Let's put things into perspective. Yes, I know, stupid pun. There are lots of little tricks we use as photographers to subtly convey the point we want to show. Using perspective and a vanishing point in your photos is a great way to emphasize the large scale of a landscape, or to add a sense of drama to your images. Let's see how.
But first, let's start with a little history lesson.
Many centuries ago, before the invention of smart phones and Photoshop, people used paintbrushes and chisels to capture scenery and people. And they weren't very good at it. What I mean is, yes, they were good at it - who am I to disparage ancient Egyptian art or the Parthenon Marbles? But they didn't get a lot of the technical details right. Specifically, they had some trouble with perspective.
Back then artists would simply overlap objects or place one set of objects below another in order to indicate relative position. In fact it wasn't until around or about the 5th Century BC when artists actually began to think about perspective and the best way to recreate it in artwork. And although medieval artists were almost getting a handle on different ways to show relative position--making distant objects smaller than closer objects, for example - it wasn't until 1413 when an artist named Filippo Brunelleschi finally demonstrated a geometric method of perspective. That's when the vanishing point started to catch on.
So unless you're a painter living in the middle ages, you probably already know that the layman's definition of a vanishing point is "the point at which parallel lines appear to converge". The reason we perceive a vanishing point when looking at those two lines is because of that simple principle that medieval artists almost understood: objects appear smaller the further away they become. So it follows that the distance between two parallel lines will also become smaller as the lines recede into the distance, which is what makes them appear to converge. Also called "single-point perspective," this very simple idea can be a very powerful tool in simulating three dimensions in any two dimensional work of art, whether it's a painting or a photograph.
Some Classic Examples
When you think of photos that make good use of a vanishing point, you probably think of roads and railroad tracks - straight, parallel lines that keep going until they appear to meet at the horizon. Other examples include long hallways, bridges or the parallel boards on a fence. A photograph can even include multiple vanishing points: shoot the corner of a building where the sidewalk turns left and you have a photo with two vanishing points.
Tokyoway by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
The lines in these examples make it simple to find the vanishing point, because they act as arrows that draw the eye right towards that point on the horizon. But you don't need perfect lines to achieve this effect - it can also be done with a series of regular-sized objects such as trees in an orchard. A vanishing point can even be implied with a shadow in front of a back-lit subject.
Hero by Flickr user pasukaru76
The vanishing point is a tool used a lot by scenic photographers and architectural photographers. It is a good way to show perspective in a big, sweeping landscape or cityscape when the photographer really wants the viewer to understand the scale of the place he or she is photographing.
Milan Train Station at Midnight by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
Make Good Use of that Vanishing Point
Not every scene has parallel lines or an obvious vanishing point, so when you find one it's important to know how to take advantage of it. For example, if you want to increase the perceived scale of your image or create extra drama, you can use a wide angle lens, which will exaggerate the angles of the two lines. To maximize this effect, make sure the lines begin in the very near foreground. If you need less drama, on the other hand, you can use more zoom.
Vanishing Point by Flickr user Bill Gracey
Remember the rule of thirds? This is a great time to practice it - try placing the vanishing point itself at the intersection of one of those rule of third lines. Or, depending on the strength of your composition, you can also bust that rule of thirds by making those parallel lines cut right through the center of the frame.
Vanishing points create the most drama if you actually include the vanishing point itself in the image rather than cutting off the two parallel lines before they actually meet - although you can actually block the point of convergence with a subject, leaving the viewer's imagination to connect the dots behind that subject. Which brings me to my next point:
Using a Vanishing Point with a Subject
Vanishing point isn't useful just for landscapes and architecture, so don't be afraid to think outside the box. Remember that converging lines not only make your photograph look more three dimensional, they also help lead your viewer's eye into the image. Earlier I described converging lines as arrows; you can use them quite literally in this way by placing your subject at that point where the two lines meet, effectively shouting at your viewer to "look there, where those arrows are pointing!"
Self portrait by Flickr user Sebastian Anthony
Of course this is not actually as easy as you might imagine. You don't usually want your subject to be at the vanishing point itself, because then your viewer will need a magnifying glass to identify what he's looking at - or more likely, will just not bother. Instead you need to find that sweet spot - a point in front of the vanishing point where the leading lines are still doing their job of adding perspective and depth but where the viewer's eyes will ultimately land where you intend them to - on the subject. This makes vanishing point perspective a great tool for portraits, especially when you're seeking to surround your subject with a meaningful environment - a bishop in a cathedral, for example, or a rancher in front of a fenced cattle pen.
Spring Will Come by Flickr user farlane
If you have a particularly strong subject, you can place it, her or him in a position opposite or askew from the vanishing point. This is a good way to compose your image if you have an interesting background that doesn't overwhelm your subject. The vanishing point will draw the viewer's eye into the background and away from the subject, but if the subject is strong enough, the viewer's eye will return there to rest.
Vanishing point is, of course, only one of many ways you can add perspective to an image. Even before those medieval artists started figuring it out, they were using other tools to show depth and distance - you can, too. But when you find a really great set of converging lines in your scene, don't fail to take advantage of them - even if you don't immediately think including them will give you the best view of the scene. You can always change positions and photograph other parts of the scene as well, but I think you'll find that the most dramatic shots you take in that location are going to be the ones with those converging lines. Chances are, those are the shots that you and everyone else who views them will be drawn to.
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