Pet peeve: Proper perspective practice

Enough Ps for now.

One common mistake I used to make a long time ago, and continually rears its head is the proper use of wide-angle and telephoto lenses. A common conversation goes like this:

Friend: Can you recommend a good wide-angle lens?
Me: Why, what do you want to use it for?
Friend: Sometimes I can’t fit everything in the frame, so I thought something wider might help.
Me: [wrings hands in the air, launches into a tirade]

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Dinner. Any closer and my lens would have been in the bowl of soup. Nikon D3, 14-24/2.8

Rule One: They are NOT to ‘get more into the picture’ or ‘get closer’. That’s absolutely the wrong way to shoot, and will result in far-away looking and very, very boring images.


It’s all about perspectives. A wide angle lens has a wide angle of view, as the name suggests. This means, that things closer to the lens will be exaggerated in perspective compared to things further away; simply because the foreground subjects of a given size occupy a larger percentage of the field of view. A telephoto lens compresses perspectives; which is to say, a mountain 5km away will appear to be about the same size as one 10km away, because the angle of view of the lens is narrow, and both mountains occupy similar proportions of it – despite the difference in subject distance. It also helps that because of the higher magnification of a long focal length, your subjects are naturally going to have to be much further away.

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Ipoh hills at sunset. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Rule Two: Choose your perspective before you choose your lens.

If you know how you want the composition of your frame to appear – specifically, the relative prominence of subjects and other supporting elements – then you’ll know whether you need to use a wide-angle (all about the main subject, the rest is required to give context), a telephoto (isolating the main subject, or the main subject is compressed against the background) or something between.

This is one of the great secrets of professional photographers. Look carefully at news or photojournalism images: they’re shot with wide lenses, with main subjects front and center – that’s because the lines of perspective converge on the main subject, and the background is diminished. Give it a try, and you’ll find your images a lot more powerful. MT


  1. Perspective is entirely determined by distance from the scene. Focal length makes no difference to the relative sizes and positions of items in the scene. The focal length determines angle of view, not perspective. A telephoto lens does not “compress perspective” It draws attention to the perspective of distant objects by narrowing the angle of view.

    • “A telephoto lens does not “compress perspective” It draws attention to the perspective of distant objects by narrowing the angle of view.”

      …which is effectively compression since foreground and background objects appear to be the same size.

  2. It’s true that standing in a fixed position and shooting with a WA can give the same perspective of a tele if one crops the frame, but it’s unfortunate that using say a 35mm prime and moving further away doesn’t simulate a wider-angle lens because of fixed “angle-of-view.” Would love to see a one-button-press lens technology that could instantly switch a 28mm to a 35mm without having to crop the sensor and/or compromise image quality. I guess that’s why we have zooms but having a prime that could accomplish this feat would be amazing.

  3. Boy, there are a lot of people not getting it here.

    Large part of this article was about the effect of CHANGING THE FOCAL LENGTH OF YOUR LENS, not about where to stand.

    I.e: f you are a photo-reporter, asssigned to a certain stand, or vantage point, how can you use the proper lens, with the proper focal length to achieve the result you want?

    Molch: if you are covering a ballgame, you are not going to walk onto the pitch to get into the proper spot for a nice close-up of the action (but if you are a tourist taking shap-shots: sure thing).

    This article is precise and to the point, and perfeclty correct. Re-read until it makes sense to you, do not try to change the world to fit your incorrect perception.

    I will spoon-feed it to you:

    Start out with a zoom-lens. Move back and zoom in. Then move forward and zoom out (for a main subject of approx same size on the actual photo).

    Next: stay with ONE focal length, take another picture up close and then one further away, and CROP in post-photo (again: until you have the subject appear to be about the same size). Take one good look at the RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN YOUR SUBJECT AND SURROUNDINGS, and if you still do not get it (focal length vs. distance): stick with snapshots.


    • Ming Thein,

      It just dawned on me: THIS IS FUNNY AS HELL!

      Just think about it: an article about people not understanding focal length….. followed by feedbacks, ONLY BY PEOPLE WITH NO UNERSTANDING OF FOCAL LENGTH, TELLING YOU THAT YOU ARE WRONG!

      Admit it: that is funny! Made me laugh.

      Anyway, thanks for a great site, and thanks for sharing.


      • Which is why I’ve decided not to reply 🙂

        • absolutely appreciate this article. Its interesting how many people don’t get this simple concept.

          one funny thing I do to ingrain the idea of perspective is to look at repeating patterns e.g. pillars – and see them *appear* nearer to each other the further away they are from me.

