BetterPhoto.com PhotoCourse: Creating Visual Impact with Brenda Tharp

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All photos and text © Brenda Tharp, all rights reserved worldwide. No form of reproduction or usage - including copying, altering, or saving of digital image and text files - is permitted without the express written permission of Brenda Tharp and BetterPhoto.com.


Lesson #4: Perspective
Suggesting Depth and Dimension in your Photographs
Mustard Season in Wine Country
Mustard Season in Wine Country
© Brenda Tharp
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When we look at a scene with our eyes, we see in stereo, meaning we see the height, width and depth of objects. Yet the camera is only capable of recording the two dimensions of height and width.

With that limitation, how do you express the vast depth of a landscape, or relate something in the foreground to the background?

Probably the most significant method of expressing depth is by utilizing, or creating a perspective. Images that incorporate strong perspective have greater visual impact than those without it.

Simply put, perspective has to do with the way objects relate to each other spatially, and to the lens. Perspective makes objects in the foreground appear to be larger than those in the background, even when they're the same size. This suggestion of different sizes as you visually move into the background gives the image depth.

A common misunderstanding often has photographers thinking that by changing focal lengths, they are changing perspective. This is not true at all; they are simply changing the framing or field of view. The optical perspective seems to change, but the physical distance between things has not changed.

Prove it to yourself with the following exercise: While standing in the same place, focus on a grouping of objects, maybe a row of trees, fence or light poles, anything. Watch as you zoom your lens in or out. While you may gain a few more trees or lose them off the edge of the frame, the relationship between each tree has not changed in the viewfinder.

Wheel Fence, Washington
Wheel Fence, Washington
© Brenda Tharp
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So how do you change perspective? By changing your position. As you move around in a scene, the objects all move in relationship to camera and to each other. If you move left, the objects move right; if you move right, the objects shift left; but if you move closer to an object, it gets closer, and the distance grows between it and other objects in the middle- or background.

Wheel Fence, Washington
Wheel Fence, Washington
© Brenda Tharp
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This is also an easy exercise to do and worth every minute of it to gain an understanding of how perspective works.

Find an object that you can get close to, that has some other objects in the background. Watch what happens to that object and the space between it and others as you move closer to it. As you move close, the object(s) closest to the camera will grow in size, but the background may not appear to change much at all, but the position of the background will have changed in relation to the objects in the foreground. This is because you have altered the physical perspective. The result is a suggestion of some distance between them. Now, move to the right or left of it and see what happens between your main subject and the other objects. You can use this shift in perspective to your advantage in photography.

Roaring Fork River, Tennessee
Roaring Fork River, Tennessee
© Brenda Tharp
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A classic landscape 'formula' is to place some interesting object in the foreground, up-close, and use a wide-angle lens to capture a large piece of the scene. The result of this is illustrated in the image of the cascade in the Smokies; the foreground rock pulls you in right away, as a sort of stepping-stone into the scene, while the wide angle took in a large area of the cascade and forest.

The result is that the image has a lot of depth. The stream appears farther away from the rock than it really is, but with a wide-angle lens' characteristics, I was able to exaggerate the depth in this scene.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
© Brenda Tharp
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This technique also worked with the rocks in the Bentonite Hills of Capitol Reef, Utah. I used a 24mm, and came in closer to the rocks in the foreground.

As you can see, they are all pretty much the same size, but the one in the background appears smaller. It's not, but that appearance suggests it's further away, and now I have created depth in my landscape. Of course, it's an illusion of depth, but that's what makes an image more exciting!

Red Rock Swirls, Arizona
Red Rock Swirls, Arizona
© Brenda Tharp
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This also worked for the image of the reflecting pool in the sandstone formations.

I used a 20mm lens, and was about 2 feet off the ground with the lens tilted downward to emphasize the reflection.

This pushed the background further away, optically, and created depth.

Marshall Point Light, Maine
Marshall Point Light, Maine
© Brenda Tharp
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Strong lines can be used to create perspective, too.

The classic example of two lines converging on the horizon is illustrated in both the image of the walkway to the lighthouse, and the sluice running towards the mill.

