Last updated on November 9th, 2020
Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.– John Lennon
These few words are a stark reminder of something we often forget. With only a dash of creativity and a pinch of imagination, we can shape the reality around us the way we wish. It doesn’t take much to turn a pile of sand into a beautiful sculpture, or to make an empty highway look like a never-ending road. And photography is the best tool for letting your imagination and creativity flow.
However, photography is not only about what you see, but what you make others see through your lens. And that’s what perspective is about.
In this article, we will be discussing the technical meaning of perspective in photography, its impact on photography, the different types of perspectives used by photographers to create illusions, and a few tips for how this feeling of depth can be turned into mind-bending compositions.
What is Perspective in Photography?
In simple words, perspective is a way of looking at things, similar to the word viewpoint. However, the meaning in photography is slightly different.
The perspective of photography specifically refers to the art of creating depth and distance, or a feeling of three dimensions, in a two-dimensional image. By understanding the various types of perspectives, and where those sensations of three dimensions come from, you can make your audience perceive what does not actually exist.
Take a typical landscape photo as an example—big mountains, a long curving river and lots of small trees surrounding it. How did you know that the river must be stretching out for miles, and is it not a narrow stream? Why did you think the trees are of an average height, and not 100 feet giants? These are all effects created in our mind because of perspective, which come from factors like the placement of trees at the bottom of the image, the river coming down from up in the horizon, the common knowledge that mountains are huge and the slight haziness around the peak gives it size in the distance. Thus, what is actually a two-dimensional image, ends up creating a 3D scene in the mind of the observer.
Because our mind cannot sense the three dimensions of the real world through a simple photo, that sensation has to be generated through techniques of artistic perspective. Imagine being able to show someone how deep the Grand Canyon is through just a photograph.
Being able to use the perspectives of photography to your advantage requires some understanding of how and why it works. Let’s dive into the various types.
Types of Visual Perspective
For the purposes of this article, perspective has been divided broadly into two categories: visual and physical.
Visual perspective has more to do with the geometric properties of your subject, lines and shapes, which type of lens is used, etc. Physical perspective, on the other hand, is affected by the physical characteristics like height and length, the amount of light available when the image is taken, contrast and colors etc.
Both these categories often overlap and work together to give the final perspective, which allows us to feel the size and scale of the photograph. The next time you see an Instagram influencer posing in front of a massive mountain, standing on the edge of a cliff, you’ll be able to point out exactly what makes the photograph feel surreal.
As the name suggests, vanishing point refers to a small area in the image where things get small and cramped up that they all seem to come together and vanish. Technically speaking, it is the point of convergence, a spot where all the lines in the photograph seem to meet.
The meeting of these lines at the vanishing point creates a sense of depth and distance. The easiest example to describe vanishing point is to imagine sitting in the middle of an empty road. Where does the road lead to? As your eyes follow the parallel edges of the road, they seem to move towards each other near the horizon. As you move forward, the road seems to converge and end at the vanishing point. The same effect is created when photographing train tracks, tall buildings, etc.
Given how simple it is to make a few lines meet and create a feeling of distance, vanishing points have been part of art and photography since centuries. Almost every painting and landscape photograph has some sort of convergence point, which may or may not be in the center of the image.
The two main elements used to create this illusion of convergence are parallel lines and the changing size of objects. However, even one element alone can work. Simply having lots of objects—some near the camera and some further away—creates the impression of reducing size and convergence too, without requiring any distinct lines.
Where and how you want to create the vanishing point depends on you.
Linear perspective can be simply explained as a straightforward application of vanishing points. It is a technique of using converging lines—horizontal or vertical—to create a vanishing point, usually at the height of the camera itself.
Since the effect of depth in linear perspective is created by using parallel lines vanishing into the distance, the more lines you include, the greater the effect. However, the focal length of your lens will have to be considered too.
A telephoto lens will make those converging lines come closer to the camera by zooming in, showing that they are in fact parallel, and therefore reducing the illusion that they are intersecting.
On the other hand, using a wide-angle lens will create more distance between the foreground and the background, and thus enhance the effect of convergence.
Further, the distance between the subject and your lens will also have an effect. For example, if you are photographing an empty road while crouching down, such that your camera is quite close to the road, the bottom half of your image will show a very wide road, while the top half will show a narrower road, similar to a wide-angle look. This will make the viewer feel that the road stretches on for miles and converges into the horizon, unless, of course, you zoom in and negate the whole effect.
