focal length

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!


Fundamentals of Photography with John Greengo by Todd Henson

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Fundamentals of Photography  with John Greengo . Image credit: CreativeLive

Fundamentals of Photography with John Greengo. Image credit: CreativeLive

Are you new to photography? Interested in learning how to master your new camera and use it to begin creating beautiful images? Or perhaps you already know a bit about photography and would like a refresher to reinforce various topics? If so, check out CreativeLive’s class, Fundamentals of Photography, taught by John Greengo.

Each year John Greengo teaches his Fundamentals of Photography class, often adding or updating content, especially if anything new has happened in the world of photography. I’ve purchased two versions of this class in the past (in 2010 and 2012), and still go back to the lessons from time to time. John is a great teacher and he creates amazing visuals that help explain and reinforce the topics he teaches. (The visuals and examples in this post are my own.)

Selection of SLR lenses

In the class, John covers a wide range of topics. He talks about the different types of cameras out there today and how each work. He explains each part of a camera system, including the digital sensor and the differences between sensors, and camera lenses in their different forms. He explains how light works and how the camera captures it.

John teaches about exposure, and how it is affected by choices of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. He explains each of these topics with visuals that really help you grasp the concepts. Examples of this are how to use aperture to get a shallow depth of field or a large depth of field. He talks about how shutter speed will affect the look of your image, allowing you to freeze the action or create motion blur to show the action. He explains ISO and how it controls how sensitive the sensor is to light.


Example: Aperture and Depth of Field

The images of the lens below show the actual, physical, opening of the aperture at 4 different f-stops: f/1.4, f/4, f/8, and f/16. For this particular lens, a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens, the largest opening possible is f/1.4 and the smallest opening possible is f/16. Click on the arrows on either side of the image to display to the next image.

The images of the frogs below show the depth of field for each of the apertures above. The depth of field is the area most in focus. In each image I focused on the eyes of the middle frog.

Notice at f/1.4 there is very little depth of field, meaning there is a lot of the image that is out of focus. Notice how at f/4, then f/8, and finally f/16, that more and more of the image is in focus.

Look at the images of the lens above again. Notice that f/1.4 is the largest opening and created the least depth of field (had the least in focus). Notice that f/16 is the smallest opening and created the largest depth of field (had the most in focus).


Example: Focal Length and Perspective

The images below were created at 2 different focal lengths. I attempted to keep the compositions as close as possible.

The first image was created using a wide angle lens at a focal length of 16mm. The front of the lens is very close to the foreground frog. Notice how large the foreground frog is in relation to the background frog. Notice how far away the background frog looks. Short focal length lenses (wide angle lenses) can stretch out the landscape, making objects in the foreground appear larger and making objects in the background appear smaller.

The second image was created using a telephoto lens at a focal length of 200mm. Notice how much larger the background frog is in relation to the foreground frog. Notice how much closer the background frog seems than in the wide angle image. This is called compression. Longer focal length lenses (telephoto lenses) compress the foreground and background, bringing the background objects closer to the foreground.

These images are an example of why it can still be very useful to move back and forth in a scene and not just rely on zooming your lens to fit the scene to the lens. Instead, visualize how you'd like the image to look.

Do you want to emphasize the foreground and minimize the background? Then use a wide angle lens and get close to the foreground object.

Do you want to emphasize the background, making it seem very large? Then use a telephoto lens. You can then move closer or further from the foreground object depending on how large you what that to be in the frame.


In addition to the more technical topics, John also talks about composition and design, about how to create pleasing images, how to add drama and evoke emotion in the viewer. He has had a long and successful career in photography, and has worked with other well known photographers, such as Art Wolfe. John is very good at taking what he’s learned and passing that on to his students through the videos and visuals.

Fundamentals of Photography is a long class full of content. It is broadcast live over several days, usually close to 5 or 6 hours a day. One of the nice things about purchasing the class is being able to watch it later at your own pace. You can take one topic at a time, watch the videos, experiment with your camera, really understand the topic. Then move on to the next topic.

If you’re new to CreativeLive, check them out. They are an online education company that broadcasts classes on a whole range of topics. The classes are free to watch during the live broadcast and from time to time when they rebroadcast the class. They are always broadcasting something. If you like the class you can purchase it, letting you stream the class anytime, and also letting you download the videos and other content to your computer to watch offline anytime you want. Some classes have extra content only available when you purchase. I have purchased dozens of classes over the years, and likely will continue to. CreativeLive offers a fantastic platform for learning. Their topics cover not just photography & video, but also art & design, music & audio, craft & maker, and money & life.