Is Wide-Angle Perspective Distortion Shrinking your Main Subject? Here's a Solution!

Aug 17, 2021

Have you ever arrived in a mountain landscape setting, and your jaw drops in utter fascination at the grandness of the beauty before you? So excited about the scene you're feasting your eyes upon, you quickly pull out your camera, compose with care, and then capture your image. Later, upon arrival back at your computer, you try to wait patiently while your images upload, excited to see the results of your efforts. But when you finally scroll through your images, you discover that the incredible grande scene you captured has shrunk to a disappointing size?

Many landscape photographers love their wide-angle lenses. My wide-angle is most often my go-to lens for capturing scenes in the Canadian Rockies, partly because of my proximity to the mountains and my wish to include the entirety of the main subject and supporting landscape elements within a composition. But the drawback of a wide-angle lens is that a scene is viewed wider than what is typical of the average human viewing experience. This wide view can reduce the impact of elements within a scene.

One of the foundational composition concepts within landscape photography is subject identification and placement within a frame. To create the most impact, a photograph should usually be composed in such a way as to draw attention to the main subject. However, as you may have noticed within your images, the use of a wide-angle can diminish the grandeur of the main subject, especially if that subject is set farther back in a frame, as is typical in mountain photography. This effect is known as perspective wide-angle distortion. 

Wide-angle lens perspective distortion occurs when objects near the camera appear larger and far objects appear smaller. Perspective distortion can be used creatively, but when the intention is to showcase the main subject in the frame as grande and bold, the use of a wide-angle lens, which can minimize the visual impact of the main subject, can become problematic. 

So the predicament for the landscape photographer becomes, “How do I showcase my main subject, in its grandeur, when using a wide-angle lens?”

The good news here is that there is a simple fix to wide-angle perspective distortion that can be implemented by novice through advanced landscape photographers, and it's simple to achieve. 

Take a look at the following two images. These images were taken a few minutes apart. The first image was captured with the camera parallel to the scene. As a result, you’ll observe the foreground rocks appear slightly larger in comparison with the second image, and the mountain appears smaller and farther away in comparison to the second image.  

ISO 31, 14mm, f11, 1.6sec

This second image was captured with the camera tilted downward ever so slightly towards the foreground. This perspective shift lengthens the background mountain and forces it into the upper portion of the frame. What was once less than commandeering has now become quite impressive. In this example, the slight downwards tilt also shrinks down in size foreground elements, preventing the disproportionately large foreground compared to the background mountain, as in the first image. 

ISO 31, 14mm, f11, 1.6sec

The use of this tilting technique won’t work in every landscape situation, nor will it be the preference for the outcome of many images; however, it is an option you have in your approach when composing an image if you’re concerned that your main subject is losing impact. At a minimum, tilting your camera downward is an interesting experiment in observation and perspective. I encourage you to give it a try in your own photography from time to time!