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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #1
SkipD
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Default Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance?

- A Tutorial -
This article is all about controlling perspective in images.

For the discussion in this article, the definition of perspective that we will use is "the size relationships of various elements in an image that are different distances from the camera".

Examples of why perspective control in images is important to us:
  • A photograph showing a scene with a family standing in front of a mountain range is one case where perspective is important to the aesthetic quality of the image. If the mountains are so small in the image that they do not seem impressive, the image may not be appreciated as much as one with the mountains appearing larger behind the family.

  • A portrait may have the subject's nose looking noticeably larger than it looks in real life (as compared to the subject's ear, for example) or the relative sizes of various people in a group photo may seem unrealistic.
Because many photographers, including many who have had a lot of experience making photographs, believe that a long focal length lens "compresses" elements of a scene at different distances from the camera, and that a short focal length lens will "distort" a scene, they also believe that these sorts of perspective problems can be corrected merely by changing the focal length of the lens used. These ideas are all absolutely false. Please read on......

The reality is that focal length has absolutely nothing, in itself, to do with perspective in images. Neither the apparent "compression" of distance between foreground and background elements of a scene captured with a long focal length lens nor the "distortion" of features at close range captured with a short focal length lens has anything to do with the focal length chosen to create the image. It is distance, and distance alone, that controls perspective, either in a scene viewed by a person or in an image made with a camera. The choice of focal length affects one thing and one thing only - framing of the subject in an image.

The focal length/perspective myth has its origins in the unconscious confusion of cause and effect common among those adept in any field of endeavor.

Experienced photographers who do portrait work, for example, often choose a lens of a particular focal length to use for a head-and-shoulders portrait and a lens of a different focal length for a full-body shot. That's because their experiences "tell" them what focal length they will need to use to frame the subject at the particular distance needed to provide decent perspective. They are not selecting the focal length to achieve the desired perspective - it's purely experience providing a shortcut in the thinking process for the photographer. In reality, it's the distance that the photographer chooses through habit born of experience to place between the camera and the subject that controls the perspective - whether or not the photographer actually realizes this fact.

85mm is an often recommended focal length for use on a so-called "full frame" camera (35mm film format - 24mm x 36mm) as a "portrait" lens . This is not because of any effect the 85mm focal length has on perspective, but because when used at the optimum distance for pleasing perspective, 85mm is the focal length required for framing the typical waist-up portrait when used on a "full-frame" camera.

These facts are often hard for photographers to understand, so we will illustrate them for you.
The following three photographs were made with my Canon 20D, with the camera in precisely the same position for all three images, roughly 13 feet from the subject (one of my wife's MANY teddy bears ). The background was approximately 7 feet behind the subject for all images. Image #1 was made with a 200mm focal length. Image #2 was made with a 70mm focal length. Image #3 was made with a 24mm focal length. All three images were shot with the aperture at f/8. The second and third images were cropped to represent the same framing of the teddy bear as in the first image.

If you examine the three images closely, you will discover that the sizes of the objects in the background have not changed at all relative to the size of the teddy bear - even though there is nearly a 10:1 difference in focal length between image #1 and image #3.
>> #1 - Shot with 200mm focal length at 13 feet distance to bear - full image. <<
>> #2 - Shot with 70mm focal length at 13 feet distance to bear and cropped to match above. <<
>> #3 - Shot with 24mm focal length at 13 feet distance to bear and cropped to match above. <<



Now for the coup de gras. This final image, #4, was taken with the same 24mm focal length and the same f/8 aperture that were used for image #3, but the camera was moved close enough to the subject to keep the framing of the teddy bear similar to the first three images. In other words, I used the so-called "foot zooming" technique to frame the teddy bear. The distance from the subject to the background is unchanged from images #1-#3. Examine the background size, relative to the teddy bear's size. Also, note that the teddy bear's feet are larger as compared to his head than in the first three images. All of these perspective differences are due to one thing - the difference in the distance from the camera to the subject and background.
>> #4 - Shot with 24mm focal length at 2.5 feet distance to bear - full image. <<


Lesson 1: Hopefully you can see from this presentation that "foot zooming" is definitely NOT the way to create an image with controlled perspective. The illustrations here prove this. When I "foot zoomed" with the 24mm lens (to make image #4), there was a tremendous difference in the resulting perspective in the image due ONLY to the change in position of the camera. Of course, if you are shooting an image of a flat surface (such as a painting on a wall), "foot zooming" to frame the flat subject is going to provide roughly the same result as changing a focal length. However, for real-world three dimensional subjects, the knowlegeable photographer should totally forget the concept of "foot zooming".

