens physically close to the subject, probably very close to the minimum focusing distance of the lens. Even with an aperture of f/8 the background is nicely blurred, but it does still have some detail. Notice the difference when I opened the aperture one more stop to f/4, its widest setting. It throws the background even more out of focus, but it also throws some of the main flower out of focus.

There’s no right or wrong in these situations. It all depends on what look you are going for. For myself, I tend to prefer the images with a shallower depth of field. Which do you prefer?