Photo Composition: Using Perspective

Do you want to use perspective better in your photos? Perspective as it relates to photography can sometimes be a tricky thing. In this photography tip, we will have a look at why this might be and how you can make using perspective simple.

The potential confusion about perspective and photography often arises from the word’s two different meanings: “mental viewpoint (or perception)” and “depth and distance”. Both are relevant in photography as we’ll explore below.

Mental Viewpoint (Perception)
Let’s start with perspective as “mental viewpoint”, since it is the meaning that many people think of first. This meaning deals not just with how the subject is viewed physically, but also with how the subject is intended to be perceived.

In this way, the perspective of the subject is how the photographer wants the subject to be viewed mentally by others. Or, in the case of a portrait, perhaps how the subject him- or herself wants to be perceived. In other words, what is the photographer trying to tell viewers about the subject through physical perspective?

Say, for instance, that you wanted to show the tension between the natural beauty of a stream running through a park and human activity in the park. You may choose to shoot the stream from a low angle and have an empty soda can floating in it as the main focal point.

On the other hand, suppose you want to portray the natural peacefulness of the stream. In this case, you would likely choose to exclude any indication that people have been there at all. The subject may be the same exact stream in the same exact location, but each shot from a different perspective with dramatically different intentions and results.

Depth and Distance
As a technical term in art, “perspective” means the method of painting or drawing which results in objects and scenes having apparent depth and distance. In other words, that they appear to be three-dimensional.

The photographer paints with light instead of pigments. So, how does he or she show that an object has depth and distance? The absence of light is shadow, so the photographer balances highlights with shadows to show depth.

If you have ever looked at a photo that failed to capture your attention or one that looked dull and lifeless, it was probably due to a lack of contrast between light and dark. People will often talk about a photo being flat or the lighting being flat. This is what they are referring to, the lack of contrast and thus of depth.

And how do you show distance? Distance is most often manipulated by the use of various amounts of zoom or different length lenses. A wide-angle lens will cause the perspective to be over-emphasized, while a long telephoto lens will reduce the sense of distance. Most often, distance is portrayed by the placement of objects in the scene.

For example, in a landscape photo, choosing to include objects in the foreground, middleground and background establishes distance. Where you choose to place the focal point also establishes distance.

Photo by subscriber Clay Schnurr.

Putting It All Together in Your Photos

Focal Point: This is the exact point at which the camera is focused at maximum sharpness. When looking into the viewfinder it is usually marked in the center with either a circle or a set of brackets. It is also the point at which the eye of the viewer looking at the photo should travel to first.

It is what the photographer wants the viewer to look at and understand. It is not necessary to place the focal point dead center of the composition, nor is it desirable at all times.

Sometimes the photographer may wish to place the focal point off to one side and not have it in the center of the frame. However, with an autofocus camera the critical focus point must be in the center.

So, to change the position of the focal point, press the shutter button halfway to lock the focus on the subject, then while still holding the button in, reposition the focal point before finally pressing the button all the way.

The lack of an obvious focal point is generally the biggest stumbling point found in amateur snapshots. The viewer looks at the photo and can’t find the one most important thing to look at. What was the photographer thinking? In photos without an obvious focal point, the viewer is left to figure this out for himself.

On the other hand, the inclusion of an obvious focal point can be a powerful tool that supports your efforts to give your photos perspective.

In-Camera Cropping: This means getting rid of the things that distract from the subject. So many times we get our pictures back and see all sorts of things we wish were not there. It is often, of course, possible to crop later using photo editing software, but this takes extra time and leaves fewer options. Let’s look at the picture below. Is there anything in the photo that shouldn’t be there?

First, let’s “read” the photo to see what is there and what it tells us. The people tell us that they are ranchers. The truck tells us that they are modern ranchers and probably rely as much on their vehicles in their work as they do their horses.

Do they have horses? The saddles in the back of the truck tell us that they have either just finished riding or that they will ride. The ice chest in the truck tells us that they have probably been out there all day or will be out their all day and need to eat and drink.

Now, notice especially the long shadows and glare on the window. These things contribute to the perspective of the photo by telling us that it is probably late afternoon. The position of the people and the way the photo is cropped to enhance perspective shows us that the focus of their attention is off somewhere in the distance to the left.

Everything in the photo tells some part of the story. The cropping is tight and gives us just enough information so that we can understand what the photographer was trying to show. The title of this photo could easily be “Done for the Day”. And the photographer obviously closely considered how to crop the photo to get the right perspective on things.

When it comes to in-camera cropping, always be on the lookout for things that will diminish the impact of your photos. Move around, survey different angles and think about what you are doing before snapping the picture. Sometimes the best vantage point may be only a step away.

Learn to crop out things in the viewfinder before they find their way into the picture.

With these simple hints and techniques in mind, perspective will start to become a instinctive part of your photos and you’ll be pleased with the results.

Original article edited and republished with the permission of the author, Wendy Folse as well as Photography Composition Library.

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Wendy Folse with Kris Butler

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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