Understanding perspective in photography will help you choose compelling compositions and give you the artistic freedom to create interesting effects.
Perspective in photography is the spatial relationship between objects in your image. Perspective is changed by moving closer to or farther away from your subject.
Moving closer to your subject makes less of the image appear to be of the subject and adds depth (adjusting for magnification). Moving away from your subject makes more of the image appear to be of the subject and removes depth (adjusting for magnification).
Focal length doesn’t affect perspective at all. It merely changes the amount of magnification. To demonstrate this, I took two pictures the same distance away from my subject (paint brushes). One picture was taken at 28mm, and the other was taken at 84mm. The same settings were used for both.
I then cropped the 28mm image, so it matched the frame of the one taken at 84mm. They look the same except for depth of field (focal length affects depth of field). This example proves that focal length doesn’t affect perspective, because the perspective in the two images taken at different focal lengths is the same after adjusting for magnification by cropping.
Focal length doesn’t change perspective, but it is vital to showing changes in perspective. The best way to demonstrate this is to take pictures at different distances from your subject, while keeping it the same size in your frame.
The same thing can be done by cropping in images taken at the same focal length from different distances, but this is not how photographers use perspective practically. Cropping is unnecessary work and hurts image quality.
When you’re closer to the subject, use a lower focal length (less magnification). Less of the image should appear to be of the subject and there should appear to be more depth. Moving farther away will cause you to need a higher focal length (more magnification) to maintain the size of the subject. Being farther away will cause more of the image to appear to be of your subject and reduce depth. The following perspective example images demonstrate this concept.
Perspective is also changed by moving your camera up and down. This simple move makes for drastic changes in perspective. Remembering this aspect of perspective is one of the easiest ways to provide an interesting point of view and add creativity to your shots.
Keeping the horizon line in the same place, when you get closer to the ground:
There is a great deal of context and depth in below the horizon line. It is easy to tell spatial distance in the image. Objects appear to have a normal height. There is an even distribution of visual weight. This is a very natural perspective. The scene looks like one would expect if they were taking a walk.
The horizon line is in the same place (go ahead and check), but more of the image appears to be of the sky. This is because almost all the spatial context in the image is gone. Almost half of the image is taken up by the space before the first set of trees, leaving little room for context and depth. Most objects in the image are now above the horizon line. This is a non-standard perspective that gives a point of view few would normally see.
An image has zero-point perspective when there are no converging lines in the images. Converging lines give images depth, so some zero-point perspective images have none. This is not always the case. Natural scenes such as landscapes often don’t have straight, rigid lines, but still appear to have depth. This is because the appearance of depth also results from changes in color and size, having multiple planes, and farther away objects losing detail due to haze and distance.
An image has one-point perspective when all lines converge on a single point and all surfaces facing the viewer have their true shape (a square looks like a square). The vertical position of the vanishing point is determined by the photographer’s eye level. If the photographer is closer to the ground, the lines will converge higher in the image. If the photographer is higher, the lines will converge lower in the image.
An image has two-point perspective when all lines converge on one of two vanishing points on the horizon line. Like with one-point perspective, the vertical height of the vanishing point is determined by the camera’s height. All the lines in the image must converge on one of the two vanishing points, but the vanishing points can be outside the image.
It’s easy to tell if your points don’t converge correctly, even if they are outside the confines of your image, because if they’re incorrect, there will be significant distortion. The main causes of failing to get perfect two-point perspective are taking the shot from the wrong point and/or not leveling your camera.
Because no shapes face the viewer directly in two-point perspective, they do not appear as their true form. They appear elongated, with the part of the shape closest to the viewer appearing normal, and slowly squeezing together toward one of the two vanishing points. If the lines of rectangles or squares are followed to the vanishing point, they will appear to be a triangles.
An image has three-point perspective when all lines converge on one of three vanishing points. Two on the horizon line, one either above or below the subject. Three-point perspective in photography is achieved by tilting your camera either up or down in an otherwise two-point perspective shot.
Tilting your camera up will cause the third vanishing point to be above the subject. Tilting down will cause the third vanishing point to be below the subject.
Three-point perspective can look rather odd on buildings. The normally parallel vertical lines will converge on a vanishing point, making the building look wrong.
Images don’t have to be taken exactly at either one or two-point perspectives. You can shoot anywhere in between to get whatever artistic effect you want. You can also pair this with tilting your lens to add an additional vanishing point, making it 3ish-point perspective to get intentional distortion.
1.5ish point perspective is more of a conceptual idea to get out of the mindset of needing to stand in specific places. The above image is really in three-point perspective because it has three vanishing points.
Don’t worry too much about standing in a specific place because it’s one- or two-point perspective exactly. Take the image from wherever it looks best. Just remember what these different perspectives do to your image, so you can get the look you want.
There is a lot of fun to be had with perspective. Getting out of the mindset of just taking a picture from wherever your face currently is will lead to endless opportunities for creativity. When you’re out shooting, try to remember what moving closer/farther away, moving up/down, and tilting your lens will do to your perspective. Also try to approach your shots thinking about zero-, one-, two-, or three-point perspective, and how that will make your photo look.
You don’t have to travel to an exotic locale or take hours to find the right picture. You can take beautiful pictures right now in your own backyard.