Perspective and Scale in Landscape Photography

Perspective and Scale in Landscape Photography

  • Looking at a landscape photograph, it's not difficult to pick out which parts of the scene were close to the camera and which farther away. Often you can even estimate with some accuracy the approximate distances of nearby objects. Most of us take these skills for granted, without really thinking too much about how it's possible to look at a picture that only exists in two dimensions, and visualize the third. It's precisely because we have so little trouble judging depth in photographs that it's worth examining how this discrimination is possible.

  • The distances between objects in photographs - their spatial relationships - are represented by a system that we call perspective. The geometry of perspective is not of interest to photographers, but some of the methods by which we infer distance from the flat print surface can be useful in a very practical sense. If you understand how perspective works, you can use this knowledge to control the appearance of depth in your photographs. For example, any photographer who owns a wide-angle lens can tell you that such lenses give an illusion of expanded space; not all of these photographers could tell you why, or could anticipate the circumstances under which the illusion would be most pronounced.

  • Most perspective effects work because we know that objects in the real world stay the same size whether we are close to them or-far away. The name that scientists give to this experience is "size constancy". If we relied solely on the raw information from our eyes, we'd get quite a different picture: houses and trees would grow as we walked towards them, and people passing by would expand and contract rather like inflating and collapsing balloons.

  • Of course this sounds ridiculous, but it's exactly what you see on a photograph: the farther away things are, the smaller they appear to be. For example, an avenue of poplar trees diminishes in size in the distance, giving a vivid sensation of receding subject planes.

  • The degree of shrinking with distance is affected by viewpoint. If you photograph the row of trees from a considerable distance, the spaces between them are insignificant compared to the distance between you and the avenue. The trees appear to diminish slowly in size, and so look closer together; this effect is called over constancy.

  • To fill the frame from a distant viewpoint you need to magnify the avenue of trees: you can do this either by using a telephoto lens, or by greatly enlarging the negative or transparency. It's viewpoint, though, not focal length that has changed the perspective.

  • The opposite effect occurs when you stand at the end of the avenue, between the first two trees. The nearest trees are vast in relation to the most distant trees, and the gaps between them appear to close up rapidly as the avenue continues. A wide-angle lens recreates the broad, sweeping view that you saw when turning your head to look up and down the avenue - so these lenses appear to expand perspective, giving a sensation of depth, or over constancy.

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