The Third Dimension in Photography

Redwoods and rhododendrons—telephoto view
Redwoods and rhododendrons—telephoto view

A Tale of Two Photographs

Reading David duChemin’s eBook A Deeper Frame got me thinking about how we perceive depth and space in photographs, and how lens choice affects that perception.

David says that because photography turns “a world of three dimensions into two,” that “if we aim to create photographs that create within the reader a deeper, fuller, longer experience, it falls to us to recreate that depth."

There’s no question that wide-angle lenses are better tools for creating a sense of depth in a photograph than telephoto lenses. Telephotos make objects appear closer together than they really are, compressing space and flattening the perspective. Wide-angle lenses make objects appear farther apart than they really are, expanding the sense of space, and, if used correctly, creating an illusion of depth.

These two photographs from my recent trip to the redwoods illustrate the difference. Both images include the same rhododendrons and redwoods.

In the top image I stepped back with a telephoto lens (130mm) and isolated part of the bush against two redwood trunks. It looks like the rhododendrons are only a few feet in front of the trees, but they’re not. They’re at least 20 feet away—illustrating the compression effect of the telephoto lens. The sense of depth is minimal.

Redwoods and rhododendrons—wide-angle view
Redwoods and rhododendrons—wide-angle view

In the next photograph (above) I moved underneath the rhododendron bush and looked up. The focal length was 22mm, and here there’s a considerable sense of depth. What creates this illusion? First, there’s the size difference between the foreground and background. Even if you’ve never been to a redwood grove before, everyone knows that trees are bigger than flowers and leaves. Yet in the photograph the flowers and foreground leaves look relatively large compared to the trees. This gives us a visual cue that the rhododendron bush must be much closer to the camera than the redwoods. Second, the long, converging lines of the trunks, leading to an invisible vanishing point in the sky, create perspective, enhancing the illusion of depth, distance, and, in this case, height.

Which image is better? That’s hard to say. The wide-angle version certainly shows the height and size of the redwoods better. But the telephoto image is simpler, cleaner, and communicates the essential ideas—redwoods, rhododendrons, and fog—more directly. It even conveys some sense of place, although probably not at much as the wide-angle photograph.

Inclusion or Isolation?

David calls wider lenses “inclusive,” and telephotos “isolation lenses.” I think that sums things up pretty well, and points out the benefits and drawbacks to each.

Wider lenses automatically tend to include more, and if used well, invite the viewer into the photograph. On the other hand, the single most common photographic mistake is including too much in the frame—cluttering up the image with extraneous junk. And that’s all too easy to do with short focal lengths. It takes skill to use wide-angle lenses well because it’s so hard to keep the compositions simple.

Of course it takes skill to use telephoto lenses also, but longer focal lengths encourage you to simplify, and include only the most essential elements of a scene. The word “isolation” usually has a negative connotation. But in photography our task is to take an infinite and chaotic world, put a frame around a little piece of it, and make that rectangle communicate a mood, or a feeling—or at least be interesting. Isolating the most essential elements of an idea, the ones that tell the story most vividly, can be a good thing.

Other Ways to Create Depth

Of course David rightly points out several ways to create a sense of depth that aren’t lens-specific, such as through focus, color, light, and the emotional power of the subject.

I’ll point out another: atmosphere. My favorite photograph from my recent trip to the redwoods was made with a moderately-wide focal length (33mm), and while I think it has a considerable sense of depth, it doesn’t use optics, or perspective, to create that. The fog does that almost automatically, making the trees fade and recede into the distance. Haze can do the same thing in expansive landscapes.

When "Flat" is a Good Thing

But flat images, without much sense of depth, can also be effective. Think of M.C. Escher’s “Symmetry” drawings (click the link and go to "Picture Gallery," and then "Symmetry"). Here’s an example from my own portfolio, where I used a 200mm lens to compress the space, flatten the perspective, and create a pattern out of ice and water. Such images tend to be more abstract, and less about mood than about creating a visual surprise, but I like them on that level.

Melting ice, Gaylor Lakes. A 200mm lens compressed space and created an abstract pattern.
Melting ice, Gaylor Lakes. A 200mm lens compressed space and created an abstract pattern.

And here’s another example—a very different one—of how compressing space can work to your advantage. These light-painted cacti are actually much farther apart than they look. The red one just right of center, for example, is at least thirty feet from the central cactus. A short telephoto lens (150mm on 6x4.5 cm film) compressed the space and brought these cacti into closer visual proximity with each other, creating a cohesive composition out of widely-scattered elements.

Saguaro Cacti at night—another example of telephoto compression
Saguaro Cacti at night—another example of telephoto compression

A sense of depth can certainly add another dimension to a photograph (pardon the pun). But the simplicity and flatter perspectives created by telephoto lenses can also be effective arrows in the photographer’s quiver. One isn’t better than the other—it’s more a matter of choosing the right tool for the job at hand, the perspective that conveys your idea best. Learn to use both these tools well—to create a sense of depth with wide-angle lenses, and compress space with telephotos—and you’ll become a more effective communicator with your camera.

