perspective

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!


Don't Just Stand There! Photograph From Different Perspectives by Todd Henson

Most people create photos from the same position, standing up and holding the camera at eye level. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but if you always do it most of your photos will end up looking the same. If you’d like to give your photos a different look try shooting from different perspectives. Get up higher if you can, perhaps using a ladder. Lean down lower, or even lay on the ground. These different perspectives will help you create a range of images. The 3 images in this post are one example of how changing perspective can affect the look of an image.

Highest perspective. Prospect Harbor Point Light, a lighthouse in Maine.

The first photo was created at eye level. I was standing on a small raised portion of land looking out over the water. I thought it was a beautiful scene, with a very picturesque lighthouse on the far shore and some great fishing boats in the water for added interest. I like the photo. I think it works. But I knew there were other possibilities.

Middle perspective. Prospect Harbor Point Light, a lighthouse in Maine.

For the second photo I walked along the road, looking out at the lighthouse, watching the perspective change as I slowly walked downhill, closer to water level. If you look closely you can see the angle of the house beside the lighthouse has changed. The second image is more parallel to the camera. The first image was angled just slightly allowing you to see just a sliver of the left side. I also like this second image, and I think it also works. The elevation change has slightly changed the look of the image, but mostly the different look is due to a different composition. I was walking around, trying different shots.

Lowest perspective. Prospect Harbor Point Light, a lighthouse in Maine.

Finally, I walked all the way down to the water, to a small sandy beach. I found a position where I almost had a clear view of the lighthouse, with just a couple boats to the right. But to really change the look of the third image I got down low, bringing the camera almost to water level. You can tell it is a much lower position because the lighthouse now extends above the tree line. In the first image the lighthouse just reached the top of the tree line, and in the second it extended a little above it. To add a little more interest to the image I opened the aperture all the way, creating a very shallow depth of field, throwing the foreground water out of focus. I like this last image, and think it also works.

None of the images are necessarily better than the others. But each is different, both because I tried different compositions and because I changed my perspective, getting lower for each image. This is just one small example of how changing perspective can affect the look of an image. In this case it was subtle changes, but you can also create drastically different photos by changing perspective.

Next time you go out shooting I encourage you to try different perspectives. Don’t create all your images from the same eye-level perspective. Try different angles and different heights. If you’re photographing something down low, such as a flower, insect, or child, try getting down to their level. You’ll be creating an image from the perspective of your subject, and that can be an interesting change from the typical eye-level perspective.