What is flattened perspective?
Image perspective is largely controlled by the viewpoint which is the distance between the subject and the camera. The photographer can change the perspective simply by changing viewpoints. The choice of focal length and lenses helps to create strong compositions for a particular viewpoint.
An image is said to have a flattened perspective when its visual depth is reduced. It is as if many objects in view have been compressed and appear to sit closer to each other in the image, than in reality. The further away the camera is to the subject, the greater the exaggeration of flattened perspective is achieved.
Here are some examples of flattened perspective created by professional photographers.
German expat Barbara Janssen has set up an asylum for stray dogs in her home in Penang, Malaysia. Living in just one bedroom of the home herself, Janssen cares for more than 250 dogs who are sheltered in the building. In this image Julie McGuire has used a flattened perspective to communicate both the dominance of the animals in the space but also the apparent harmony within this canine community. The flattening of perspective is apparent when we look at the size of the dog standing on top of what remains of a sofa with the dogs in the foreground. Although the top dog, pun intended, is 1-2 metres behind the other dogs in the front of the image, she appears to be the same size. This very aptly illustrates the dominance of the canines in this environment.
The long depth of field created by using a smaller aperture has captured the individual features of the dogs. We can still read them as individuals within the image rather than a just a pack, however the image’s success is also due to its resemblance to a type study. The similarity of form of all of the dogs allows us to more clearly see the subtle differences that exist within the individuals. The central pole acts to split the image in an intriguing way: the dogs on the left are all watching at the dogs on the right but they do not return the gaze, preferring instead to focus on what can be found on the floor. McGuire has achieved this flattening effect by being as far away as possible from her subjects and using a very long focal length of 200mm on her telephoto lens.
Chen’s image was not created by a DSLR camera but rather a drone with a fixed 16mm lens. It captures the people of Zhuhai, Guandong, China dancing in the city square at night, a popular daily form of exercise. This intriguing image leaves us with three impressions of the people dancing – the human bodies flattened from above and two sets of elongated shadows per dancer set at right angles to each other varying in darkness. This effect has been created by the existence of two strong directional light sources within this urban setting. In this case most of the flattening perspective has been created by the viewpoint being directly overhead. The choice of a small focal length is not contributing to the effect due to the extreme height from which the image was taken.
The beautiful rich warm tones of the light in this photo communicate to the viewer something about the time of day. Perhaps the dual shadows are created by a combination of the setting sun and artificial floodlights in the square. The image can be read firstly as a repeating pattern which draws in our eye. Further examination reveals individual details that show the dancers movement, although similar, are not completely in sync. This tension between similarity and difference aids in the image’s compositional success.
Sports photography is a genre in which flattened perspective can be employed to create exciting and dynamic compositions like this image by Sergei Ilnitsky. Taking during the Fencing at the London 2012 Olympics it depicts Alaaeldin Abouelkassem of Egypt (top) in action against Peter Joppich of Germany during an individual match. The perspective maybe a little tricky to judge at first in this image but if you compare the relative sizes of the athletes’ torsos it is clear that perspective is being squashed flat in this exemplar. The bodies seem to merge together into a new strange hybrid creature in the frame. A front-on viewpoint, taken from a large distance, has created the flattened perspective in this very dramatic image that is full of movement. Compositionally the image is strong due to the powerful lead-in line created by Abouelkassem’s left leg which takes the reader’s eye through the image along his body and back down to the set of four limbs on the left. The repetition of further strong diagonal lines created by the limbs on the right balances with the larger diagonal (leg & body) on the left.
The constant in flattening perspective is that you need to be far enough away from the subject that the different elements of the picture are relatively closer to one another than they are to you. I started this assignment by walking around my local shopping centre. I was hoping to find some visually pleasing subjects that I could photograph before class and test out the results from a very high viewpoint looking down.
In this location I was taking photos only with my 24-70mm lens. I was pleased with some images that resulted and I learnt a lot from the experimentation. As you can see in the image below it is possible to achieve an interesting flattered perspective when your view point is far above the subject.
If you are using a relatively small focal length on a standard lens it will be difficult to achieve any extreme flatness. There is still steepened perspective visible in the whole image above. If you don’t have a long enough lens you can crop into the image to help create the same effect. Here the second cropped image is much flatter than the original however some steepening is still apparent when we compare the planter boxes.
