Focal lengths and different viewpoints

I was intrigued by this exercise not least because, as a constant user of the zoom lens, I have fallen into the rut of taking up a position and relying on the zoom to do the work; it takes a real conscious effort to move around and explore different viewpoints and the effects.  How often do we hear that a good exercise is to fit a prime lens and go out for the day shooting all manner of scenes; I was talking to a guy in a London Camera Exchange shop a couple of days ago and he is doing the Flickr photograph a day project using a single prime and finding much benefit from the discipline.

Anyway, the key word here is “perspective”.  A quick delve into the Concise Oxford English Dictionary provides the starting point: “the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to convey the impression of height, width, depth, and relative distance.” or, in my language, how best to present the 3D world, in which we live, in 2D; may be not very elegant but it works for me!  I find it useful to have a succinct definition in mind, particularly when it comes to analysing the results.  I also perused some books, magazines and websites to get some background and refresh myself on optics.  For my subject I chose the statue of John Cabot (aka Giovanni Caboto) the Italian borne explorer who was a resident of Bristol 1490-1498.

In comparing the two shots above the first obvious point is that I did not do the best of jobs in keeping the size of the statue the same in both as I changed my viewing position, more attention to detail required.  In general terms the biggest impact in viewing both shots side by side is that the telephoto shot is all about the detail of the statue whereas the wide angle shot puts the statue in context, within the constraints of the setting and the viewpoint chosen, due to the inclusion of much more background.  At wide angle there is also considerable evidence of perspective of scale cf. the statue and the person in the background, which I understand is an effect used to compose trick shots eg big people/little people; there is also evidence of the vertical distortion on the extreme right hand side.  Certainly the wide angle shot gives much more feeling of depth to the scene whereas the telephoto shot gives a much flatter image, very evident by the impression of the closeness of the tree to the statue.  As regards the question of what impression does each give about the distance of the viewer from the scene, I found myself going around in circles; I think this was a combination of just giving first impressions and thinking about it in a more clinical manner.  Instant impression on looking at the telephoto shot is “up close and personal” but then the brain says you would see more of the surroundings given the amount of statue in view so I must be far away using a magnifying device – maybe a bit convoluted but that’s how I see it.

So what is the main lesson I have come away with from this exercise?  Well, once again, I think it is the need to give much more thought to the shot before leaping in.  What am I trying to say with the photograph; stop “snapping” and take photographs, the tool bag available gives tremendous variety and possibilities, use it to best effect, create a memory that holds a message.  Think back to the my days with a 35mm film camera and the cost of processing the film!

Reference List:

Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2004), 11th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Brain, B. (2013), “Master perspective”, NPhoto, May 2013, p.57.

Cambridge in Colour (2011), A learning community for photographers. Available from: http:/ [Accessed: April 5, 2013].

Freeman, M. (2007), The photographer’s eye Composition and design for better digital photos, The ilex Press Limited, Lewes.

Prakel, D. (2006), Basics photography 01 Composition, 2nd ed, AVA Publishing SA, Lausanne.


Focal lengths

Having tried the test of looking at a scene with the naked eye, estimating the angle of view and then looking at the scene through the camera viewfinder and a standard lens I now better appreciate the behaviour of the camera optics and the relationship in optical performance terms to the human eye.  With the naked eye(s) I estimate my angle of view is in the region of 180 degrees; but this does raise the question of what actually constitutes the “angle of view”.  By design we have quite an extensive angle of view, or peripheral vision, but at the extremities the objects are not clear/sharp and it is generally accepted that the peripheral view is more about detecting movement; contrast with the view through the viewfinder where there are hard boundaries.  I did find that the view through the camera closely represents that part of the scene I observed with the naked eye to be sharp.  This, therefore, confirms the correlation between the angle of view of the standard lens on the camera and that of the human eye(s) in terms of a sharply focussed image.

For the exercise I selected a beach/lighthouse scene as I thought it would best illustrate the differences focal length makes to the angle of view, there being little background clutter but with some definition.  The camera was tripod mounted.

The series of shots above clearly illustrates the difference in angle of view as the focal length is changed; wide angle of view with short focal length to small angle of view with long focal length.  For me the large angle of view gives a feeling of the expanse of the area with the lighthouse intruding into it, albeit with a real role to play.  As the angle of view reduces it becomes more about the detail of the lighthouse and, finally, at the smallest angle of view, the lighthouse dominates the scene.  I chose not to change the composition as I felt that the required effect had been illustrated using the lighthouse as the main component but the detail of the town in the distance at a narrow angle of view also serves to illustrate the utility of the telephoto lens in landscape scenes; for some time I was wedded to the idea that landscape equals wide angle lens.  Clearly, though, the rule of thirds did not get much of a look in here!

Reference List:

Freeman, Michael, (2007).  The Photographers Eye:  Comosition and Design for Better Digital Photos, The Ilex Press