Perspective in Photography

In this article I will try to explain how perspective works in a 2D photograph with some tips, myths, and example photos.

When we see a photograph on computer screen or in print, we’re looking at a 2-dimensional representation of a real 3-dimensional scene. And that is what photography is all about—capturing a 3D scene in a 2D image. I used to wonder how photographers demonstrate depth or sense of scale in a (good) photograph. They use the concept of perspective.

This is one of the tricky areas of photography, which if a photographer is not consciously aware of, can produce unwanted distortions or flat, uninteresting images.

3D is real. A 2D depiction of a 3D scene is just an illusion exploiting how our brain synthesizes information to determine the “depth” in real-time. Powerful compositions can be created by applying the concepts of perspective in effectively converting a 3D scene into a 2D translation.

Defining Perspective

Perspective in photography can be defined as the sense of depth or spatial relationships between objects in the photo, along with their dimensions with respect to the viewpoint (camera lens or the viewer).

Now let’s come down to the techniques.

I. Blocking, Overlap, or Obstruction

This is probably the dumbest thing to tell you. But let me tell you anyways. When we see an object blocking the view of another object, the first object is nearer to the viewer than the latter.

This clue to our brain regarding distance can be utilized in a photograph to depict the depth or distance between the objects, also called overlap perspective. If this overlap is repeated in the same picture, the viewer gets a sense of depth among various objects lying in a 3D reality through the perception of the relative distance of objects made by partial blocking and hiding.

obstruction perspective

photo by Boris Thaser

II. Relative Size

Our brain is very complex but gets fooled easily. We have a notion that when an object becomes more distant, it appears smaller than the one which is closer to the viewer.

In reality, our brain has encodings of the “natural” size of different objects, like trees, cars, people and animals. So when we see a person twice as big as building, we cannot rationally conclude that the person is actually twice as big in reality. Our brain tells us that the building is farther away. Alternatively, when we carefully place different objects at different distances but give an illusion that they are in the same plane, we produce funny images.

forced perspective

photo by m01229

So in a nutshell, our brain makes an evaluation of the sizes based on known objects in relation to other objects in the photo. Thus a distance is imagined in the brain and creates the depth in the photo that the photographer is looking for. This is also called scaling—it helps the viewer to determine the actual size or relative size of the objects in the picture.

III. Linear, Rectilinear, and Vanishing Point

As already mentioned, a 2D image is nothing but an illusion of a 3D scene, but nevertheless artists and photographers utilize this illusion effect as an important compositional factor in their works.

The human eye judges distance by the way lines and planes converge at an angle. This is known as linear perspective.

When expanded to rectangular objects, you find that some lenses (fish-eye and panoramic) produce objects at the sides much smaller than they are and the objects at the center much larger that their actual size. Geometrically, all straight horizontal lines at the lens axis level are represented as straight lines, and all other straight horizontal lines—either above or below the lens axis level—are reproduced as curved lines. But with “rectilinear perspective” the straight lines in the subject are reproduced straight in the picture (normal lenses are rectilinear lenses), which is way we see things normally.

It is noteworthy to mention that any photo is subject to “perspective projection distortion”, which can be controlled and corrected with various methods that I will describe in Part II of this series.

The fish-eye and panoramic lenses produce “false” perspectives and are used only to produce special effects on purpose (more on this in Part II: Playing with perspective).

vanishing point

photo by Leon Yaakov

So back to linear perspective. Lines that are parallel to each other when seen at a great distance give us the sensation of meeting (at vanishing points)—for example, in rail tracks. The converging parallel lines illusion can be used to show distance or depth in the photo.

IV. Lack of Sharpness, Color Quality, or Contrast

We’re accustomed to our eyes not being able to figure out objects in the distant far off due to lowering of contrast or scattering of light, or both. We can use this information to create the effect of lack of sharpness/contrast by controlling the depth of field. Now, controlling depth of field is totally different subject area in photography, and I don’t want to mix it with the current discussion of perspective control. But just for the sake of completeness, I can give you a quick hint: just focus your lens slightly shorter than infinity so that the farthest object looks blurred thus giving the viewers a sense of distance.

Also atmospheric conditions like haze/fog/dust can cause loss of image sharpness at a distant. Since the effect of this “haze” (scattering of light due to particles in the air) is proportional to the distance of the objects from the lens, we can use this information as well in composing the shot.

fog and lack of focus

photo by Erik

Of course, there are various different factors that contribute to varying atmospheric conditions but the result effect of reduction of contrast, brightness and saturation can make our eyes believe that we are looking at something really distant compared to the objects that are clear, sharp, and vibrant.

So next time you’re trying to compose a photo, before pressing the shutter, think again. Are you able to successfully illustrate the 3D-factor through any of the above mentioned illusion methods? In Part II of this article, I will explain the myth on perspective, zooming/framing, and distortion corrections.

About the Author
Sudipta Shaw is a software professional and a self-made photographer. He also likes to teach and mentor.

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