You’ll hear the term perspective used often in photographic circles. That’s because it’s a powerful tool. Understanding it and knowing how to manipulate it can help transform flat, boring snapshots into images with depth and character. You can even use it to fool your viewers.
Perspective has several definitions. The one that applies to photography deals with the depiction of spatial relationships and volume on a flat surface. In other words, it’s how we give the impression of a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional screen or piece of paper.
Photographers, illustrators and painters all employ perspective in similar ways. There are certain elements in the 3-D world that our minds use to recognize depth. We arrange those elements within our compositions to convey the sense of a third dimension. Here are the most common types of perspective in photography:
Linear convergence: Parallel lines in a scene appear to converge as they recede toward a vanishing point in the distance. The lines can be actually seen or just implied. Edges of structures, the width of roads or natural formations and even the foreshortening of body parts are good examples of this visual phenomenon.
Relative size: This effect is closely related to the one above. When elements of similar size appear smaller or larger than one another, our brains translate the difference into distance or depth. This also applies to changes in the difference between object sizes. This second application is often used to create false perspective, also known as forced perspective.
Atmospheric effects: Our minds are accustomed to having difficulty in seeing distant objects clearly. That’s because the light reflected from them is scattered by dust, water and other airborne particles before it reaches our eyes. The severity of this effect varies with atmospheric conditions, such as haze, fog or smog.
Overlap: Objects closer to us will block out portions of more distant ones. When elements in a scene overlap, it gives viewers an impression of their relative distances from the viewpoint and implies depth.
With a basic understanding of the principles, you can apply them when you compose your shots. Start by recognizing the elements we’ve mentioned above, then look for the most effective ways to use them.
Your point of view (PoV) will often have more impact on perspective than any other factor in your composition. Raising or lowering the camera, moving left, right, closer of farther away will all alter your viewers’ perception. This can be used to increase the sense of depth or to create an “alternate reality”.
It’s all about purpose. How you use perspective in your photos depends on what you want your viewers to see, or more accurately, feel. In a landscape, travel or architecture shot, a greater sense of perspective adds a pleasant sense of depth. Enhancing atmospheric effects can create a dreamy, mysterious or threatening mood. This can often be done after the shot with tools like the Luminar fog filter.
Less traditional purposes include creating false impressions like “big fish” photos or vertigo-inducing sensations of height. There are countless ways to use perspective and creative photographers are always aware of it in their compositions.
While we’re discussing perspective, it’s appropriate to mention the fallacy of its compression or expansion by various focal lengths. Since this has been debunked in detail by countless reputable sources, we’ll offer the condensed version here:
Changing lens focal lengths changes the magnification of everything in the frame. A 70mm lens will make everything appear larger in the frame than a 35mm lens when used at the same viewpoint. This can give the impression of altering the relative size of objects (compressing distance). In reality, cropping a 35mm photo to match a 70mm shot from the same point will show that the change has no effect on perspective.
This isn’t to say that swapping lenses can’t make a difference in perspective. When you combine it with a change in camera to subject distance, it’s very effective. For instance, using a wide-angle lens close to your subject can greatly enhance convergence and relative size differences, as in the photo above. This is actually a result of distortion.
The keys to effective use of perspective in photography are within your own mind. The tools are always in front of you. Learn to recognize the elements that create that third dimension and then find new and unique ways to make them work for you.
As always, practice makes perfect. Make a habit of changing your point of view often and you’ll always find surprises for you and your audience.
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