Lens Compression: Perspective Distortion in Surf Photography

This subject was touched upon in a post from ages ago about Nazare in Portugal, site of several possibly record breaking big wave tow sessions, the type of perspective distortion we’re interested in here is compression distortion, it’s sometimes known as telephoto lens compression.

Visit the links at the bottom of this post for some more in depth reading on the subject, it can be a bit tricky to get to grips with, basically the further away you are from your subject, the bigger any background element will appear relative to the subject.
Obviously if you’re standing further away from the same subject you’ll need to zoom in (or use a longer lens) to make them about the same size in the frame, as you’re now further away this makes any object in the background appear bigger (and closer) relative to the subject, thereby creating the effect that the scene is “compressed” into a smaller space.

Here’s an example to show you what I’m on about, and how it can effect your surf photography, when you know it’s happening and understand how to control it you can use it to help create whichever effect you’re going for.

Bantham featuring Bigbury Hotel, 42mm, ISO 200, f5.6, 1/400
Bantham featuring Burgh Island Hotel, 42mm, ISO 200, f5.6, 1/400

Here’s a surfer at Bantham, doing a turn in front of local landmark Burgh Island Hotel, it’s shot from the beach at just after mid tide on the drop, at 42mm, notice the buoy in the foreground marking the edge of the rip.

Longboarder at Bantham, 109mm, f4, 1/1000
Longboarder at Bantham, 109mm, f4, 1/1000

There’s that buoy, a way off, and whilst our surfers are very similar in size within the frame, the familiar Art Deco façade of the hotel suddenly seems much more imposing, I think there’s a few reasons why this image has a lot more emphasis on the background, and hotel in particular:

  • It’s the brightest object, there’s less white water in this photo.
  • The edges of the island are not visible, so there’s no bare sea on the horizon, all lines lead the eye toward the hotel
  • The only human figure, the surfer, is riding towards the hotel, literally pointing at it in fact, drawing the eye to it.
  • Less haze makes it much clearer and crisper than the previous shot.

But the main reason is that it appears so much bigger in the shot, and that’s because I’m further away, shooting with a longer focal length, and as such you get the telephoto compression effect.

When you understand this effect you can use it to bring the focus either onto an interesting background element, or onto the subject by either getting closer or further away and using the appropriate lens.

P.S. the top shot was taken with a Panasonic GF1, a Micro Four Thirds based camera with a crop factor of 2, the bottom one was with a Canon 60D, an APS-C camera with a crop factor of 1.6, the 35mm equivalent focal lengths are therefore 84mm and 174mm.

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