Lesson 2: Some photographers will argue until they turn blue that they pick a focal length to control the perspective of their image. Indirectly, their logic is correct. However, their reasoning is flawed as we have proven here. The fact is that when a photographer chooses a longer focal length, the tendency is to move farther from the portrait subject to get the desired framing. The movement of their position is what changes the perspective, not the choice of focal length. Hopefully, if you have read this article carefully you will now understand this hard fact.


There is one other interesting element about the images, but we won't get into details of the topic in this article. The interesting element is depth-of-field. Note that images 1, 2, and 3, have a very different apparent depth-of-field. The background is more blurry in the first image than the second, and the background is more blurry in the second image than the third. This is simply because of the different focal lengths used. The distances, apertures, and camera format (the size of the film frame/digital sensor, which controls the "circle of confustion) are all identical.

You must realize, of course, that all three images are presented at significantly different magnification (relative to the 22.5mm x 15mm size of the in-camera images). This is because images #2 and #3 are radically cropped to keep the teddy bear at the same size. All four images were shot with the aperture set at f/8 because there was absolutely no change in the lighting for the four images.


THE BOTTOM LINE SUGGESTION....
Many inexperienced photographers choose focal lengths merely to be able to frame a subject from whatever camera position they feel is convenient at the moment. They probably don't even realize that there is a huge composition advantage in finding a better vantage point for the shot. The reasons are that distance between the viewer (or camera) and subject is what changes perspective and a different angle, combined with a perspective change can potentially make a huge difference in the quality of composition in a photo.

When I am trying to be completely "in control" of my images, I will - when possible - choose my camera position based on what it does to the perspective. Then, and only then, I will choose a focal length to fill the camera’s frame with the intended image.
Here's a simple example of how perspective control can work for you:

Let's assume that you are taking a photo of some friends in a scene that has mountains in the background. You stand 20 feet from the people and view the scene. A 50mm lens will let you fill the frame with the group of people and some of the background quite nicely, so you take a shot. Then you realize that the mountains are rather small in the background.

Back up to to 40 feet (twice the distance) from the group of people and view the scene, you will see that the mountains are now larger relative to the people - twice the size they were before, in fact. However, the people are smaller in your viewfinder. You now need a 100mm lens to keep the people the same size as in the first image, but the mountains now appear twice the size that they were in the first shot.

Why is this? It's because the additional twenty feet that you put between yourself and the people is insignificant relative to the fifteen miles between your viewing spot and the mountains.

Acknowledgements: The concept of doing this article was an idea by "Perry Ge". The text of this article was written with the help of editing and ideas by "xarqi" and "Wilt". "Wilt" has added his sections below.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #2
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

This graphic shows the effect of changing camera position on the relative size of two objects to one another. As you move back, the apparent size of the background item increases in size, relative to the main subject.



Both my America's Cup series and my Vertical Blinds series (following posts) show the practical effect of the theory depicted in the graphic.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #3
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

The first series of illustrations is a shot of a box (about the size of a head), sitting on a yardstick that is placed at an angle to the box, with twin black plastic plumbing pieces on the ends. In the background is the Oracle America's Cup series boat as a frame of visual reference. This series shows what would happen if you selected focal length based on your current camera position, to frame the subject (the box) at a certain size...and how the surroundings to the side and in front and behind will be altered by doing so. My distance to the subject (the box) was changed from about 50' to about 25' to about 5' (guesses only, to give you a sense of the shooting location for each, but I could not measure actual distances, due to the terrain, and working alone)

Note the length of the America's Cup boat in the background vs the width of the box. The size differential between the subject and objects behind is changed via different camera position, with the FL keeping our main subject constant in size relative to the edges of our frame. It is largest at 263mm FL and smallest at 28mm FL. The perspective (the relationship of main subject to its surroundings) is altered considerably, even though the main subject is framed at the same size, because of camera position.

Seen at the two ends of the yardstick are the twin plastic plumbing pieces, which the reader can measure on their screen size to compare front and back. You will note that the least difference in relative size (front piece vs. back piece) is with 263mm FL (188mm + 1.4x) and the greatest difference is with 28mm FL. The changing size differential of the black pieces at the ends of the yardstick serves to show how, as our camera position gets closer to the subject, the closer features of our subject are accentuated in size, relative to those which are farther away. This is why the use of very short shooting distances (while using super WA lenses to capture a wider area) serve to accentuate body parts like noses or bosoms or backsides. Or it can make the 'large economy size' women seem even larger, when standing closer to the camera than their more svelte escorts who are standing farther away.

