Stupid Lens Tricks

Probably not the best title for this post but sure beats 7 secrets to lenses you never knew that will make you rich and famous. Am I the only one that hates link bait like this attached to content-free dreck? Maybe a rant on that later. Back to stupid lens tricks.

I've mentioned that within reason the way a particular focal length is used can make it appear wider than it is or longer than it is. I accidentally noticed this early in my picture taking endeavors and later became somewhat adept at manipulating it. This observation and then study was born from my extreme lack of lens inventory early on. I had only a 50mm lens for a very long time – hence I shot everything with it. In the beginning I was mystified how two very similar pictures could look so different. Of course there were a lot of reasons for this but after I figured out some of the other things I was still curious as to why my 50mm sometimes looked wider and sometimes looked longer. Being a curious fellow I dug into that. At first not in any serious way but then more and more.

Fast forward. I'm comfortable using a 50mm field of view for just about anything. If I had nothing else I'm confident I can get a lot of different looks from that one lens. I can make it feel wide or long. It's one of the reasons I wasn't entirely convinced I could live with just a 35mm welded onto the Fuji X100S. A few months back while the weather was still tolerable I took a trip with the Fuji and my D600 with no particular agenda but I did have a few experiments in mind. One of those was for once and all see if I could shoot the X100 so it looked like a 50mm… or not. Turns out everything I learned about manipulating the look of a 50mm worked just as well with a 35mm FOV.

I already knew this. It wasn't like the Fuji was my first experience shooting with anything but a 50mm. The real question was whether I could use those things effectively in practice during fluid situations. Turns out I could. So much for biases that exist in your head. I was chatting about this topic with a couple of fellow X100 eBuddies yesterday and decided to share a few thoughts on somethings for consideration in the use of any particular focal length but specifically the 35 FOV on the Fuji that will feel wider or longer in any given circumstance. As with all things playing with this yourself and internalizing it by doing it is the real key.

Before I get started on how you might make a given focal length feel wider or longer I need to discus perspective. I'll try to make this short so hang in there. Perspective is one hundred percent based on where you stand – It has nothing at all to do with your lens and it's field of view. Without trying to explain this technically an example will serve us better. Let's pretend you are standing at some particular spot looking down a long road with your camera and two lenses. One lens is a 14mm, the other a 300mm. Down the road some distance there is a stop sign and further down the road there's another one. If you take a picture that includes both stop signs with the 300mm lens and then without changing where you are standing take another with the 14mm the apparent size relationship of those two signs will be exactly the same in both pictures.

Don't read anything more into the above statement that exactly what is said. Take it at face value. In fact if you crop the picture shot with the 14mm down to the field of view that was covered on the 300mm shot all of the relationships between near/far will be identical. Heck if any of the capture mediums we used were perfect and our technique was perfect and our optics were perfect we could all go around with the widest lens available and just crop instead of using telephoto or super-telephoto lenses.

Now where does this "perspective" and "distortion" and "compression" stuff come in? Let's change that up a bit. Same road, same stop signs, in fact same pictures as above. If you happened to be standing relatively far from both stop signs the distance relationship between the two would appear compressed – as in closer together – as in size relationships. It would appear this way for both the 300mm as well as the crazy cropped 14mm picture. Here's the change up – instead of standing in the same place and cropping with the 14mm, start walking toward the first stop sign and stop when it appears exactly as big in the viewfinder as it did when you used the 300mm. This picture will be completely different than the 300mm. There will be "perspective distortion". The close sign will be huge and the one farther away will be tiny. Get it? Perspective is based on where you stand. The kind of things I will discus in making a lens look longer or wider from here on out have nothing to do with cropping but I needed to get this out of the way so we could discuss the other stuff under this context.

Let's first take a look at what sorts of things scream wide angle:

  • Converging lines. The more they stand out in a composition the wider the shot feels.
  • Incongruent size relationships of well know objects. Like hands that are four times as big as a persons head.
  • Looser subject framing without cropping into parts of the subject.
  • Whacky angles. From mild to extreme.
  • Lots of depth clues that make each layer from foreground to background feel far way. Not just things in the foreground and background but stuff at lots of varying distances.

There are more things as well but these are the heart of why pictures feel wide. So what makes a picture feel as if shot with a long lens. Obviously the lack of those things and the reversal of others. At first glance these things seem to be immutable and to some degree they are if you compare two shots from the same perspective shot with two focal lengths or even more so if shot from different perspectives with the same primary subject size and position. Thank goodness this photography thing is more a visual art than a science experiment and it's perfectly valid to use those two different focal lengths in completely different ways to make them feel similar. One more thing of note that is actually a corollary to the last item in the list above – depth of field. Less depth of field feels longer. More depth of field feels wider.

