What Is Perspective in Photography?

Learn how to use perspective to create great photographs

Legs and feet hanging off edge of cliff in front of Grand Canyon

franckreporter / Getty Images

Perspective in photography refers to the dimension of objects and the spatial relationship between them. It also relates to the position of the human eye in relation to the objects in an image.

The farther away an object is from the human eye, the smaller it appears. It may seem even smaller if an object in the foreground looks larger, because of the relationship between those two objects.

Perspective also can affect the appearance of straight lines. Any lines in an image will appear to converge the farther away from the viewer's eye they are or as they approach the horizon in the distance.

One point perspective
In one-point perspective, an object recedes into the distance in one direction, to one spot. Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Eye level also determines what a viewer is able to see in a photograph. The first photo below was taken from a standing position, and the second, from a seated position. Notice how the lines appear to converge (or not), and objects seem smaller or larger depending on their relationship to the rest of the scene.

Perspective at standing height vs. sitting
©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans

In essence, photography perspective can change the way an object looks depending on the object's size and the distance the object is from the camera. This is because perspective is determined not by focal length, but by the relative distance between objects.

How to Work With Perspective

Though we often talk about correcting perspective, it's not always a bad thing in photography. In fact, photographers use perspective with every shot to add to the aesthetics of an image and make it more appealing. The adept employment of perspective is the mark of a great photographer.

Perspective Control With Lenses

People often believe that a wide-angle lens exaggerates perspective, whereas a telephoto lens compresses it. This is not actually true.

A wide-angle lens merely creates the illusion of an exaggerated perspective. This is because there is a greater distance between objects in a wide-angle photograph, and the closest object to the camera always appear bigger.

With a telephoto lens, the distance between objects shrinks, thus causing the difference in the size of the objects to decrease.

Photographers can use these differences to their advantage. For instance, a landscape photograph becomes much more interesting when photographed with an object in the foreground. Although this object will look larger in a wide-angle lens, it also adds depth and scale to the image and allows the viewer to get a real sense of space within the landscape.

With a telephoto lens, the photographer can perplex the viewer by making two objects that are known to be different sizes look closer to the same size. For example, by standing a fair distance away from a two-story building and placing a person in the correct position between the camera and the building, the photographer can give the illusion that the person is as tall as the building.

Distorting Perspective

You can distort perspective without specialized lenses to produce a scene that defies reality—all by simply changing your own position. The typical visitor to Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa takes a photo like this:

Foot appears to be holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Justin Adams / Flickr / 

By moving the camera close to an object in the foreground, that object looks far larger than the subject in the background—in this instance, the Tower. Here's another example:

Girl appears to drink from fountain in harbor

The girl is much closer to the viewer than the fountain, so she appears larger. As in the previous example, the photographer has used this to creative advantage.

Perspective From a Different Angle

Another way in which photographers use perspective is to give viewers a different look at an object they are familiar with.

By photographing from a lower or higher angle, you can give the viewer a new perspective that is unlike their normal eye-level view. These different angles automatically change the relationship among the scene's subjects and add more interest to the photograph.

For instance, you might photograph a coffee cup as if you were sitting at the table—a nice image. But by shooting the same coffee cup from a lower angle, say equal with the table itself, the relationship between the cup and the table shift, for an entirely new look. The table now leads you to the cup, making it look larger and more impressive. We do not normally see this scene in it that way, and this adds to its appeal.

Coffee in to-go cup
David Hartwell / Getty Images

Correcting Perspective

As fun as it is to play with, sometimes you must correct a photo's perspective—for example, when you need to capture a subject as accurately as possible without distortion or illusion.

Perspective can cause particular problems for photographers when shooting buildings, as these will appear to shrink to a point at their top. To combat this problem, photographers use special tilt-shift lenses, which include a flexible bellow that allows the lens to be tilted gradually to correct for the effects of perspective. As the lens is tilted parallel to the building, the lines move apart from one another, and the dimensions of the building are in more realistic proportions. When not looking through the camera, our eyes will still see converging lines, but the camera will not.

You also can correct perspective problems with post-production software such as Adobe Photoshop.

Correcting vertical perspective in Photoshop