Using Perspective in Your Landscape Photographs

by Craig McCord

What is Perspective in Photography?

Before one can really take advantage of perspective and effectively use it to one’s advantage in compositions, there must be a clear understanding of what it is. Perspective is quite important as it helps overcome a challenge we photographers and even painters have, and that is creating a three-dimensional feel in a medium that is only two dimensional.

There are several types of perspective that should be considered, and the better understanding we have, the easier it is to incorporate their use in making compelling images.

Linear Perspective

Linear Perspective

Often referred to as a vanishing point because parallel lines tend to converge the farther away they go.  A common example of this is a road seeming to converge to a point at the horizon.  An even better example is the cliché of the railroad tracks seeming to converge in the distance.  This convergence is recognized by our brain to interpret as distance

Height Perspective

Height perspective is akin to linear perspective except rather than horizontal to the ground and vanishing in the distance, the vanishing point is on a vertical plane.  If you were laying down at the base of a tall tree, or a tall building, they would appear to grow smaller, or converge, the higher they were.

Overlap Perspective

When objects appear on the same visual pane, those closer to the camera will overlap and partially hide those that are further in the distance.  This is a visual cue that those objects overlapped are more distant.  This is rather obvious you might think but it still represents how our brain judges the spatial relationship.

Overlap and Atmospheric Perspective both work together in this image of a blue hour looking Southeast from base of Mt. Hood

Atmospheric Perspective

The atmosphere is loaded with all types of particulates including moisture, smoke, haze, dust, etc.  The effect is that as objects appear in the distance the become less clear, colors muted.  Objects of similar color will be lighter in tone.

Diminishing Size Perspective

This is also an example of use of linear perspective

This type of perspective is when you have two objects of the same size, the one closest to the camera will appear larger.  The closer to the lens the closer object is, the larger it will appear.  This perspective I will further address in a moment.

Forced Perspective

Often used to create a special effect in photography, one technique would use forced perspective to make a larger distant object appear closer.  You likely have seen this in images of someone appearing to hold up the leaning Tower of Pisa with their finger, and similar novelty motivated images.  However, there are times when you can use forced perspective in conjunction with diminishing size perspective to your advantage in landscape photography.  Let me explain.

Being careful but close to these flames in the foreground I took advantage of forced and diminishing size perspective, creating a feeling of depth leading to the trees near the horizon.

During the period that I was shooting 4×5 large format, I would certainly take advantage of the tilt and shift features of this system.  In particular, I would use the tilt function with a wide-angle lens, very close to a foreground element, exaggerating the size of the closest element, a diminishing size perspective.  In my view, forced perspective and diminishing size perspective are two sides of the same coin.  Each of the mentioned perspectives work not in isolation but in concert with each other.  When we approach our composition using these as tools, we can be quite successful at creating a feeling of depth in an otherwise two-dimensional image, better holding the interest of the viewer.

My experience in 4×5 work helped me understand and really take advantage of the ability to make a foreground become not just a foreground but a key element in the composition, conveying both depth and context to the image.  To do this most effectively, I would get very close to the foreground with a wide-angle lens, thus exaggerating its size in relation to other elements in the composition.  I will tell my workshop students at times that if you think you are close, get closer.

Tilting the Focus Plane

When taking advantage of the forced or diminishing size perspective, I would do one other thing.  I would tilt my lens down at an angle, much like you would using the features of a 4×5 camera or a dSLR with a tilt/shift lens.  In doing so I can get closer or achieve the effect of further exaggerating the relative size of the foreground.  Now, some would say you should keep your sensor parallel to your subject to avoid unwanted issues with linier perspective, where parallel lines would tilt outward and look unnatural.  I have in fact been with photographers who went to great lengths to make sure their focal plane was parallel to the subject’s plane to avoid this perspective distortion.  In many cases, their resultant image failed to have the impact it could have.

This similar image was taken keeping the sensor plane more parallel with the mill subject. (Image courtesy of Andrew McDonald and Persistent Vision Photography)
This image of Falling Spring Mill was taken with sensor plane tilted down gives slight exaggeration of size helping the sense of depth.

While parallel perspective distortion can be an issue, particularly when elements of architecture are involved, it is most often unnoticeable in typical landscape compositions, unless of course your subject includes tall straight trees or similar objects.  Even then there are tools in Lightroom and Photoshop to help correct any minor perspective distortion.

Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon

In addition to exaggerating the foreground element, there is another reason to consider tilting your fixed wide-angle lens when it’s to the advantage of the composition.  When you do this, you are shifting the lens plane, and thus somewhat adjusting the plane of focus to run more parallel to the ground.  This is what is called the Schelmpflug principle.  This principle states that if the lens plane is tilted down, when the extended lines from the lens plane, the object plane, and the film plane intersect at the same point, the entire subject plane is in focus.

Reflection pool at Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, Missouri

The use of this technique can both exaggerate the foreground and provide illusion of great depth of field, and sense or feeling of depth to the image itself. The only limitation is if there are some vertical elements such as nearby tree trunks extend above the tilted focus plane cannot be focused on while keeping the ground plane in focus. Being aware of this helps in your approach in taking advantage of the Schelmpflug principle. 

When I see a landscape subject I wish to photograph, I immediately look around for an interesting foreground to include.  But it also works the other way.  If I find a very interesting element that could be used as a foreground, I explore how I can use it in the larger landscape to tell the desired story.  Next time you’re out, play with that wide or ultra-wide-angle lens.  Get close, then get closer.  Work the subject.  You may find yourself pleasantly surprised with the result and may even modify your whole approach to landscape subjects.

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