          When I’m out taking portraits, I’d plant the person beside the pillar and keep walking away until the perspective (compression) is correct and take the zoom lens out to frame the shot.

          • Hmm, I’m not sure how some guys here aren’t getting this. Ever seen that shot of the sun coming up over a san francisco street and it’s bigger than the buildings? You can’t get that effect by walking closer and using a wide angle.. That shot is taken from a distance with a long focal length. Focal length is as much a tool to create a particular effect with perspective as it is a tool save you getting closer with your feet. The differences are quite plain even between a 35mm and a 28mm..

            • People don’t realise it because the start with consumer zoom lenses – that one lens just has many looks. most people don’t focus on reviewing foreground background relationship when starting out too. For the longest time when I was starting out, I got terribly confused by what they mean by compression by telephoto also, because they didn’t show a reference of the same subject with different lenses.

              • That’s because they want you to buy more lenses! 🙂

                • Off topic: Ming, what do you think of using the PB-4 tilt-shift bellows with Mamiya/Hasselblad/Zeiss MF lenses for product photography? I thought it might be better than the PC-E lenses in IQ and tilt-shift capabilities. Thinking of setting that up for D800 next year Q1. seems cheaper and more versatile to me.

                  • Hard to say. It depends on the off-axis performance of those lenses and their resolving power on the D800; from my experiments with the Hasselblad V glass, it doesn’t quite seem to be up to it – especially at the edges.

                    • I was impressed by the sharpness of the Hassy 150mm F4 Carl Zeiss on my D700 though – that said it was without tilting/shifting. I’ll see how it goes, the PB 4 is on its way from the US. Considering the Mamiya 150mm F4 APO also. Its available on a local forum for only $400. That makes a 150mm Tilt Shift for about 700SGD… trying to get the Mamiya 80mm F2.8 for greater magnification too (:

                    • Center zones are good; especially on the teles. Off center…well, they’re not that hot on some of the lenses on the dedicated Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back, and that’s got big, forgiving pixels.

                    • I think the thread got too long, couldnt reply to it. Regardless, I bought a Mamiya 80mm F2.8 N Sekor C yesterday night. testing it with a reverse macro extension, sharpness appears to be there on a D700 but the contrast isn’t quite there.

                      here’s my hasty shot with it:
                      no sharpening. + 10 clarity in LR 5

                    • It’d be useful in high contrast situations then. And in other cases, that’s what postprocessing is for.

                    • great, thanks!

                    • Taildraggin says:

                      OT: My Hassy on Nikon experiences have generally been positive – the 60 & 150 resolution exceeding my equivalent Nikon a bit, with better contrast and wonderful color rendition. The 250 was best at 5-10m, only even at infinity, with same (lower) contrast. All in all, results are about as expected and confirmed by others – adapting Hassy to Nikon is fun, but not very practical.

                      This article by Circala gives pause to any adapters:

                    • I’ve been trying to say that about adaptors for ages, but people don’t believe me – after all, ‘if it’s a LEICA lens – it MUST be good!’ 😉

                      Optical synergies with the sensor pack can’t be underrated – it now becomes an important optical component since they also have microlenses.

                      I find the 4/120 Makro-Planar is excellent too. My 80 and 50 FLE are so-so.

                    • hmm… I’ve since got a 80mm Mamiya Sekor C N and it looks terrible off axis. Pleased to report that a relatively cheap 105mm F4.5 Componar actually works pretty well on my D700. (I intended to get the Componon but in my excitement of finding that lens new in Singapore, I bought the Componar thinking it was the same thing. Cock eye…)

                      The bellows add so much variability to the lens alignment I’m not too worried about it. but I guess my expectations are quite different or the 12mp on D700 doesn’t reveals flaws that much. I’ll worry about it when I get my D800… then I’ll test it with the APO Rodagons at F8 and see if I should need the PC-E lenses (which adds its own problems of going to 1:2 magnification and I’m guessing extensions are no better than adapters in their precision)

                    • sorry, used wrong account. it is the same guy here (:

                    • facepalm. I realise I have been doing it for some time now. hahaha…

                    • Haha, no worries.

                    • The D700 is very forgiving of pretty much any lens; I’m sure that 12MP FF sensor was a sweet spot which we’ve long since blown past with the 24 and 36MP models. The D800E is very, very unforgiving indeed…even of its own native lenses.

