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Shaping perspective with a wide-angle lens.

Wide-angle lenses are perhaps the most effective tools for editorial photography. They help photographers control perspective to imply depth, stress content and compare subjects in terms of scale, creating layers of meaning that express ideas. Along with vantage points, a wide. angle lens equivalent to a 24mm focal length or wider is absolutely essential for controlling perspective.

We've all seen things that looked great in person but came out "flat" as pictures. That's because cameras have one eye a lens. They see only two dimensions height and width. But when we control perspective, we make our pictures imply depth, as well, creating the illusion of a third dimension and building more vitality and meaning. To control perspective, we must anchor the image with foreground content and then add layers of meaning, comparing the scale of our foreground information to the content in the middle ground and then to the background. As content gets smaller in scale, the viewer's eye is drawn deeper into the image, acquiring understanding along the way.

A wide-angle lens is ideal for this task. Longer focal lengths compress information, while wide-angle lenses can create a richly layered sense of depth. By moving closer to our subjects with a wide-angle lens, we can make them more detailed and emphatic in scale, yet still manage to retain enough background information to provide context.

In the first example (above), freelance photographer Jeff Amberg, shooting for SCANA Corporation's Insight magazine, uses a wide-angle lens to emphasize the massive scale of a huge pipe. He closes in on the pipe, making it larger at one end and causing it to diminish in shape as it pulls us into the background. Some fear wide-angle lenses because they seem to distort the subject in this manner, but I see no problem with such distortion-most viewers simply recognize it as a perceptual effect. Instead of distortion, I prefer to call it emphasis.

Our second example, which I photographed in Bagan, Myanmar (above left), illustrates how a wide-angle lens can fit large subjects into a picture, even in tight spaces. I wanted to include this huge Buddha statue (it stands more than 30 feet tall) as my background layer, but I also wanted a foreground layer featuring a silhouetted worshipper seated in a rectangular prayer area, and a middle-ground layer of a soaring, softly illuminated archway. The vertical sweep of my 24mm wide-angle lens let me place all three layers in a coherent relationship to each other. Neither a 35mm nor 28mm wide-angle could have made this photograph.

The third example (top right) reveals how we can use a wide-angle lens to work very close to subjects in tight quarters, like an office cubicle. Chicago, Illinois-area freelance photographer Jim Summaria moves in on an Allstate Insurance employee, capturing her response as she tries to do two things at once, yet the wide-angle lens still allows him to include much of her working environment in the frame.

In my final example (above right), I interpreted the work of three rice farmers I found laboring in a field in southern Laos. Using a compact digital camera equipped with a 24mm wide-angle conversion lens, I shot from ground level, within a few feet of the woman at right, who is my anchor layer. She listens to a story told by the woman in the middle ground, who becomes the focal point of this image. The woman in the middle turns to catch the light, making her a study in vulnerability. The third woman is the background context layer. Notice how the heads diminish in size from layer to layer. All of these women are within 6 feet of my lens, yet each becomes a separate figure, receding in scale and lending the illusion of depth to the image.

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, entering its 34th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers his comprehensive six-person "Communicating with Pictures" workshops every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona, USA. For registration information, call +1 602.493.6709 or e-mail
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Title Annotation:photocritique
Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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