Time for some examples. The shot at the top are all within a relatively small set of subject distances. All with the Fuji X100S with no cropping or straitening. They all feel very different in terms of wide-ness or long-ness. Just a couple of notes before we discus some specifics here. I didn't shoot this short setup with the intent of demonstrating this for a blog post but that's okay. The fact is I could probably exaggerate these wide or long feeling properties under discussion by choosing shots of different scenes more than I could the same one. These happened to be convenient in the discussion I had yesterday and after looking at them more even if they don't exaggerate the things I am talking about they may be more instructive than gross exaggeration using different scenes.

The question is how we can manipulate the composition to impart or disguise those attributes I listed above. Don't look at each item as some isolated all or nothing case it's more useful to look at them as a set of things that are either more or less prominent in the composition. Since I do this kind of stuff to get a wider/longer feeling constantly all of them are apparent to me but may not be apparent to you. Running the risk of pointing out the obvious let's look at some specifics.

In the three image comp at the top going from left to right a series of images shot that feel increasingly wider. I chose these for commonalities as well as differences. It's not any one thing in that list it's more of a spectrum with degrees of each. Taking the first one that feels longer as compared to the middle image even though the subject size and point of view are similar they still have aspects where the first one feels longer. Both are framed so the primary subject is cropped into and both are shot from waist level with similar background rendering. So why oh why do they feel different?

I won't try to prioritize the factors between the first two but here's what I consider the differentiators.

  • Anastasia's body and head relationship are more in the same plane in the first image relative to the camera angle. This has to do with the near-far relationship.
  • There are more visual clues in the second image as to depth. They are subtle but there. The biggest one is inclusion of the actual far corner of the room in the second image and the additional prominence of that divider behind Anastasia in the second image. In the first image the vertical is hidden and she is closer to it by 2 feet. In the second you can see the dark vertical edge distinctly.
  • Closely related to the divider thing and that dark edge you can clearly see a convergence of that edge with a that far corner of the room with two things you know should be strait and perpendicular to the floor but are not.
  • But what about that chair in the background? That could go either way being a clue to depth, it's high contrast against the light background, and of known size. It's hidden in the second but prominent in the first so what gives… Ah hah – that depth of field thing – here it works for us in getting a longer feel because it out of focus which kind of trumps it's smallish real estate in the frame in combination of disguising the other depth cues existing in the second image.

See what I mean about the feel being more a spectrum and combination of those things I listed to varying degrees? Let's talk about that near far thing a bit more. The wider the lens the more it exaggerates the size differences between things that are close to the camera versus farther away. Arms, elbows, heads, noses on heads, feet, etc. Easy enough but it's more than just the difference to the camera as an object it's also the relative angle to the film plane of the camera. Example - if I measure the distance to the camera casually all of Anastasia is about the same distance in the right most image at the top give or take. For those of you that remember your elementary school trigonometry her head is farther away they her hips and even her far foot but that's not all. I am pointing the camera at an extreme upward angle as well which will exaggerate those trigonometry related differences in distance more than the measurement would suggest.

That brings us to the third image – the full length view. Let's take a look at that. It feels pretty darn wide.

  • Prominent edge on that room divider. Clearly converging verticals in comparison.
  • No cropping at all into the subject.
  • Lots and lots of depth clues from the floorboards in the foreground to Anastasia's front foot, to the room divider, to the chair in the background that is a lot less blurry. Now you can see the tininess of the real estate the chair takes up relative to all the stuff in the foreground and all the other clues quite clearly.
  • Ansastasia's body parts aren't even remotely in the same distance plane from the camera and exaggerated even farther by the shooting angle.

So that shot feels wider. All of those things I just mentioned that make it feel wider are actually easier to do the closer you get to the subject. So remember that cropping into the subject thing that makes it feel long? If you don't carefully control all the other factors it will feel wider still because you are closer. Simple stuff conceptually but a whole different story in execution. You really have to play a whole bunch and get your own feel for it. I'm hoping this long winded illustration that everybody already knows helps at all for a few of you with what you want to get done and also those of you that feel a bit hemmed in with the fixed X100S lens setup.

I will leave you on this note – common wisdom turned on it's head. Common wisdom suggests that you do not use a wide-ish lens to make people look good. Instead it dictates using a longer lens will make people look good. Let's break that down just a bit. What this common wisdom is based on is that the close/far relationships will be exaggerated with a wider lens and suppressed with a longer lens. Great so why is that "good"? Well , if you aren't paying attention that exaggeration of relative sizes/distances can make things look pretty bad. Longer lenses don't do that which you know is because you are standing farther away.

Here's that common wisdom turned on head part; You can use that exaggeration to make things look more idealistic than the pedantic literal view. Anastasia is a blast to shoot. She's built "curvy" and not so tall. She does not have barbie doll specifications if you will. No super long legs etc, etc. Shooting to exaggerate the best of what she has by using properties of a wider lens handled with care and visual awareness while shooting can do wonders. Take the last photo at the top or the the other's I inserted here and there. I would say quite barbie-esque – no liquify needed. So that adage about not using a wide for shorter-wider people… Ummmm, the only reason to heed that is for people that have no idea what they are doing. I can make shorter-wider people look much better with a wider lens than I can a longer lens.


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