Learn how to take control of perspective in your photo composition. In this tutorial we offer our best photography composition tips through your choice of lens to shooting position so you can start making perspective work for you.
For artists and draftsmen learning how to create a sense of perspective is one of the first disciplines to master. In a nutshell it’s the art of rendering the three-dimensional world that we see around us onto the two-dimensional surface of paper or canvas.
Of course, this is also what we do when we take photographs, but because the camera essentially does the work for us it tends to get overlooked.
However, being aware of some the basic principles will help you understand how the elements of your composition work. Knowing how lines draw the eye in and can be used to create a sense of distance can make you a better photographer.
While it’s tricky to manipulate perspective ‘in-camera’ in the way a draftsman might play with it using pen and paper, there are aspects that you can control through your choice of lens, angle-of-view and your distance from your subject.
You can choose whether buildings appear plumb-straight or ‘keystoned’ in your shots, and decide how much of the background to include in photographs of people and objects. You can even play with perspective to create entertaining optical illusions.
So let’s see how you can use perspective to take control of your picture taking…
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Photography composition tips – 01 Linear perspective
Pick the right lens and position to ensure the lines in your picture are plumb-straight, or converge to give a sense of distance
Linear perspective is perhaps best illustrated by the shot of a street scene on the previous page. As you can see, the lines of the road appear to get closer together the further away they are.
This convergence leads to a ‘vanishing’ point. Getting a shot of the streets seeming to narrow is a great way to add a sense of depth, and also leads a viewer’s eye into the frame.
However, converging lines are a curse to some photographers, especially those working on architectural projects.
Close & looking up
Stand at the bottom of a tall building and point your camera up. The converging lines make the building appear smaller at the top. This is called ‘keystoning’, and while it is a great way to add a sense of scale, some photographers prefer their shots to look more natural.
One solution is to use a longer focal length and move further back. We switched from a focal length of 20mm to 90mm and moved several hundred feet away to straighten things out. Using a longer focal length also makes the elements in an image appear closer together.
An architectural photographer will use a tilt-shift lens to skew the perspective and correct converging lines without having to move back. Alternatively, Photoshop’s Transform tools can do a good job of straightening out the ‘keystoning’ lines in post-production, as seen here.
Photography composition tips – 02 Background
Understanding how different lenses behave will help you get the background you want
Knowing how different lenses will affect perspective in images is as vital to the photographer as learning how to draw converging lines is for a draftsman.
Just look what happens when we shoot our model Elle with a range of different focal lengths. By changing the distance between the camera and the model and altering the focal length we can manipulate the perspective and get some very different results.
In each shot we’re moving further away so the model’s head fills roughly the same amount of the frame, and as we move further away much less of the background is included.
There’s no right or wrong focal length to use, as it depends on how you want your image to look, but it is a great way to manipulate the background in shots.
It’s also worth noting that (as a very general rule) if you’re shooting a portrait, it’ll be more flattering to the subject at the longer end of the scale.
■ We started off fairly close to Elle, with a focal length of just 35mm. You can see the sweep of the buildings behind her, and make out the clouds in the sky. This is a great length if you want to give a sense of context to a subject.
■ Here we’ve switched to a longer, 80mm, focal length (the aperture is f/4.5 for all these shots). We’ve stepped back so that Elle fills roughly the same amount of the frame, but the buildings appear closer.
■ Photographed from even further away, with a focal length of 185mm, much less is visible in the background. The sky is now out of the shot, and the setting is much less important to the image. Elle’s clearly the focal point!
Photography composition tips – 03 Perspective of scale
Perspective is a serious business – but here’s a fun way to play with it for striking and quirky results
You can play with the ideas of perspective of scale and receding perspective (when the elements in a scene that are further away appear smaller and are behind those in the foreground) to create some quirky images.
We’re playing on these principles so it looks like our model Elle is holding a smaller model, Siân, in her hand.
You simply position the subjects, one in the foreground and one in the background, and carefully align the elements so it appears there’s a tiny person being held in the hand of someone much larger.
The makers of the Lord of the Rings film used this method for scenes where Hobbits interacted with larger people.
Of course we can work out that it’s not real, but it’s fun to create the illusion nonetheless!
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