Depending on the number of vanishing points created in the image, linear perspective can be either one-point or two-point. Even three-point perspective is possible, but it is a bit tricky to create and often not detected by the casual observer.
One-point Linear Perspective
One-point perspective is a specific case of linear perspective, where the lines converge into one vanishing point at the horizon. However, you can compose your image as you wish. Having your vanishing point in one corner, in the upper half of the image, can give the effect that it was taken from ground-level.
The most common method of using one-point linear perspective is to photograph a narrow bridge or road, where the two edges seem to meet.
Photographers usually use the lines forming the vanishing point as part of their leading lines too, which leads the viewer through the image and give it an artistic feel. Rivers and the ripples of water from a wave are some common examples of leading lines.
Two-point Linear Perspective
This is a case of linear perspective where there are two vanishing points. Such an image will have two sets of lines going off and meeting in two different directions. The most usual example of two-point perspective is when photographing a big building from a corner, such that the adjacent walls go off in opposite directions.
Two-point perspective creates not just a sense of depth, but also a sense of length. In our example below, if the walls of the building stretch out to the left and to the right a lot, the viewer will feel that the building must be enormously long.
Images using forced perspective are something everyone has come across often. These images are fun and innovative, creating mind-bending illusions and special effects.
Forced perspective is exactly what it sounds like—creating a composition that forces the observer to doubt what he’s looking at and view something which is not there. By playing around with objects of different sizes, and changing the distance between the objects, a false perspective can be created.
Although this type of perspective has nothing to do with lines and vanishing points, it requires lots of creativity to be effectively incorporated into a photograph. The most important step in creating forced perspective is to make the foreground, background and the subject interact.
Something far away, like the setting sun or the Eiffel Tower, can be made to appear as if it was in the palm of your hand, through clever positioning of your hand against the background, along with the right focal length.
Because forced perspective requires changing the apparent distance of objects, making them seem closer or farther, your lens will affect the final image. A telephoto lens is great, as it will compress the distance, thereby allowing objects to appear nearby and create a false illusion.
While the above types of perspectives were mainly caused by camera position and framing of subjects, distorted perspective arises from the lens itself. Another name for it is optical lens distortion, since it arises due to the optics and behavior of the lens.
Optical distortion refers to the change in shape of objects and lines in the photo, often appearing as highly magnified, wavy and curvy. This weird effect occurs because of the glass elements used inside the lens, and can be removed during post processing of images. However, sometimes these effects are deliberately used by photographers to turn an average photo into something unique and often funny.
Usually, lenses are rectilinear, which is just a fancy way of saying that they mimic the human eye and let straight lines be rendered as straight. However, some lenses are curvilinear and bend those lines in different ways, adding optical distortion to the image.
The most common example of this is a fish-eye lens, which is a wide-angle lens with huge amounts of optical distortion. This lens magnifies the center, and makes objects in the corner appear very small and curved, almost like a panoramic image.
Lens distortion can be classified into 3 types:
Barrel Distortion – Straight lines in the center appear normal, but start curving inwards at the edges, like the shape of a barrel. It is typically found in wide angle lens and causes reduced magnification of the objects in the corner of the frame.
Pincushion Distortion – This is the exact opposite of barrel distortion, and causes shrinking of the entire image. The lines curve outwards at the edges, and the center of the image is made smaller. Such optical aberrations can be generally found in telephoto lenses.
Moustache Distortion – This is the most complex type of optical lens distortion, combining the effects of both barrel and pincushion distortion. The center of the image gets magnified and seems to be bulging out, like in a barrel, while the edges appear stretched.
Types of Physical Perspective
Moving on from visual perspective, we will now talk a bit about how perspective is affected by physical features like size, colors and light. These often work alongside visual perspectives and create a sense of scale in two dimensional photos.
Don’t worry. Just a few more topics to cover before you can start using these techniques.
Our brains are wired in a certain manner, and the usual size of different objects is already known to us. And this knowledge affects our perspective every day.
Imagine you are looking at an image of a city, with some street lights and a few scattered buildings.
Although the lamppost seems to be of the same height as the ten-storey building behind it, do we actually think that the lamppost must be as tall as that building?
Not at all.
That is actually the diminishing scale perspective at play. Since we know that a lamppost is not as tall as a building, we automatically conclude that the lamppost must be very close to us, and the building must be quite far.
