We tend to think of our cameras as tools for capturing reality. When you take a photo, it’s like a two dimensional copy of the real world, with everything reproduced more or less accurately. But if you’ve spent any time really studying the photos you take and comparing them to the real world, you’ll see that this is not always the case. Variations in focal length, camera angle and in your lenses themselves can produce subtle—and not so subtle—distortions of the reality you thought you were accurately reproducing. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Read on to find out why.
[ Top image self-portrait with audi by Flickr user seeareelem]
Merriam-Webster defines “distort” as “to cause to be perceived unnaturally.” Distortion can occur both in the way we perceive color and tone as well as the way we perceive shape. In photography, distortion is often a function or side effect of your lens. Here's an extreme example of distortion, the sort of image that you're probably already really familiar with:
100: I Need More Sleep by Flickr user joshunter
This photograph was shot using a fisheye lens, which is an extreme wide angle lens that also famously adds a sort of spherical distortion to images that were shot with it. It’s called a “fisheye” because we can imagine that fish might see the world in much the same way—as a convex, non-rectilinear bubble shape.
When you use a fisheye lens, you get more distortion towards the edges of the frame than you do in the center. In fact if you orient your subject in just the right way, you may not get much distortion at all. But when you get very close to your subject as in the above example, the distortion can be pretty extreme.
You don't need to use a fisheye lens to achieve a certain amount of distortion in your photographs. You will get distortion with other wide angle lenses, too, and the distortion you get is going to be most obvious when you're shooting subjects with familiar features, such as humans. When you photograph a human being with a wide angle lens, you'll notice that some unflattering things will start to happen to that person's face—similar to what you see with the above example of a fisheye lens, but less severe. Features that are closer to the camera such as the nose and forehead will look large, while more distant features such as the ears will look very small. So shooting a person with a wide angle lens is really not the best way to give your viewer an accurate idea of what the person looks like—instead, it can be used to add a comic, almost cartoonish quality to your image. That can be pretty fun and creative—that is, if your subject doesn't mind looking silly in a photo (hint: photograph your dog up close with a wide angle lens—he doesn’t care).
The opposite sort of distortion happens when you shoot a person with a telephoto lens. Although the distortion is not so obvious at longer focal lengths, it is still there, and you will especially notice it if you compare those zoomed-in images to images you shot with a middle-of-the-road focal length such as 50mm. At longer focal lengths of 200mm or greater, you will start to see a sort of a pancake effect happening across the face. This is because the telephoto lens actually de-exaggerates the distance between elements. So instead of putting more distance between, say, the nose and the ears (the way that wide angle lens does), the effect is the opposite—instead, you’ll get a sort of flattening or widening of the face.
Now, telephoto still remains a good way to photograph people and other animals from a distance, and sometimes it's necessary if you simply can't physically get close enough to your subject, such as when you're shooting sports or wildlife. The distortion effect isn't great enough that it will be very obvious to the average viewer, however, your subject made notice it later, especially if he is particular about how he looks on camera.
Portraits, of course, aren’t the only type of photo that can be affected by distortion. You can also use distortion creatively for other subjects. For example, when you're photographing scenery you can use a very wide angle lens to exaggerate the distance between objects, just as you can use it to exaggerate the distance between your human subjects’ nose and ears. That exaggerated distance can help make a scene look bigger and more impressive. Likewise, you can make objects look closer together by using a telephoto lens. This is useful if you want to make a forest seem thicker, for example, or if you want to exaggerate the number of birds in a flock.
trunks-pano by Flickr user JeremyOK
You can also use creative distortion when photographing people, without necessarily resorting to those comical face shots. Try using perspective distortion to give your subject extra large feet or hands. Sometimes all you really have to do is orient your subject so that his hands or feet are much closer to the lens than the rest of him is, and that will give his hands or feet an extra-large look.
Other kinds of distortion
If you've ever tried to shoot photographs of large buildings, you are almost certainly familiar with another kind of distortion. Called “vertical distortion,” this is what happens when you photograph a very large building or a tall tree with your camera set at an angle. Sometimes it's necessary to tilt your camera upwards a little bit in order to capture a building in its entirety, particularly a large building, but when you do this you will get slanted lines like you can see in this example:
CNA Building by Flickr user vonderauvisuals
Now, if you're shooting architectural photos or if you're shooting real estate images, slanted verticals are something you want to avoid. In fact people who photograph buildings professionally use tilt-shift lenses to help avoid this type of distortion. These lenses will allow you to shoot very tall buildings without vertical distortion, but tilt-shift lenses really aren't practical for the average photographer as they tend to be very expensive (an exception is the popular Lens Baby lens, which is really more of a tool for shooting special effect images).
Vertical distortion can be useful when you are trying to exaggerate the size of an object. Take a look at this shot of a redwood forest:
The angle of this photo makes these trees look even bigger and more impressive than they already are, because those slanted verticals create leading lines that draw the viewer’s eye to the top of the frame, exaggerating height. You can achieve the same effect when you photograph a building—just stand at the bottom and angle your camera up towards the top to capture those distorted lines.
Shooting through glass and other barriers
Other types of distortion don't have anything to do with the lens or the camera angle itself, but barriers that the photographer might choose to place in front of the camera to create a distorted effect. One very good way to create distortion in a photograph is to shoot through a piece of frosted glass or a colored piece of plastic to create not only distortion in color but also the distortion that happens as the light moves through that semi-transparent piece of material. You can really use anything for this, from a piece of plastic to a piece of glass, but you will get the most noticeable results if you use material that has some inconsistencies in thickness or color.
Pardon? by Flickr user harry harris
Try experimenting with different materials to see if you can find one that adds a really interesting and unique effect to your image. Stained glass will create interesting colors in your photo, or you can simply use a piece of plastic wrap you’ve embellished with a colored marker. A prism or other transparent object with facets not only makes a unique filter for your lens but also has endless adjustment possibilities—all you need to do is move it very slightly and you’ll get a completely different effect. Look for textured glass such as the type you might find on a bathroom window, or try shooting through a curved surface such as a wine glass. Wine glasses that have patterns etched into them (thrift shops are great places to find these items) make particularly interesting distortions—make sure that there’s a little bit of light directed back towards the lens and the wine glass in order to create those unusual patterns of light that will make this technique so successful.
Distortion, then, isn't this something that you always have to avoid, except when you are photographing subjects that require extreme realism, such as those architectural and real estate images. But if you want to add a little comedy to your image, or a unique perspective, there's no reason why you shouldn't have a fisheye lens on hand, or a prism stashed in your camera bag. And if you want to exaggerate distance or size, a little bit of distortion can really make your photos stand out.
- Lens distortion
- Wide angle
- Vertical distortion
- Glass and other barriers
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