When a three-dimension object is translated onto a flat 2D artwork, like a photograph, our eyes use little clues to help us get our bearings. Those clues make up the perspective of the image. For example, the simplest is one point perspective photography where two parallel lines disappear in the distance. Our eyes know the lines are parallel, so the only way they could meet at a vanishing point is because they are getting farther away. Little clues like this help us understand a photograph.
There are many other types of perspective–but the word is also used to describe the position and direction from which the image is taken. It is an element of composition in that the photo can be taken from different angles. Here are 12 Photography Composition tips and techniques to help you get started. Photographers are always looking to take photographs with a fresh perspective.
What is Perspective Photography?
Perspective is a complicated topic in photography only because it can mean these different things. Most photographers bat the term around to mean how the photographer sees the scene. To change your perspective is to move the camera angle or to take a fresh approach.
But fundamentally, perspective refers to how the eye sees objects relating to one another. It's a natural process that gives us scale and reference, and we do it all the time without thinking about it.
Why is Perspective Important?
Understanding perspective photography is an excellent way to up your photo game. For one thing, you can begin to play with it in ways that few photographers understand. It can become a point of interest, or it can become the subject, as is the case in forced perspective photography.
Like many compositional elements, perspective is a natural reaction your audience will have to your work. It will be there whether you plan for it or not, so it benefits you to play with it and adjust it for the best results. It is also essential to understand so that you can identify when the perspective is skewed by something. If you know what's wrong, you can quickly fix it.
Types of Perspective
The different types of perspective in photography are how our eyes and brains notice that objects are closer or farther away in a photograph. We see these things all the time in day-to-day life, but we seldom think about them. If you study a scene closely enough, you will start to identify things that can give the impression of being farther away when they are not.
The most apparent type of perspective, and the one most familiar to photographers, is made when sets of parallel lines appear in the photo. Linear perspective occurs when the two parallel lines seem to converge as they get farther away from the viewer. Our brain knows that they are parallel and therefore never touch, but they appear to. So, they must be getting farther away.
Railroad tracks disappearing into the distance is an example of one point perspective photography. The same effect comes from standing on a bridge, a road, or a straight path. The sides make two parallel lines, and they converge at a vanishing point.
You can also create photos with multiple vanishing points. The same rules apply, but the lines that make them won't be parallel. In two point perspective photography, there are two vanishing points on a horizontal line. An example is standing at the corner of a building, where the corner is close to you, but the building's sides get farther away. In this example, the two point perspective photography vanishing points are at the edges of the photo, not in the center. Three point perspective can be created with triangle-shaped lines, with each apex having its own vanishing point.
Our brains have a rough idea of how big things are, and we take these ideas with us when we view a new photograph. This is why its usually desirable to include a person or a hand in a photograph, so the viewer can immediately get some sense of scale. We compare objects in the photo to things we know about, but our brains also know that big objects far away look small and small objects up close look big. This is the concept of diminishing scale.
Diminishing scale is easy to play with and distort in photography. When it's manipulated by the photographer to create an abstract or absurd photo, it's known as forced perspective photography. The Leaning Tower of Piza is a typical example, as tourists like to pose in front of it and pretend to hold it up. Are they huge people, or is the building a miniature? Another fun example is how models can hold up or pinch the sun at sunset. Is the sun a tiny marble? No, it's enormous, just really far away.
Lack of Detail or Obscuration
The atmosphere causes some visual anomalies that we are so used to seeing we don't give them any thought at all. This atmospheric perspective comes from particulate in the air that makes objects far away blurrier than those up close. An excellent example of this is driving on a foggy day. Things near your car's hood are sharp and clear, but the farther away something is, the less detail you can see.
In photography, reduction in contrast, colors, or sharpness can have the same effect. Even on beautiful days when the air is crystal clear, an object far away will have less detail.
Another clue our eyes notice is when objects overlap one another. If something is blocking another thing, it must be in front of it. As simple as that sounds, it's an important visual clue when we're trying to figure out a complicated scene. Imagine standing in a forest with trees all around. The trees come in various shapes and sizes–so that visual clue doesn't work. But the trees overlap one another here and there, so you can still tell which ones are closer to you.
10 Tips to Use Perspective in Photography
You can apply the above types of perspective to pretty much any photograph, but you are limited to the subjects in the scene. Understanding those types of perspective will help you see your images as you viewers will see them.
But perspective also refers to the angle at which the image was taken. All too often, photos are shot from eye level. It works, but there are so many other perspectives you can try in your photography. Changing your perspective can dramatically spice up a photo, making it more exciting and visually appealing. Most of the time, the simple act of moving your feet or bending down is all that's needed to make a considerable change.
Shoot from Hip Level
Street photographers know this trick well. Moving the camera to your hip changes the perspective slightly, in a barely noticeable way. But when two photos are shown side by side, the difference is more significant than you'd expect. It adds a more candid, off the cuff vibe.
Shoot Looking Up
The next thing to try is to shoot from ground level. This angle is a magnificent perspective shift when shooting images of pets or kids. But it also works for landscapes, street photos, architecture, and pretty much anything else.
