Debunking the myth that focal length affects perspective + how to actually do it

Understanding perspective in photography: how different viewpoints can dramatically alter images

In this tutorial we show you how to take charge of perspective by using different viewpoints and camera angles to radically alter the look and feel of your images.

Understanding perspective in photography: how different viewpoints can dramatically alter images

It’s often said that lenses change the perspective of your shots, with wide-angle lenses exaggerating perspective and telephoto lenses compressing it. That’s not actually the case.

While it’s true that you need to change the focal length of your lens to achieve different types of images, the lens doesn’t actually affect the perspective of your images. All the lens does is determine how much, or little, of the subject you include in your image.

SEE MORE: What your camera captures at commonly used focal lengths (free cheat sheet)

To change the perspective you need to change the position from where you actually take your shot, moving to one side or another, shooting from higher up or lower down, or by moving further away.

The confusion lies in that once you have chosen the point to view the subject from, you then need to use different focal length lenses in order to fit all the elements in the scene that you wish to include into your shot.

So, if you are close to the foreground subject you need to use a wide-angle lens to get everything into your shot, while if you are shooting from a distance you need to use a longer focal length so you can fill the frame with the subject.

SEE MORE: Camera composition tips – take one subject and shoot it 6 different ways

When you’re shooting landscapes, moving towards or away from your subjects can make a radical difference to the sort of shot you’re able to take.

Changing your distance from your subjects also means you need to choose different lenses in order to fit everything into the frame.  Before we get started…

Prove to yourself that lens focal lengths don’t affect the perspective

Debunking the myth that focal length affects perspective

Click on the graphic to see the larger version, or drag and drop to your desktop to save.

To prove that it’s the viewpoint that affects perspective, you can do a simple exercise to show what effect the focal length of the lens has on your images. You can get the basic effect using the shortest and longest focal lengths on a standard zoom lens, but you can also use two different lenses to give a more extreme change in the focal length.

Take two shots
First, take one photo using a wide-angle lens and another with a telephoto lens from the same position. Ideally you should put the camera on a tripod to make sure that they are exactly the same position, but you can shoot hand-held if you are careful to make sure that the viewpoint is the same for both shots.

Crop and compare
Open both images on your computer, and simply crop the wide-angle image so that it matches the framing of the one taken with the telephoto lens. Resize these images so that they are the same size on-screen, and you will find that the perspective in both photographs is the same – it’s just the amount of the scene included in the image that is different.

PAGE 1: Why lens focal lengths don’t affect the perspective
PAGE 2: How to achieve a normal perspective
PAGE 3: How to exaggerate perspective
PAGE 4: How to compress perspective


10 common landscape photography mistakes every photographer makes
Avoid dull landscape photography: simple in-camera tricks to add a feeling of depth
Crop photos the right way: classic mistakes and how to avoid them
What is maximum aperture? Which lenses go widest and why it matters
Why your 18-55mm kit lens is better than you think for shooting landscapes

  • Fabien Gagné

    I must respectfully disagree. Telephoto actually do flatten the image because the relative distance between two objects in the picture decreases as the observer gains distance to the objects. I love your blog. Thanks.

  • Vangelis Matos Medina

    I did not understood the point.
    You are mixing cause and consequence.

  • It’s really very helpful and these post carried a sense of great important. Thanks a lot.

  • AshtonNekolah

    Great article here, this is correct lenses do not change perspective, in the example you can clearly see its the same image wide with more in the frame and tele with less in the frame but the positions are the same. If you move around, tilt the camera up or down, side to side then you will change it.

  • Ed van Wageningen

    The ‘myth’ that focal length affects perspective is not a myth but a fact. It is just not meant in the way they explain it in this item! Photograph an item at 24mm and at the same size with a 200mm (so you have to step back quite some yards!) and the background perspective will be change a whole lot. Thát is what they mean by that.

  • Michael Fox

    This is written in a misinformed way. It is basic visual physics that causes the perception that objects are closer together when using a longer focal length lens. The example photograph used is a bad one, as both main subjects are quite far away. Surprised that a purportedly expert camera magazine would publish this.