Playing With Perspective
Go Wide Or Get Stacked

Playing With Perspective

Grace Schaub was photographing at an antique auto show when she decided to put a 17mm lens on her Minolta X-700 camera. For this unique point of view she photographed at about a foot from the front wheel and tilted the camera to encompass the entire car. This created severe distortion of the wheel. The effect was enhanced by using an aperture of f/22 to ensure sharpness throughout the picture plane.
© 2003, Grace Schaub, All Rights Reserved

We judge near and far, big and small by our innate sense of perspective. A sort of visual grammar, it orders the world around and ensures that we can get where we're going and that when we reach out to touch we'll have a tactile rather than virtual experience. In photography, and all visual arts, the relationship of foreground and background is established by the relative size of subjects within the picture's two-dimensional plane.

Photojournalist Barry Staver made this image while working on a British Airways in-flight magazine assignment about raising buffalo. This image was made with a Nikon F5 and a 20-35mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens on Kodak 100 SW film. Staver used the widest setting on the zoom (20mm) and got close to the wrangler. This created a dynamic composition where the cowboy seems to pop out of the frame while retaining the context of the working atmosphere of the ranch.
© 2003, Barry Staver, All Rights Reserved

Much of what determines our sense of a scene's perspective is the lens we use to create the image. So-called "normal" lenses, such as a 50mm in 35mm format and an 80mm in medium format, are called just that because they order perspective in a way that is close to what we see. But when we use very wide angle or long telephoto lenses, combined with a particular point of view, we can skew that normal sense of perspective and create another way of looking at a subject or scenes. For some, such as architectural photographers, that can result in unwanted distortion. This can be corrected with camera movements or special lenses, known as PC (or Perspective Control) lenses. But one person's distortion is another's creative point of view, and that's where creative use of long and short lenses comes into play.

Long lenses not only get you close to distant subjects; they also can help you "assemble" disparate elements of a scene into closely packed elements. Taken from about 30 ft away with a Tamron 28-200mm lens set at 200mm and an aperture of f/16 (to maximize depth of field) on a Canon EOS 1N, this street scene becomes a collection of very different subjects unified by the frame.
© 2003, George Schaub, All Rights Reserved

A Sense Of Space
When used to their full potential very wide angle lenses (24mm and wider) tend to expand space by altering the apparent distance between foreground and background subjects. Conversely, long-range telephoto lenses (200mm and longer) tend to compress those distances and create what is known as a "stacking" effect.

But use of the lens alone does not guarantee the full visual effect. To enhance the expansion of space with wide angle lenses, exploit their close focusing distance capability and get close to the foreground subject, being sure to allow for the context, or background, to show. An added visual kick is when the lenses are used at narrow apertures to obtain a deep zone of sharpness, or depth of field. Placement of the foreground subject at the edge of the frame and tilting the lens to the side, up, or down further adds to the effect.

When we use a long lens to isolate a set of subjects within a distant landscape we choose both a composition and a distinct point of view unique to the "photographic" eye. This scene, photographed by Frances Schultz, uses a painterly effect known as aerial perspective. The darker near foreground is separated from the distant background by the interplay of light and dark tonal values. So even though the telephoto lens "stacks" the foreground and background, aerial perspective provides a sense of scale.
© 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

To compress space, make use of the narrower angle of view of long telephoto lenses to stack subjects together. The effect is a flattening of the image plane and is an excellent way to enhance repeating patterns, group similar subjects, or play with the juxtaposition of one environment with another. Telephoto lenses can also be used to create abstractions from larger subjects, such as buildings or long-distance landscape views. They can also be used to isolate distant subjects so that other visual effects, such as aerial perspective, can be brought into play. This relies on light values rather than just size relationships to yield a sense of scale.

In truth, neither super wide angle nor telephoto lenses change the relationship of subjects in the scene. You can see this by cropping a 20mm image to a 50mm angle of view and comparing the perspective with one found in an image made with a 50mm lens. Yet the visual trick of forced, flattened, or expanded perspective works because of our need to create order and our tendency to fall for optical illusions. We see an image as not just a single subject but as a message that conveys both a subject and its context. It's the way we gather information about the world, and it's how we allow an image to represent more than just a color or monochrome screen on a piece of paper.

Give it a try. Break some rules and play with perspective. The reward might just be some rather extraordinary scenes.
--The Editors