Mingus Mill, North Carolina
Mingus Mill, North Carolina
© Brenda Tharp
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These both have very strong perspective, suggesting the background structures are quite a ways away.

It's an exaggeration of reality, but in order to communicate depth well in photography, you need to exaggerate a bit!


Coastal Spring, California
Coastal Spring, California
© Brenda Tharp
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Not all photo opportunities have objects you can use in the foreground, or strong leading lines. Sometimes it's just an area, such as a meadow, that you can relate to the background to set up a feeling of space in the image.

The field of spring flowers is a good example of how to combine foreground and background areas like this. The diagonal line keeps the energy moving in the scene, while still defining the two areas. With the cliffs appearing smaller than the meadow, distance is suggested.

Field of Lupines, California
Field of Lupines, California
© Brenda Tharp
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In the image of the lupine field, I wanted to show you the abundance of spring lupine in this area, so I chose to use a 20mm focal length. By tilting the lens downward, I was able to use perspective to my advantage.

If you look closely, the flowers in the foreground appear larger than those in the background, but they are really the same size in the field! Then, I included a white fence to keep you in the frame and complete the story of a country meadow.

What about the affect on perspective with a telephoto lens? Remember, perspective doesn't change until you change position. However, as with wide angles you can expand the appearance of depth, with a telephoto lens you can compress the appearance of it. This optical compression can make a landscape very interesting.

Sparks Lane, Cades Cove, Tennessee
Sparks Lane, Cades Cove, Tennessee
© Brenda Tharp
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Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon
Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon
© Brenda Tharp
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I used 300mm on the foggy scene of this country lane in the Smoky Mountains.

This optical flattening of the scene brought out the bumpiness of the dirt road, making the image feel even more rustic.

When I photographed the Painted Hills in Oregon one time, I used a 420mm lens (my 300mm plus a 1.4x teleconverter) to compress the scene, to make it more abstract.

Use Selective Focus to Create Depth
Western Holidays
Western Holidays
© Brenda Tharp
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Selective focus is another way to suggest that a scene has depth.

For the image of the red bow and fence, I chose to let the focus fall off in the background.

This emphasized the red bow and suggested some distance to the scene as the fence posts became smaller.

Find a Unique Point of View
Because perspective is so important to making a successful photograph, you need to examine each situation thoroughly to find the best position or viewpoint.

It's a little tougher when the scene is changing, such as a parade, or action event, but it's still possible, once you've honed your vision and things become a little more intuitive.

Unloading Corn, Colorado
Unloading Corn, Colorado
© Brenda Tharp
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Old Farm, Capitol Reef N.P., Utah
Old Farm, Capitol Reef N.P., Utah
© Brenda Tharp
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When you come across a scene, walk around before making any pictures. Look through the viewfinder as you bend down low, get in close to things, or tilt the camera up or down. Climb up on things to get an elevated view.

Vertigo View of Golden Gate
Vertigo View of Golden Gate
© Brenda Tharp
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I had an opportunity on assignment to go up into the tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. While I was up there for an entirely different picture, I couldn't resist the photo opportunities up there!

The overhead point of view gave me a unique perspective with a wide-angle, but what really gives this picture it's depth is the size of the foreground cables to the tiny sailboat far below.

Gopher's View
Gopher's View
© Brenda Tharp
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Don't forget to also get on your tummy and see what the world looks like to a chipmunk!

Unique points of view like this can make an image far more interesting.


Assignment: Perspective
Create images that utilize perspective:

  1. By photographing a relationship of objects,
  2. By photographing a relationship of foreground to background, and/or
  3. By utilizing existing or implied lines.
Then, try to find a unique point of view, your point of view, of a subject and show us what you found interesting from that point of view. Good luck, and remember to always have fun with the assignments!

Upload your best three photos by Sunday, May 10, 2009.

As always, anytime you need an answer, don't hesitate to send me an email or ask your question in our online Q&A forum.

Enjoy!
Brenda Tharp

All photos and text © Brenda Tharp, all rights reserved worldwide. No form of reproduction or usage - including copying, altering, or saving of digital image and text files - is permitted without the express written permission of Brenda Tharp and BetterPhoto.com.