From ground level, the camera can be angled for quite a few different aesthetics. It's excellent in landscapes to bring more focus and differentiation to the foreground. To do this, the camera is shot more or less horizontally to frame the photo. But you can also angle the camera up a bit and shoot as though you are laying down. Here are 25 great landscape photography tips that will help you make the most of your next photo expedition.
Shoot Looking Down
The opposite technique would be to shoot from above looking down. You can do it from your eye level or do it from a ladder or a tall building. Drones are the ultimate tools for adding a new perspective to your photography, and one of the coolest drone shots is the straight-down landscape. Do read our article on how to use drones for aerial photography.
Mirrors are a great way to change the look and aesthetics of a photograph. Mirrors in pictures can include all sorts of reflections, including shop windows and puddles. Reflections add a lot of visual interest to the image and serve to frame subjects and essential elements. They can help add symmetry too. Read our article if you would like to read more on symmetry in photography and ways to make your images more appealing and more impactful.
The great thing about including mirrors and reflections in photographs is that it lends a new look–something that most people would miss. Reflections in windows are nearly always there, everywhere we go. But we walk right by and seldom focus on them. We look through them or past them. When a good image is taken that uses these reflections, nearly everyone can identify with it and appreciate it.
Like mirrors, frames in images can help set a perspective for the viewer. They add scale to the image, and they draw the eye to the important elements. Frames in images come in all shapes and sizes. They can be made with anything that's handy, so don't limit yourself to actual frames. Doorways, buildings, trees, or architectural elements like arches or railings can all be used to frame photographs.
Shoot Through Objects
Another sort of framing occurs when you shoot through an object, like the slats of a fence or a clear aquarium. These are the ultimate perspective shifts for your viewer because they add just enough elements to make it appear like they are there, standing behind that fence looking through or tapping on that aquarium's glass.
A popular style of photography involves using clear glass balls. They are optically high quality, so they refract the image and create an almost fish-eye view of the world inside the glass marble. The marble can then be held or sat somewhere in the scene, and it becomes part of the overall composition.
Add Something for Scale
A finished image stands alone in the environment–there is nothing besides it for reference. This is why it's so important to include something identifiable for reference. The audience needs to have some references to identify what sort of place the photo was taken and how large it is. Is it zoomed in on a tiny spot, or are they looking at something huge? In nature, they would look around and what surrounds the scene. But in the photo, they have to figure it out based solely on what they see in the frame.
Sometimes, not knowing is a fun exercise, and the photographer can use the audience's confusion to help captivate them. Sometimes landscape artists like to focus on textures or rock formations that are abstract. When shown alone, they cannot identify precisely what they are or how big they are, but they are beautiful nonetheless.
Use the Right Lens
The length of your lens affects a lot more than how close you can make your subject appear. Telephoto lenses tend to compress the perspective in an image, so you can make things appear closer to one another than they are. Wide-angle lenses do the opposite, spreading out the elements in the frame to make them stand apart.
Plan how the focal length will affect the perspective before you shoot the picture. Long telephoto lenses can produce some interesting effects on their own. One good example is making the moon appear large in landscape photography. With careful positioning of the subjects, you can make the moon appear as the star of the show, even though it appears pretty tiny when compared to the landscape.
Play with Forced Perspective
As mentioned above, forced perspective photography is when the photographer intentionally manipulates the perspective of the image. You can make your models look like they're propping up buildings, or look like they're holding the sun or moon like a marble.
Forced perspective is all about using scale to fool the viewer. The types of perspective described above can be used to your advantage to manipulate the world in a way that tricks the viewer's eye.
That's why these photographs are so appealing. They're captivating simply because the eye can't figure them out at first glance. When we're tricked, we're drawn in as we try to figure out what the photographer did.
Taking forced perspective images is usually a simple matter of placing the subjects in the right places relative to the camera. The big thing needs to be far away to appear small, and the small thing needs to be placed up close to appear big. The depth of field needs to be carefully controlled because if it's too shallow, one of the objects will be out of focus.
Manipulate Perspective in Post
Editing software has a few tools built in to help you fix perspective issues. From basic warping fixes to complex resizing of individual elements, you can use these tools to alter the perspective after the fact. Most of the time, these items will be used to correct an error, but creative photographers have been making more and more photo art with these tools.
It's good to keep this in mind so that you can look for and fix perspective issues in Photoshop. Sure, it's better to catch things at the time of the shoot and get it right the first time. But having the option available means that you know what you can fix and what you can't, and if something didn't translate quite as you'd hoped in the image, you can still try to make it work.
With a little practice, Photoshop's perspective warp tool can be used for all sorts of useful things. If you are placing new objects in a composite project, you can alter their perspective to match the background photo. You can take a telephoto image and warp it slightly to make it appear like a wide-angle picture. Or you can correct perspective issues in architecture photography by warping buildings and realigning them.
Perspective is only challenging because it means so many different things. But if you take each type of perspective on its own, these are simple elements to include in your photos every day. Many photographers do these things and include these elements in their photos without thinking about it, but the more you understand the concept and plan how they will be depicted in the final image, the more control you have over your photography. It does take practice to successfully figure out how to use perspective in your pictures. But once you do, you control how your viewers experience your artwork.
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