The Tuesday Composition: Telephoto Compression

Layers, Yosemite National Park, California
Layers, Yosemite National Park, California. A classic viewpoint, 300mm focal length. While we intellectually understand that the elements of this image are at quite different distances from the camera, telephoto compression seems to take away some of the cues our brain uses to perceive depth.

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Just as I often turn to wide-angle lenses when I want to create images with a sense of depth and perspective, when I purposefully want to lose a sense of depth, when I want to compress elements of an image in order to abstract or combine them, then I’ll often look to the longer end of my over-abundant collection of lenses.

First, it’s worth acknowledging that, pedantically, telephoto lenses don’t change perspective (warning: PDF document). ┬áSeen from the same point, two objects will change in size, but proportionally, when you change lenses. Of course, if you change your shooting position to compensate for the new focal length, that’s a different matter entirely. So I’ll avoid saying that telephoto lenses change the perspective in a scene.

But there is a real, identifiable “look” to images we extract out of a scene using a long telephoto lens. We often talk about telephoto images as looking “flat” or “compressed”, these images do not seem to trigger our visual system into perceiving an illusion of depth in the image the way that many wide-angle shots do. Where does that look come from? I believe it primarily comes from two factors. (more…)

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