I tend to use long focal lengths more often than short ones (I wrote about that last August), but reading David’s book may make me rethink that, and try to incorporate more depth into my images. What about you? Do you find yourself gravitating to one perspective or another, or do you make “inclusive” and “isolating” photographs with equal frequency? Do you think about depth in your images—about creating the illusion of depth, or deliberately flattening the perspective? Post a comment and let us know.

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: Capturing a Mood, Does Size Matter?

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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    Michael, I enjoy your photos and esthetics in your description. But I wish you would cut through the commonly-accepted idea that lens focal length has something to do with perspective. Lenses don’t know anything about perspective – that happens in our brains. Lenses just magnify or diminish a subject – they have no intelligence. Perspective is the apparent location of objects as we see them, and that’s what your article treats, so in my view it’s important to separate distance effects from focal length effects because you’re changing both at the same time.

    It’s distance from the subject(s) that changes our perspective. Now, coincidentally, we want to change focal length to magnify or diminish the subject to fill the same frame. But it’s wrong to say “telephotos flatten (subjects)” and “wide-angles deepen (subjects).” They don’t.

    Experiment with taking – from the same distance (tripod) – a moderate telephoto shot and the same subject with a moderate wide-angle. Crop the latter to the same frame as the telephoto shot, then overlay the two in Photoshop. Set Blend to Difference and align them carefully. You’ll see that the frame turns black, meaning that one is exactly the same as the other (“Difference” is zero).

    If this doesn’t prove that the focal length doesn’t change perspective, I don’t know how else to convince you. Alternatively, if you move in or out on the subject then this overlay experiment will show that the two photos are different, irrespective of focal length changes.

    Ansel’s “Hernandez” moon/mountain photo could have been taken with a wide-angle lens and cropped – the result would be the same as his telephoto shot. When you’re far away from two subjects that are close they appear flattened regardless of the focal length.

    In your presented examples in the forest you gave this truth away by saying you moved in or out for each shot. That’s when the perspective changed, not because of the lens.

    Help people understand this correctly. Thanks. DKD

    Hi Don, good to see your name pop up, I hope you are enjoying the unseasonably warm weather in Annapolis! I actually dealt with a lot of what you discuss here in my recent post on using wide angle lenses ( I wouldn’t say that I “corrected” what Michael said in this post, as I am sure he is aware of all the things you talk about in your comment. I think that he probably choose to simplify the issue so that he didn’t need to get into a lengthy discussion about optics and perspective. You are correct that focal length doesn’t have an impact on perspective per se; rather, how different focal lengths are used impacts perspective.

    Not to confuse the issue further, but here’s an additional thought, one that may give more credence to what Michael has said: a lens doesn’t just simply “magnify or diminish” a subject – when using a lens and camera to take a photo, we are also reducing a three dimensional scene to only two dimensions. You are correct that the perspective distortion effect that Michael talks about is really a result of where one stands in relation to his or her subject, but I think it is fair to say that this flattening of dimensions contributes to some extent to the feeling that there is a distortion of perspective. Our brains perceive object scale not based on relative size alone, but also based on our perception of depth and how far away an object is. When we remove this third dimension – when we remove depth – by taking a photo, we create a result that is subtly different from the way our brains perceive the scene in reality, and this difference is arguably more apparent the farther away our focal length is from a “normal” perspective. We lose the visual cue that distance and depth provide, and are left only with other visual cues such as relative size, which are significantly imacted by relative position to a subject and focal length choice.

    For example, a massive mountain in the background may be “diminished” in size by the wide field of view of a wide angle lens, and if you get close enough to a foreground clump of flowers, the flowers will look larger than the mountain in the resulting two-dimensional photograph. But when you are there photographing the scene, with all of your three dimensional perceptions intact, the mountains still look big to you no matter where you stand.

    By the way, this effect is known as “forced perspective.” A really good example of the use of forced perspective is from the movie trilogy The Lord of the Rings. To make the actors playing the hobbits look smaller than their counterparts playing tall humans, elves, etc., they would often film a scene with the actor playing the hobbit standing several feet behind the actor playing the taller character. As long as the actors faced the right way, the resulting perspective distortion made it look like they were talking to one another, and that one was twice as tall as the other. If we had been standing there watching the scene filmed, our brains would have noted the size difference between the two (one actor would indeed appear smaller because he was father away), but our brains would also note the fact that one actor was standing twenty feet farther away than the other actor. Our three dimensional perspective would thus compensate, allowing us to correctly judge that the actors were roughly the same height. But when rendered in a two dimensional medium, the forced perspective result is that Gandalf towers over Frodo. If folks are interested in learning more, Wikipedia has a good discussion on forced perspective:

    Arguably this is nothing more than an optical illusion, but when talking about depth in two-dimensional art, all of it is an optical illusion. The bottom line is that what I think Michael is getting at is that photos taken with a telephoto lens often look “flat” whereas photos taken with a wide angle lens often look the opposite. The end result is something that looks different from the way the human eye/brain normally perceives things, and I think it is fair to say that it has to do with more than just how the lenses are used.

    Anyway, just my two cents on the issue.

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