Using a telephoto lens from a very far distance is the best approach to create images with very extreme perspective flattening. In class I was able to have a practice with the art school’s Canon EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens paired with a +1.4x adapter. This created an enormous focal length of 420mm and could only be achieved with the use of a very sturdy tripod. Standing down the road from the new hospital by at least 700 metres I was able to create this image of one of the new buildings. There appears to be very little size difference between the closest and furthest windows in view.
In the mid-afternoon I was able to arrange access to the roof of a six story high office building directly across from the Gold Coast Art Centre and the Surfers Paradise skyline. It pays to have friends in high places…for flattened perspective photography if nothing else!
From this viewpoint I shot a variety of images across into Surfers Paradise, up Bundall Road, across the racecourse and looking back into Southport. My set up for this shoot was to use my EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at its full focal distance of 200mm with the lens mounted on the tripod. The tripod not only saved my wrists from aching after holding this weighty gear but allowed for a combination of lower shutter speeds (1/60) with the smallest aperture achievable by the lens (f/32) at ISO 200 to create very high quality images of buildings several kilometres away.
In this image below the camera sensor was almost parallel to the buildings and I only had to adjust the tilt by a few millimetres in post-proccessing. I was careful to balance the tripod using the camera’s built in level whenever I changed position on the rooftop. The building here in both fore and back ground appear to merge and compress into one another. It is difficult to judge the realistic distances that exist between the buildings. With this setup and viewpoint I was able to create lots of images with extremely flattened perspective. For me the greater challenge was to create a pleasing composition from these images as the distance viewpoint also created a lot of extremely uninteresting and monotonous photos.
I decided to shift locations once more to find a position on the ground level looking back towards the Surfers Paradise skyline to see if I could capture more dynamic shots of the buildings from a different viewpoint. After missing the correct turn in heavy traffic I ended up serendipitally next to a sport ground where several games of cricket were underway. With the telephoto lens still in position on the camera body I was excited to test out this lens-camera combination in a sports photography scenario.
From distance of around 300 metres I was able to capture group shots of cricketers at play or at rest in which the perspective was very compressed. Here a group of young boys gathers in a circle to munch on watermelon. The group does not appear to be spaced in a circle; they are squashed together as if sitting almost on top of each other.
Just for a bit of creative experimentation I paired the above image with my final shot of the Surfers Paradise skyline. The effect is that almost all the elements appear to be constructed as if they are a collage. We try to read the image to get a sense of the depth but are thwarted by the double presence of flattened perspective only. This leaves our brains to sense this image as a digital illusion and thus lacking the credibility and objective truth we have traditionally come to expect from photographs.
Final Selected Images
I chose this image as one of my final two from the many I took of the Surfers Paradise skyline. I thought it to be highly successful in the level of extremely flattened perspective captured by the camera. The combination of using a telephoto lens at it’s maximum focal length, and a very large distance from the subject from a high and straight-on viewpoint, has worked well together to maximise the flattened perspective.
In terms of composition the shape of the sky as a strong block of negative space adds a greater energy that was lacking in many of the other photos I took. The colours in this photo reflect the complimentary colour palate of the Gold Coast. Cream, pale orange and peachy pink are set against the vivid blue skies typical of a Gold Coast summer both today and in the 1990s when high-rise development was at its peak. The flattened perspective coupled with the contrasting colour creates a feeling of hyper-reality that I consider quite in keeping with the Gold Coast’s reputation as a crucible of the extremes of wealth, power, development, pleasure and natural beauty.
For my first foray into sports photography with my telephoto lens I was very pleased to have captured this image of the young cricket players. My position was slightly elevated to the pitch and I was shooting from a distance of around 500 metres between myself and the players. I wanted to achieve a high quality image in the bright daylight so I selected an ISO of 200. I was able to correctly expose a series of images at a shutter speed of 1/500, allowing the freezing of most motion, with a medium sized aperture of f/9, giving me sufficient detail in the players due to a longer depth of field.
When cropping to compose this image I place the hill in the background just slightly above the horizontal halfway line. The position of the central player is balanced on either side by a group of three other players. The repetition of the number three is also evident in the lines of the cricket stumps and the three larger tree trunks in the background. I choose to make this image black and white to emphasis the white of the players uniforms in contrast to the mid ground and foreground. Similar to McGuire’s image of the dogs, analysed above, this image acts to show the players as a type study. Typology is a genre of photography that strongly emphasises comparison, analysis and reflection. The white uniforms helps us to read the players as all belonging to the same group whilst simultaneously inviting us to reflect upon, and analyse individual traits and nuances made visible by the use of a deeper depth of field.