Note also that the angle formed by the yardstick is increasingly large at the smaller FL shot, with the longest FL forming the shallowest angle to the frame's horizontal edge. (Shoot an ample 'plus sized' woman with a very wide angle lens to guarantee she hates your shots!) Perspective is changed via the change in camera position, while the subject sizing is kept constant by the FL chosen. Earlier, Skip mentioned, "the apparent 'compression' of distance between foreground and background elements of a scene captured with a long focal length lens nor the 'distortion' of features at close range captured with a short focal length lens has anything to do with the focal length chosen to create the image." The changing apparent angle formed by the yardstick is another visible example of the apparent 'expansion' of depth or the 'compression' of depth that can be accomplished, due to change in camera position and the corresponding change in FL to keep our main subject at a fixed size. 'Deeper' via the WA + close distance, 'flatter' resultant from the long FL lens, seeming to be FL related, but really due simply to the changing shooting distance.

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS with Canon 1.4x = 263mm

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS

Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 ISAll shots taken with Canon 40D on tripod at ISO 400: 1/800 at f/11














This shows the way that WA vs tele FL can alter the relationship of subject to its surroundings in far more important ways than simply altering the framing, because of the way you have to move farther or closer to your primary subject due to the FL differences!

One can readily see that simple 'zooming with your feet' has drastic implications on the compositional elements of your shot...very positive or very negative changes come about via camera position. Similarly, simple zooming with the lens FL all the time, and not changing camera position, also can prevent you from capturing your most dramatic shot!!!


Lastly, Skip touched on Depth of Field differences. Note that although all three of these shots were made at f/11, there is a very considerable difference in the degree of focus of the objects in the background (America's Cup boat, buildings). This helps you to appreciate the DOF differences that accompany larger format sizes. If I shoot a large format, which requires a longer FL to achieve the same Angle of View, the inherent DOF is different (specificially less DOF with longer FL). So an APS-C camera with a 'normal lens' (28-32mm) Angle of View has more inherent DOF than a medium format camera whose 'normal lens is longer (75-80mm) to achieve the same AOV. You can see that in the 28mm vs 81mm shot differences in the background focus.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #4
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

The second series of illustrations is a landscape scene, shot at three different FL from the same camera position. The shots were taken at 200mm, 97mm, and 55mm. The full image with each lens is shown in the first set. Only the framing is changed by the FL, not the relationship of items to their surroundings. (While I should have used a tripod, I shot these three handheld due to haste, accounting for very subtle differences in the relationship of the trees to one another...relatively small lateral differences in camera position between the 55mm crop shot taken with the 17-55mm compared to the other two FL shots both taken with the 70-200mm lens).

All shots taken with Canon 40D on tripod at ISO 400: 1/2000 at f/4
Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS
Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS
Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS








Below, I 'enlarged' the three shots during post processing, so that all the items (like trees) seen in the frame are similarly sized in all the photos. The point of this series is to illustrate that Focal Length has NOTHING to do with 'perspective', as perspective is only changed with camera position. In effect, the framing is affected with a change of FL without change of camera position, which is not changed for these three shots. Framing differences are neutralized via cropping the original shots (only the shot made with 200mm FL actually shows entire frame).







In effect, the framing is affected by a change of FL without change of camera position (framing difference neutralized via these crops of the original 97mm and 55mm shots)

Not changing camera position might keep you from obtaining the best shot of the subject and their surroundings, as you end up with a fixed perspective, when you simply depend upon FL to set your framing.

Shot with 55mm is not sharp only due to the very very high magnification of the image, required to get the same frame area in the cropped shots...lost lens resolution over the entire image, not difference in background blur alone
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #5
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Quote:
http://photography-on-the.net/forum/...62&postcount=7 perspective isn't 'only' a function of distance...the focal length will change how much straight lines are turned into diagonals, and how near or far the background appears ... The former isn't so obvious when you cut off the sides, since most or all of it occurs away from the center, which is also why it isn't a big deal on a crop camera.
NOT TRUE when camera position is unmoved! The relationship of the diagonals only changes when camera position is moved, not when the FL is altered!

As evidenced by these photos, the background, relative to the subject (the bottle perched on the yardstick) is altered only because of change of camera position used to hold the subject at fixed size in the frame....





Since the distance to the main subject (the touch-up paint bottle at the center of the ruler) is altered with change of camera position, the relative size of the vertical blinds seen in the background (vs the subject) alters slower than the change of size of the main subject. And the angle of the ruler changes with the different camera position, too. The shot at the shorter distance, taken with the WA lens, appears to be 'deeper' in terms of the ruler's orientation.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #6
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Here is an example of the super wide angle lens (11mm) used at a modest distance vs used super close to the subject, as an example of the induced perspective distortion cause by shooting distance, and not caused by the focal length in use.





