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Overview of Perspective in Photography

by Gloria Hopkins

The lightening of objects as they recede is a function of aerial perspective. That which causes objects to appear to diminish in size the farther from your camera they are is a function of linear perspective. The photo on page 94 illustrates the effects of both linear and aerial perspective. If you extend the edges of the path, the lines will eventually meet and that intersection is called, appropriately, a vanishing point.

The Picture Plane

The picture plane is a vertical plane which is, for most nature photographs, perpendicular to the ground plane. It is comprised of the contents of the field of view, and its borders are defined by the edges of your viewfinders. You can think of the picture plane as a vertical slice of the scene before you. An example of the picture plane is a print. This ‘slice’ of two-dimensional information is a visual representation of the picture plane.

Given that the picture is a plane, it can only capture a two-dimensional rendering. However, there are visual effects that can suggest three dimensions. These effects are created by object and light positioning, and can reveal forms and suggest space and distance.

It is important to select the lens that will most effectively capture the sense of depth you desire. Because super telephotos will compress the appearance of space, they are often the culprit for the perceived flatness in a photograph. Care should be taken when you select your lenses lest the choice defeat your purpose!

Line of Sight

Line of sight is the path the eye takes from camera to subject matter. Some nature scenes won’t have an obvious line of sight, such as a visual path, while others, a forest, for example, my have items such as trees or rocks forming a well defined line of sight.

The Ground Plane

The ground plane is, in most nature photographs, a horizontal plane on which rest the items in the line of sight. The main areas of a scene on the ground plane, from front to back, are referred to as foreground, middle ground, and background.

  • Foreground: Objects in the foreground are usually closest to the bottom edge and situated in front of other objects. In many specialties of nature photography, the foreground is a popular place to situate objects (secondary focal points) that complement, support, and guide the eye to the main subject.

  • Middle ground: The middle ground is the space between the foreground and background. When using long lenses with wide apertures, objects on this plane will be in focus while the foreground and backgrounds are softly blurred. This is often desirable in wildlife photography because your subjects will appear isolated and your viewer’s focus will stay on the subject.

  • Background: The importance of the background is usually dependent on the scene. In many landscape photographs, the background is part of the subject itself, such as mountain ranges where clouds and sky merge with the land. Some close-up and wildlife images, on the other hand, rely on uncluttered backgrounds for their success.

    • Bird, flower, and insect photographers often strive to photograph their subjects against backgrounds of pure color and little texture. This can really make the subject pop, especially if the background contrasts the subject in value or color

Many nature photographs have a foreground, a middle ground, and a background. Some photographers are able to use key elements such as lines and focal points to lead the eye from the foreground through the middle ground, the background, and around again. These are usually interesting and complex compositions that a viewer can spend a long time appreciating.


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excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

Revised August 2011
Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins