Story and photography by F.M. Kearney
It’s something that usually isn’t given much conscious thought, yet it’s like that one obscure ingredient that can make or break a recipe. Its effects aren’t as obvious as your choice of aperture or shutter speed, but nevertheless, it is just as important. What I’m referring to is perspective.
Contrary to popular belief, your perspective is controlled by your viewpoint — not the focal length of your lens. The only reason the perspective of wide-angle and zoom lenses is so different from normal is because they “view” drastically more or less of the scene. Focal lengths ranging from the mid-teens to the early twenties can provide dramatic landscape views. This is great if you want to include a very close foreground and a background that might be miles away. Sometimes, however, a scene might call for just the opposite kind of perspective.
I rarely use my zoom lens for its intended purpose. More often than not, I can easily walk right up to the subject and shoot it at a much shorter focal length. But, a longer lens delivers a compressed perspective. This is because less of the scene is in view. The foreground, middle-ground and background all appear to be closer than they actually are, providing a much tighter composition.
I came across the scene above while walking along Hessian Lake in Bear Mountain State Park in upstate New York one winter. I was several hundred feet away when I noticed the small rock in the middle of the lake and its proximity to the shoreline on the right. The trees in the background were approximately the same distance away from the rock, and their reflection in the calm water helped to complete the shot. To tie all of this together in a nice neat package, I photographed it at a focal length of 180mm. I then started walking closer to the scene, along a path running parallel to the lake. The closer I came the more my viewpoint changed, and the composition began to break apart. As the length of the reflection diminished, the distance between the rock and the distant shoreline increased. When I was fully upon the scene, there really wasn’t much of a scene left. All of the elements that originally made this shot so interesting were now scattered all over the place.
In addition to being useful for compressing large amounts of space, the effects of a long lens are even more noticeable on a much smaller scale. However, using the long lens this way requires a certain amount of previsualization. The sage bush above is the type of subject most people would walk right by without even noticing. In fact, I almost did that myself until I took closer note of the light. The front of the bush was in the shade, but its rear was lit by a bright shaft of sunlight. A few pockets of daylight were peeking through in the background. It was the typical type of lighting you would expect on a sunny day — lots of contrast with blown-out highlights and blocked-up shadows. I shot this image at 24mm.This perspective had all the elements for a potentially great shot, but everything was just too spread out. I knew I could tie all of this together much better with a longer lens.
I never know exactly what to expect when I compress scenes like this one, but I’m rarely disappointed. At 200mm, all of the disjointed and distracting elements were compressed into a much more cohesive and attractive package. I singled out an individual stem and used a flash — not just for better lighting, but to help emphasize the color and texture of the tiny blooms. The harsh, sunlit areas were transformed into soft patches of color, and the daylight in the background became beautiful bokeh.
When surveying a scene, it’s important to think beyond the basics of aperture and shutter speed. Just because you’re able to incorporate all the components necessary for a successful shot at a particular perspective does not always mean that it’s the best perspective. Are all the things that initially caught your eye prominent in the shot, or are they scattered about and/or blending into the background clutter? If so, a change in perspective might be in order.
Try not to think of a long lens (be it a telephoto or a zoom) as a tool only to be used when you want to shoot something very far away. Using it to create a compressed perspective — in order to highlight specific details — can yield some pretty amazing and surprising results.
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with the NYPD and the FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. As an award-winning photographer, his images have been licensed on many products and published in numerous publications, as well as exhibited in galleries in the United States and abroad. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. Kearney can be contacted at email@example.com, or via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.