  4. Fred Mueller says:

    actually nothing that you are shooting changes perspective at all if you yourself do not move – a WA shot of distant mountains cropped will have exactly the same perspective as the tele shot … its only with subjects closer at hand that we can actually change perspective significantly, by getting close or moving away AND then using different focal lengths to accommodate the necessary difference in included angle, but if you stand in one spot and simply change focal length, there is no perspective change at all, only a difference of included angle … so in reality, it is your actual physical position relative to objects that controls perspective, not anything inherent in lenses wide or long …

  5. So here’s my pet peeve:
    “A telephoto lens compresses perspectives…”
    No it doesn’t. Standing farther away compresses perspectives.

    • Depends what you define as perspective. For a given subject magnification, a telephoto compresses foreground and background objects into being similarly sized to the main subject. A wide doesn’t.

      • Wouter De Smedt says:

        The human eye has a fixed focal length, so moving farther or closer changes perspective. A camera can have different focal lengths for the same image area, with which these perspective changes can be simulated. Simulation is the keyword here, as far as I can understand.

        • Our eyes have a fixed focal length, but we have far more sophisticated processing that allows us to focus on a very narrow portion of the scene, or a wider one, with no apparently loss in resolution. Cameras can’t do this.

      • I’m with Molch here. Perspective is changed with your feet. The reason a telephoto compresses foreground and background is because you stand further back than you would with a wide, it has nothing to do with the focal length! By moving back, you change the relative distance between camera and subject, versus subject and background.
        You actually said it yourself, “for a given subject magnification”, which implies moving when the focal length is changed.
        This is actually really easy to test. Take a picture with a telephoto lens. Stand in the same spot and aim the camera at the same subject with a wide angle lens. Zoom in, or crop the wide shot so you have the same framing as the telephoto image, and you will find that perspective is the same.
        Perspective is how objects appear in relation to other objects, and magnification does not change this. If one tree is slightly to the left of another tree, I think you will find it will always be like that no matter how much you magnify, as long as you stand in the same spot.
        Two images to illustrate perspective change, irrelevant to focal length:
        Same lens, same focal length, but different distances (cropped in post to match) gives quite a different view.

      • Wouter De Smedt says:

        This sophisticated processing you talk about is the fact the brain can focus attention on part of the visual field, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to say with the word simulation. When you use a tele you simulate focusing your attention on something far away and thus taking up a small portion of the visual field, when using a wide angle you simulate broadening the focus of attention to include more of the visual field, which is indeed a wondrous characteristic of the brain and eyes working together. It’s probably a more subjective take on the topic, but I really like the fact that these discussions can take place here. Much gratitude to you MT!

        • That would make sense. I remember reading once that the optical system in our eyes is in fact extremely primitive – single element, not very uniform lens, some liquid and a curved sensor – but the processing is massively clever to make up for it. For instance, our retinas have limited resolving power due to the size of the cells, but we make up for that by having muscles that vibrate/ scan the eyeball across the field of view so we are constantly ‘stitching’ an image – the brain does the rest, all in real time.

          I wanted to create this site so discussions like this could take place in an environment that was both friendly and objective/ knowledgeable – glad to know I’ve succeeded 🙂

      • You’re wrong with this statement too.

        A wide angle lens does the same thing for the same perspective (=using the same viewpoint). If you had infinite resolving capacity in the wide angle image and magnified the crop area corresponding to the field of view of the zoom lens, you’d see the same “compression” in that magnified crop as the crop would be the identical two-dimensional projection of the three-dimensional scene captured with the telephoto lens.

        It’s all math. Focal length has nothing to do with perspective/linear perspective. I summed it up here as I couldn’t bear these misconceptions about perspective anymore:

    • Georg Panzer says:

      This is a semanic disagreement. Wikipedia lists the different meanings of the term perspective, and both Molch´s and Ming´s use are listed. Nikon, by the way, name their tilt-shift lenses for perspection controll (PC) lenses.

      • The property that makes a PC lens a PC lens is its ability to move parallel to the image sensor. As the image is actually created in the lens and then projected onto the sensor, by moving the lens you change the perspective. It has nothing to do with the focal lengths, it’s all about the viewpoint and the distance of the lens to the subject.

    • Hi Molch, you’re absolutely right about this.

      And this is easy to prove (even without doing the proper math on the theory).

      Just set up a camera on a tripod, arrange two or more example objects in a scene that is covered by both a wide angle view and a telephoto view and take a shot from the same tripod mounted viewpoint at a wide angle focal length and at a telephoto focal length and compare the “distortion” and “compression” on the common crop among both frames. You will see that they’re absolutely identical, regardless of focal length.

      I did this and you can check it here:

      Neither perspective compression nor perspective distortion are features of a specific focal length, they only depend on the distance of the lens to the subject (and its background).

      From a specific point of view, all focal lengths have the same amount of “compression” or distortion”.


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