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Yes Please

Time for some honesty. Perspective in photography has always confused me. On one hand, it looks at how you show a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane.

On the other, it looks at where you place yourself when capturing a scene. That’s why this article will tackle perspective from all the possible angles. What exactly is the purpose of perspective? Is it that important?

A straight up shot of the open roof of an apartment complex - understanding perspective in photography

What Is Perspective in Photography

Perspective photography looks at two areas. The definitions are:

  1. The spatial relationship between objects within an image. Perspective makes a two-dimensional photograph feel like a three-dimensional scene. It’s also the reason why many compositional techniques work. From leading lines and balanced weight to shallow depths of field.
  2. Our point of view. Or placement of the film/sensor plane in relation to the subject.

On a basic note, perspective gives depth. There are many things we can do to make a scene look more realistic.

Remember, a photograph is not three-dimensional. It is only a representation of a three-dimensional world.

We use motion blur to give an impression of movement. And we use perspective to give an impression of depth.

A high angle shot of skyscrapers - using perspective in photography

Perspective From a Physical Standpoint

There are things you can do to change the perspective of an image. By moving around your setting, you can gain a better viewpoint than your usual eye level.

It is easy to fall into the habit of photographing every scene from eye level.

You see something that catches your eye and you want to capture the fleeting moment.

But if you want your photography to make an impact, you need to move.

Move Left and Right

This should go without saying, but when you come across a scene, don’t go for your first idea. Take a step left or right to find a better vantage point.

Even moving one metre can have an immense effect on your image.

If you move a small distance, the background doesn’t change much, but the foreground does. The closer the foreground, the bigger the impact.

You may find you are finally able to naturally frame that mountain with the trees.

It could be the best photograph you have taken. At the very least, you have tried a different perspective and seen the impact it can have.

This goes double for photographing architecture. You aren’t going to take one image and go home.

If you made the trip to see something special, you need to make good use of your time.

Walk around the structure and photograph it from different lateral positions. You may find that the idea changes with each movement.

A man pointing his camera at the photographer - understanding perspective

Move Up and Down

Change your position or the position of the film/sensor plane (most important part of the camera). That way you can find some interesting perspectives.

You can either get low or get high. This gives you the opportunity to show the viewers a perspective they are not used to.

Imagine you are photographing a street scene, and you get down to the perspective of a medium-sized dog. You will see the world in a different way.

We all see the street through the same eyes, day in and day out. But change your vertical position, and you have an interesting take on a mundane place or scene.

Getting high gives you a different viewpoint of an object. If you are photographing a building from street-level, you only see a small part of it.

You can angle your camera up (in-depth in the next point), but that will give you perspective distortion.

Try going across the street, and getting up high. Then you can show the building from the side without the distortion.

Cool perspective photography shot of a multi windowed building

Move Your Angle

Changing your angle allows you to see and show the world from different perspectives. From living in Budapest, I am shocked to see how many people don’t look up.

All of the interesting building details are above the first floor. You won’t see these until you stop looking in front of you all the time.

The same goes for looking down. There is a reason why aerial photography is so popular. It’s because these images offer us something different.

We rarely, if at all, get to see the world from a high position.

Looking down at an angle gives us a fresh look and a new perspective. They don’t have to be bird’s eye views.

An aerial view of an interesting building - using perspective in photography

You will find that you can manipulate the sizes of subjects. Make them difficult to comprehend. Confuse our powerful yet impressionable minds.

Perspective distortion is common in this. It becomes apparent when you photograph a tall building from up close.

The top of the building is further away from the film/sensor plane than the bottom.

This gives the subject the impression that the top is falling away.

Cool perspective in photography shot looking up at an interesting architectural view

Perspective From a Conceptual Point of View

You don’t always have to move yourself gain a different perspective or viewpoint. You can use conceptual ideas too.

By looking at your scene and imagining a final image is a great way to find the best perspective.

You can trick the viewer’s mind to look at a scene in a particular way. These are all the techniques and gear you can use.

Distance

In this case, distance is more of a conceptual idea rather than a physical one. We’re not talking about the distance between you and the subject to think about.

Look at the distance between the background and subject too. It goes without saying, the subject closest to you will look the biggest.

Our brain depicts distance as the difference between the background and subject, or foreground. When we see an object blocking the view of another object, the first object is closer to the viewer than the latter.

This is otherwise known as overlap perspective. If this overlap repeats, the viewer gets a sense of a three-dimensional reality.

Try photographing a scene, a cityscape for instance, at an angle from a high vantage point. This way you can manipulate the viewer’s perspective.

By filling the frame, the viewer has no point of reference for size. This is a great way to confuse and add interest to a scene.

Cool perspective photography architectural shot of the roofs of buildings

Composition

Use composition in a scene or setting to create an idea of depth. Leading lines do this well. When we look at an image, our eyes bounce around a two-dimensional plane.

Yet, by looking at an image where the scene draws our eyes ‘in’, we give a sense of depth.

Humans judge distance by the way lines and planes converge at an angle. This is ‘linear perspective’ and you can manipulate it too.

Parallel lines, when seen at a great distance give us the sensation of ‘meeting’ (vanishing points) even if we don’t see it. Rail tracks are a great example.

The converging parallel lines create an illusion. This shows distance or depth in the photographed scene.

Cool perspective photography shot of the dark metro tunnel on one half, and the people waiting on the bright platform

Lenses

Lenses are a great way to change your perspective of a scene. Different lenses can help you capture various perspective illusions.

A telephoto lens tends to squash the subject and the background closer together. The opposite is true of ultra wide angle or fisheye lenses.

These wide angle lenses also make objects around the sides seem smaller. They also make the subjects in the centre much bigger than they are in reality.

These lenses also reproduce all the straight lines outside the lens axis as curved. This can alter your perception of the scene and its representational depth.

Many people think that by changing your focal length changes perspective. It may change how close you can get to a subject, yet your perspective doesn’t change.

Sweet and serene shot of a woman and dog in a tent looking towards the seascape and mountains ahead

Forced Perspective

Another way our perspective of a scene changes is through the idea of forced perspective. This is also known as the relative size of the objects and subject you are photographing.

It involves distance. But the distance between two important subjects in the foreground and background.

Our brain is smart in the way that we have amassed ideas of how large items are. We all know the size of a tree, or a house, or a car.

But what if we see a person the same size as a structure (Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower)? We cannot rationalise that the person is actually that big.

Try placing objects at different distances, but give the impression they are on the same plane.

You’ll produce some mind-bending images.

Fun perspective photography architectural shot of a girl posed with forced perspective to make it appear she is licking the leaning tower of Pisa in an ice cream cone

Lack of Sharpness, Colour or Contrast

We can affect depth with the help of not including things in our scenes. Lowering contrast, scattering light or desaturating colour. These all take away our depth perception.

By focusing your lens to ‘infinity’, you place everything in the scene in focus. But, if you focus just short of that, the impression of depth becomes bigger.

Why? Well, our eyes have nowhere to rest, so the idea is that the scene is so deep, it never finds the focus.

Atmospheric shot of a green bridge disappearing into fog

Conclusion

Next time you plan on photographing a scene, take perspective photography into account. It will help you find the best position and angle to take the image from. And it will add variation to your photography.

When you come across a subject or scene, you should be photographing it in many different ways.

You have no idea what the outcome could be. It might be that image that everyone adores.

Before you go, check out this cool video on understanding perspective.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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