Varying the focal length of your lens allows you change a composition easily without moving your feet. This is certainly convenient, and sometimes it’s essential: there may be only one suitable camera position, which means changing lenses or zooming is the only way to alter how much of the scene will be visible in your photograph.
But using a wider or longer lens also changes the perspective. Understanding how this works allows you to control the sense of depth in your images.
Wide-angle lenses expand space. Objects look further apart and more distant than normal, and you can take advantage of this by exaggerating the size difference between the foreground and background to create an illusion of depth.
In the photograph above from the Colorado Rockies, made with a 24mm lens, the clumps of grass at the bottom of the frame look bigger than the mountains at the top. But we know that mountains are bigger than grasses, so our brains resolve this discrepancy by concluding that the grasses must be a lot closer than the mountains, which helps give the photograph a 3D effect and a feeling of depth. The road also has converging perspective lines, which add to the illusion.
Of course objects that are closer to the camera will always look bigger, in a relative sense, than objects that are farther away, regardless of what lens you use. A wide-angle lens just exaggerates this difference – but only if you get close to something in the foreground. If there’s nothing near the camera, then the wide lens just makes everything look small and distant. In the Colorado photograph above, the wide-angle lens made the mountains look smaller than normal, but I got close enough to the grasses to make them look relatively large, and that’s what created the size difference and sense of depth.
For comparison, this image of El Capitan was made with an even wider lens (19mm), but has little sense of depth, because there’s nothing close to the camera to create that near-far perspective. Not every photograph needs depth, of course; this image is more about patterns and symmetry:
Telephoto lenses compress space, making objects appear larger and closer together than normal. You can use this spacial compression to flatten images and create abstract patterns.
In this photograph from the Temblor Range, the two ridges cutting across the bottom part of the frame are actually separated from the top half of the picture by a deep canyon at least a quarter-mile wide. But you’d never know it, because the long focal length (120mm) brought in the distant hillsides, making them appear bigger and closer to the foreground ridges. This perspective helped create a unified, rhythmic pattern of zigzags and diagonals from elements that were physically distant from each other:
There was also a lot of physical distance between the foreground and background aspens in the next image, but it’s hard to tell. A long lens (165mm) again compressed the space and created a pattern out of trunks that were far apart:
The Long and the Short of It
Of course there are other ways of creating depth without using the near-far, wide-angle perspective; I wrote about that in this post. But the ability to stretch and squeeze space by using different lenses should be an essential part of every photographer’s visual toolbox. Don’t just zoom for convenience; think about what you want to say, and whether your message would be stronger with a sense of depth, or by flattening the perspective and creating patterns.
— Michael Frye
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael 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.