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