Perspective and Focal Length in Photography

I get so many 'clicks' on this page from people searching for photographic perspective techniques that I decided to add to it. Click the button to see a page illustrating subject-to-camera distance as it relates to photographic (and visual) perspective. I have two examples. The first set is head-and-shoulders protraits at three distances using various lens focal lengths. The second set is architectual or geometrical perspective again at three distances with different focal length lenses.

HANDY TIPS for pratical application of perspective and lens focal length:
1. Try to find a location that gives you the desired view of the scene.
2. When you find the best location for desired perspective and view of the scene, select a lens focal length that will include all the scene and provide the largest image possible.
3. If you have to incude more that you want because you don't have the right focal length, just plan on cropping and enlarging later.
4. The perspective of the human head and shoulders is usually best from about 8 feet. A focal length of about 80mm will crop and enlarge the head and shoulder area to 35mm full frame size at that distance.
5. Go in close for weird 'distorted' views of chin and nose.
6. Move way back to produce the effect of a small face on a big head.

Photographic Perspective Photo Examples


To illustrate the effect of camera-to-subject distance on perspective, photos using lenses of various focal lengths should be made from the same location. I made one photo using a 135mm telephoto and then one using a 50mm or 35mm.

I then enlarged the central area of the photo made with the wider angle lens by using photo software to crop the area I wanted and to resize it to match the telephoto image size. It is evident that the cropped wide-angle image at the lower right and the telephoto image above it are practically identical; only the subjects have moved. The full frame of the wide-angle photo is included below for comparison.

Normal Cropped Normal
Again, the two images at the bottom were both made from the same negative. The cropped and enlarged image on the right exhibits the same perspective as the image above it that was made with the telephoto lens. If you look closely at the positions of my wife, son, and daughter in the two lower images, you will see that those images are from the same negative while the one above is from a different. The point is that perspective depends upon subject to camera distance and not lens focal length.

Wide Angle A 'wide-angle' (35mm) lens was used for this photograph and the camera was near the scene. My shadow on the car indicates how close I was. The perspective of this view is what one would expect from a position near the main object in the scene. The 35mm lens was necessary on the 35mm camera to get the desired angle to include all of the object.

The automobile is a 1966 Barracuda that I bought new. It ran for 160,000 miles and then a couple of exhaust valves burned. (It had 'solid' lifters and apparently I was not deligent in keeping them adjusted.) It's sitting in the garage now. The re-worked heads have not been put back on. I guess I'll pull the engine one day (my sons will help) and get it overhauled and running again.

Telephoto The center photo was made with what is considered to be a 'normal' lens for a 35mm camera. It was a 50 or 55mm lens. The same area of the scene is covered, but from a position farther away. My shadow indicates how far I had moved; not how much time had passed. It is evident that as I moved away from the scene the objects in the background 'loom up,' appearing to be relatively larger in the normal and tele-photo views than in the wide-angle view. The longer lens focal lengths narrowed the angle of view to crop and enlarge the area of interest in the scene. I moved much further away for the third photo and the change in perspective is obvious. Again a longer focal length was used to crop and enlarge the area of interest. At first glance it appears that the focal lengths of the various lenses have caused the differeces in perspective, but if you look again at the photos at the top of the page you will see that this is not the case.

Of what practical significance is all this? Partically none! Although it is possible to enlarge and crop a wide-angle photo so that it looks identical to a photo from the same location made with a telephoto lens, the resulting image has much lower resolution and a custom enlarging process is required. And more than that, I don't know of any way to get a wide-angle photo without a wide-angle lens. (P.S. I have recently seen some discussion about digital "stitching" to get a wide-angle view using a normal lens. I have done that for distant panoramas and I'm including a sample. I have also used the old manual "cut-and-past" technique for panoramas.) If you have any tips or comments on this, leave them in my guestbook.

Sydney Skyline

I read an article on perspective in one of the popular photography magazines in the 1970s and did these photos in 1978 to demonstrate it for myself.
Pinhole Photography - An old pinhole photograph is compared to a modern 35mm photo of the re-created scene with an explanation of the process for making a large-format pinhole photograph using photo enlarging paper.

Photographic Perspective - Our experience with photography gives us the impression that the focal length of the lens will create a particular perspective in the resulting photograph. However, the photos shown here illustrate that it is camera-to-subject distance, not lens focal length that makes the difference.

Stereo Photography - A stereo photo pair is displayed with instruction for viewing in 3-D by the "cross-eyed" technique. There is also a brief account of my experience with stereo photo systems and links to several excellent and comprehensive sites on stereo photography.

Film Resolution - A portrait of a young woman and enlargements of her eyes demonstrate the degree of resolution I was able to obtain with B&W 35mm film.

Bridal Portrait - A portrait of a young bride and enlargements of her eyes demonstrate the degree of resolution achieved with 35mm colorprint film.