Diminishing scale refers to the process of scaling the spatial distance or size our brains do for us. As soon as we see two similar objects with different heights, we assume that one of them must be farther away. Therefore, our brain creates a sense of distance by comparing the reduced size; otherwise the world wouldn’t make sense.
By positioning the objects in your composition in a certain manner, you can allow the viewer to compare the heights of those objects. This comparison, combined with the general knowledge of sizes of everyday objects, will lead to a sense of depth being created.
The scale reference will make the viewer assume that whatever is smaller, must also be farther.
This kind of perspective is a result of the logic of our brains too. If the ground and the horizon can be seen in a particular image, we subconsciously register the fact that an object at a greater height in the frame, or closer to the horizon in the background, must be far away. This is often taken for granted and forgotten, which is why you should remember this concept and try to make use of it as much as possible.
By thinking that the ground is close to the camera, and that the horizon is far, we again create a sense of depth without even thinking about it.
The concept of height perspective comes in use especially when creating minimal compositions. By placing a small object in the upper half of the frame, which means at a greater height, and close to the horizon, you can create an effect of a vast empty area, almost like a desert.
Light and Shadows
The interaction of light and shadows in an image is perhaps the best tool for creating atmospheric perspective, because it literally affects what we can see and what we cannot.
Due to dust, pollution and other particles suspended in the air, objects far from the camera often appear hazy and dark. Conversely, if an object appears to be covered in shadows, hazy or not in focus, the viewer considers it to be far away.
Elements like mist, lens flare, and fog have a similar effect. By making your subject appear hazy or covered in fog, you can create a surreal composition extending to infinity. To effectively use light and shadows as part of your composition, it is advisable to include many areas which are affected by the light differently. One dark area, in contrast with another area lit up with sunshine, will create a separation and induce a sense of distance.
An obvious result of changing sizes and diminishing scale of objects is that an object closer to the camera will often cover the object behind it. Therefore, by including many layers or levels in your image, which overlap with each other and create a pattern, you can also create a sense of depth.
Overlap perspective comes in handy during street photography, where there are so many objects in your frame that you can easily combine vanishing points, areas with different lighting and overlapping objects. It is also often used in landscape photography, where the feeling of depth in the image is enlarged by including layers of smaller valleys and cliffs, overlapping with bigger ones in the background, which again overlap with hills and rivers.
How to Use Perspective with Composition
Now that we have discussed how and why perspective affects the way we look at images, all you need to do is pick up your camera and start shooting. With some practice, you’ll be picking out leading lines, vanishing points, and layers of light and mist in a second.
Here are 3 simple tips to help you along the way:
1. Keep changing your viewpoint.
We always view the world from our own eye-level and height. But that is a recipe for boring photos when done in excess. Moving around and changing your vantage point is the best method to incorporate the different types of perspectives.
An average statue looks grand when shot from ground-level; your pet portraits become much more intimate when you crouch down and look them in the eye; shooting from your building terrace makes everything look small and toy-like. Simply remember to move around as much as possible.
2. Keep changing your lens.
Unexpected methods always yield unexpected results. Because focal length has a huge role to play, especially in forced perspective photos and diminishing scale perspective, it is always a good idea to change your lens while shooting and try out different focal lengths.
You can use a wide-angle lens to enlarge small objects, or use telephoto lens to extremely zoom in that the hill in the background compresses down to your backyard.
3. Keep an eye on your foreground.
The foreground often makes or breaks the photo, because it is the source of leading lines, and the main reference point an observer will use to compare the background. A prominent object in the foreground will not only provide a leading line, but will also appear larger than the background and help in creating a sense of depth. You should always be on the lookout for small streams, fallen branches and trees, which make for interesting foreground subjects.
Well, that was quite a long read. But I hope it was worth it.
Perspective sounds like a simple thing: the way of looking at things. But when applied to photography, it can drastically change the way a simple two-dimensional photo represents a real three-dimensional scene.
To give you a brief recap, artistic perspective is of two broad types: visual and physical. While the visual perspective techniques involve vanishing points, converging lines and lens distortion effects, physical perspective involves experimenting with lighting and positioning of objects within the frame. Both these factors work together to force the viewers to make mental comparisons of size, height and distance; all culminating into an image which captures the real essence of the scene.
Ultimately, how you create a sense of depth and scale inside your photograph is totally up to you. However, a few key steps like moving your viewpoint around and experimenting with lenses can help you capture that perfect composition.