If you’ve seen photos of people holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, then you’ve seen forced perspective photography. This popular photography technique is commonly used to make an object look smaller, larger, farther or closer than it is in real life.
Thankfully, this optical illusion is quite easy to execute, and you don’t even need to go to Italy to do it. In fact, you can try it just about anywhere using all sorts of props you can find. Follow these few simple tips to get started making your own forced perspective photos.
1. Check Out Forced Perspective Examples
Forced perspective photography can be a complicated process. If you don’t know where to start, you can always find creative photography ideas online. By searching “forced perspective” on Google, you’ll find hundreds of examples to inspire you.
You’ll often encounter people that appear like dwarves or giants, and even small toys that appear large and realistic. Take your time to look at different pictures, and pick out which ones you like. You can use them as a reference for your project.
2. Plan Each Shot Before the Shoot
Every visual element in your frame has to work together to make your photo convincing. So before you go out and take pictures, figure out how to execute every single shot you want to create.
Look at some of your reference photos and scout for the best places to do them. For instance, if one of your forced perspective ideas involves a bench, choose a location that has plenty of them. Of course, you should also list down the necessary props you need for your project.
If you can’t find the right area or accessories, consider tweaking your concept or you’ll have a difficult time making it work.
Most importantly, you need to think of how to set up your photos. You’ll need to know precisely where to place your camera, and where to position your subjects.
Before doing the real shoot, you can take some test shots at home to help you visualise your idea better.
3. Why You Should Use a Zoom Lens
You can employ just about any lens to create perspective distortion. However, your most ideal option would be a zoom lens. Since you’re playing around with perspective, expect to adjust your framing and composition a lot.
Unlike a prime lens that has a fixed focal length, a zoom lens allows you to re-frame your shot without having to move closer or farther.
When using a zoom lens, try not to go lower than 35mm when possible. Once you reach the wide angle range, the perspective distortion could diminish the outcome of the illusion.
Nevertheless, there are also cases where a wide angle will emphasise the effect you want to achieve. So feel free to use it when you think it’s appropriate.
4. Which Settings Work Best for Forced Perspective Photos
Forced perspective photography typically involves two points of interest that work together to create an illusion. In most situations, there would be one subject in the foreground, and another in the background. Therefore, you’ll need to make sure everything is sharp from the front to the back.
Set your camera to Aperture Priority and choose a small aperture between f/8 to f/16 to keep a deep depth of field. Try not to go any higher or you’ll encounter diffraction.
This issue arises when the opening is too small (such as f/22 or smaller), and light struggles to get in. The disturbance in the light waves causes your image to lose detail.
Meanwhile, there are also situations when you’ll need to blur the background. If so, select your aperture between f/1.2 to f/2.8, instead. The narrow depth of field these f-numbers produce will guarantee you a beautiful, soft bokeh.
Since you’re using Aperture Priority, you don’t have to worry much about shutter speed because the camera chooses it automatically for you. Just make it a habit to check your settings every once in a while, especially when you’re starting to lose available light.
When it’s getting dark, and the shutter speed dips down to less than 1/60th per second, your image might end up out of focus due to motion blur. To counter this problem, you can either open your aperture more or bump up your ISO.
5. Having a Partner Can Simplify Things
It can be quite challenging to do forced perspective photography by yourself. In most cases, you’ll need at least one willing participant to execute a good optical illusion. Apart from taking photos, it’s also your responsibility to tell them how to pose and where to go.
Before you shoot, discuss your concept with your partner beforehand. Describe what the final image is going to look like, and show them what they’ll need to do to make it work. Feel free to show reference photos to give them a general idea about what you want to create.
Once they understand the concept better, it would be easier for them to follow your directions.
Since your partner can’t see what you see on the screen, you’ll need to communicate with each other a lot. Ask them to move forward, back, or sideways until they’re in the right spot. You should also reposition your camera until everything is lined up.
This process requires a lot of trial and error, so patience is key.
6. Composition Is Key to Creating the Illusion
The composition is the most crucial part in forced perspective photography. You need to place your subject precisely, or else people will notice the illusion right away. If you want something to look bigger than it is, put it in the foreground. To make it smaller, put it in the background.
You’ll need to find the sweet spot where your partner in the back appears to interact with your prop in the foreground. Feel free to zoom in and out, or move the camera if necessary. Your goal is to line up the background and the foreground to make them look like they’re parallel to each other.
Just like anything else in photography, you should also follow basic composition rules to keep your shots balanced. Turn on your camera’s grid line and use the Rule of Thirds to frame your image. Align your subject to one of the sections where the lines intersect, and you have a well-composed frame.
7. Angles Can Make Your Image Look 2D or 3D
When it comes to perspective in photography, you’ll need to think beyond the eye-level. In fact, most forced perspective shots require you to either lay low on the ground or to take photos from above.
First, consider what type of shot you need to create. Do you want the foreground and the background to merge? Then shoot at the ground level. If you’re going to add depth to your image, then take photos from a higher vantage point.
Also, make sure you line up everything correctly. If you want your image to look two dimensional, then make your subject and prop look as flat as possible. In other words, don’t position it sideways because it gives away its real height and depth.
To make your image more three-dimensional, then compose a photo that shows its proportions.
8. How to Interact With the Environment
Choose your background wisely because your location is a crucial part of optical illusion photography. When you look at some of your reference photos, what do you notice are the most common backgrounds people use? They often include flat surfaces, streets, sidewalks, and buildings.
In most cases, people use each location for specific purposes. For instance, forced perspective photographers often look for flat surfaces for big/small illusions. Or they employ streets and sidewalks to create an illusion of depth or height.
As for buildings (e.g., the Leaning Tower of Pisa), pretending to hold or carry them is a common trick.
Of course, you can also think of other ways of interacting with your surroundings. If you remember the common uses we mentioned for these locations, you can apply it in almost every architectural feature you find. You’ll realize that anything from boardwalks to corridors could be used to trick people’s senses.
9. Try Different Props to Add to Your Photos
Props are just as crucial as the location when it comes to turning your ideas into reality. You can use pretty much anything from toys to real objects for forced perspective photography. What truly matters is how you use them.
As mentioned, you can place a small item in the foreground to make it look bigger than the point of interest in the background. Just remember that the smaller the object you use in the foreground, the farther you have to move your other subject in the back to make it look tinier than what’s in front of it.
Of course, toys aren’t the only props you can use. You can also find ways to incorporate real objects such as benches, lamp posts, and fire hydrants as your for your illusion.
There are plenty of ways to interact with them as well. You can hold on to them, lean on them, or even place them strategically in the background.
10. Make Viewers Wonder How You Got That Shot
Context is king when it comes to forced perspective. Even though your image is just an illusion, you should still make it easy for viewers to understand what they’re looking at. Get rid of any unnecessary visual elements in your frame to help them get the point of the picture right away.
At the same time, you should make it fairly difficult for them to figure out what makes the illusion works. People often recognize if a photo has been manipulated. However, what makes forced perspective fun is when you see people puzzle over how you got the shot.
These tips are merely a starting point to help you create forced perspective photos on your own. Open your mind and feel free to experiment with your surroundings. If you look around, you’ll see plenty of opportunities to create optical illusions anywhere.
Interested in trying some more creative photography ideas? Check out our posts on spiral light painting or surreal photography.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
Thank you for reading...
if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.
It's my training video that will walk you how to use your camera's functions in just 10 minutes - for free!
I also offer video courses and ebooks covering the following subjects:
You could be just a few days away from finally understanding how to use your camera to take great photos!
Thanks again for reading our articles!