As photographers, we often hear about the importance of moving position to change your perspective, but what does that actually mean? What is perspective and how can we use it to improve the composition of our photographs?
What is Perspective Anyway?
Perspective is the way our eye relates to spacial separation and the relationship between the size of objects within that spacial separation. What this means in layman's terms is things seem smaller the further away they are, relative to their size. A classic example is the sun and the moon, both of which appear to be similar sizes in the sky yet the sun is much further away but much bigger.
So how does this work in photography?
Well first of all lets get one of the myths of perspective out of the way, perspective does not change when you change your lens.
It is often said that a telephoto lens compresses perspective but actually the perspective remains the same. If you were to take the same image, one with a wide angle lens and one with a telephoto lens, then you were to crop the wide angle image to the same framing as the telephoto, the image would look identical.
Perspective, in fact can only be changed by changing position, for example, if you were to use the wide angle lens and physically move closer to your subject to get the same framing as the telephoto lens, then, you will have changed the perspective. What actually happens when you change lens is that your angle of view changes.
Changing your lens does not change your perspective – changing position does! by Jason Row Photography, on Flickr
So, How Can We Use Perspective to Improve Our Composition in Photography?
Learning to understand how to use perspective in photography is one of those things that will come to you with experience. You need to practice, using wide angle, normal and telephoto lenses moving your position relative to the subject and understanding the nuances of it. That does not just mean moving closer or further from your subject but also moving in the vertical plane, shooting from above or getting down low.
Let's Look At an Example
Lets take a wide angle shot of a landscape for example. If you were to shoot it from eye level, you may find that there is very little of interest in the foreground to draw your eye to the subject. Getting down low, will change your perspective, perhaps there are some flowers or fallen branches that will lead your eye into the subject.
Conversely, maybe you are trying to shoot a large building from street level. With the wide angle lens you will have to point the camera up causing converging verticals, another form of perspective. By moving your perspective higher, for example to a rooftop opposite you can change your perspective and eliminate the problem.
A low angle, wide angle perspective by Jason Row Photography, on Flickr
Leading lines are a classic use of perspective in photography. By positioning yourself down low and using the lines you can draw the viewers eye into the subject, combine this technique with a deep depth of field and you can give your images an almost three dimensional feel.
So what about the use of telephoto lenses in creating interesting perspectives? As we said earlier, different focal lengths have different angles of view. A telephoto lens will have a narrower angle than a wide lens and we can use this attribute to make our apparent perspective seem compressed.
A classic example of this would be in shooting a person outside, by combining the angle of view with a shallow depth of field, we can get the classic blurred background in our portraiture. The whole idea of controlling perspective is to creatively use these differences in size and distance to improve our composition.
Use of position with a telephoto lens to compress perspective by Jason Row Photography, on Flickr
The last area of perspective we will look at today is forced perspective. Forced perspective is where you make objects in the distance seem larger, smaller, closer or further away than they actually are, relative to your foreground subject. The fun in this is creating trick images that, for example show people holding up a building that appears to be the same size as them.
A classic false perspective shot by benjaminasmith, on Flickr
Perspective is a vital and complex part of photographic composition and as we said at the beginning, it is something that can only be learnt with experience. To try and understand it, take a reasonable zoom lens out and shoot the same subject at different focal lengths from the same and different positions, and look at how different the end results are. That’s perspective.