Note the size of teddy's head (in the second image) where the perspective distortion makes it appear large relative to the rest of the (smallish) body, versus the first photo which shows a more normal proportion of the head to the body, due to a longer shooting distance which does not induce perspective distortion.

Yes, 11mm is ultra wide on APS-C, and most of us have come to assume distortion comes with UWA. Can this same effect happen with a more modest WA, like a 16mm on APS-C (equivalent to using a wide 26mm lens on a FF)? Let's see...





Note the size of teddy's left foot in the second photo, taken with the 16mm lens from about 1' away, compared to the size of his right foot. Compared the size of both feet when taken with the same 16mm lens at a more modest shooting distance. Indeed, perpective distortion can be induced even with a more modest wide angle FL.

Remember that focal length does not cause distortion. Being very close to your subject, while using a WA lens, is what induces the perspective distortion.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #7
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

YES! Excellent job guys! I'm so happy this is done.

Read this carefully and thoroughly folks, and don't be intimidated by how long it is. This is excellent, informative, and readable information that quashes common misconceptions about perspective and focal length.

This tutorial shows why there are no such things as "wide angle distortion" or "telephoto compression". Claims such as "50mm yields a perspective equivalent to the human eye" are meaningless. Perspective is entirely a function of distance, not of focal length.

Understanding what's going on when you're making an image fundamentally gives you more control. This will, ultimately, improve your photography.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #8
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Great write-up!

This is something that I know now more then ever that I need to keep in mind.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #9
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Good stuff, guys!

Of course, I'd like to pretend that the dog in this shot is really as big as a full-size Mustang, but then I need to remember the proper perspective!

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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #10
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Quote:
Originally Posted by tonylong View Post
Good stuff, guys!

Of course, I'd like to pretend that the dog in this shot is really as big as a full-size Mustang, but then I need to remember the proper perspective!



Yeah, well I have already shown that the America's Cup sailboat is something that can sail on a tiny lake in the park...it is as big as that box which is about the size of a human head! Television fraud at work!
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #11
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Is this the same effect you see in video when the camera is let's say focused on a person's face and they zoom in and at the same time move the camera back and the background gets bigger but the person stays the same size ?
It's a great way to see your explanation in motion.
You did a great job on this.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #12
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Quote:
Originally Posted by maxblack View Post
Is this the same effect you see in video when the camera is let's say focused on a person's face and they zoom in and at the same time move the camera back and the background gets bigger but the person stays the same size ?
It's a great way to see your explanation in motion.
You did a great job on this.
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YUP! That's the dolly zoom effect. You change your perspective by moving the camera, but keep the framing of your main subject constant by changing the focal length. The change in perspective is entirely due to the change in distance.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #13
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Very clear explanation of perspective and focal length.
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Old 4th of April 2009 (Sat)   #14
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Quote:
Originally Posted by SkipD
Experienced photographers who do portrait work, for example, often choose a lens of a particular focal length to use for a head-and-shoulders portrait and a lens of a different focal length for a full-body shot. That's because their experiences "tell" them what focal length they will need to use to frame the subject at the particular distance needed to provide decent perspective. They are not selecting the focal length to achieve the desired perspective - it's purely experience providing a shortcut in the thinking process for the photographer. In reality, it's the distance that the photographer chooses through habit born of experience to place between the camera and the subject that controls the perspective - whether or not the photographer actually realizes this fact.
To continue this point, the choice of FL for portraiture is largely determined by what distance is preferred by the amateur portrait photographer to the subject (shy photographer, longer distance!), and not necessary caused by a preference of perspective. We have seen, though, that getting closer with WA makes a scene appear 'deeper', or backing far away and shooting with tele makes a scene look 'flatter' (cf. the photos of the yardstick and its apparent angle to the box in post #2, or to the bottle of touchup paint in post #5). Shooting either way too close or way too far away is not the most flattering to the subject's face!

8-10' distance from the camera to the subject is a nice perspective of the subject, and one which our eyes have become quite accustomed to...the face is not too rounded, nor too flattened. The fact that it is a nice distance for the pro portrait shooter to adjust lights and pose quickly without too much walking back and forth, is a side benefit of this shooting distance. Of course, that is not the only distance that works, but going to the extreme (30' back, or 3' close) is risking the 'flattening' or 'rounding' effects on the face too much.
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Last edited by Wilt : 4th of April 2009 (Sat) at 21:34.
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Old 5th of April 2009 (Sun)   #15
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Default Re: Perspective Control in Images - Focal Length or Distance? (a tutorial)

Great stuff, this!
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