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This is another perspective distortion question. I understand that perspective distortion is primarily a function of capture and viewing distance, but I am still working on fully understanding the causes of the "flattening" of scenes that is credited to telephoto lenses.

This seems to refer to our ability to discern the differences in size attributable to differences in distance from the lens for subjects beyond a certain distance from the lens. If this is correct, then is it just that with the longer distance from the subject when using a telephoto lens, this compression happens closer to the foreground, rather than in the mid- or background with a wide lens?

Is it fair to say that the compression effect occurs at a certain distance from the photographer regardless of lens, but the field of view influences how close to the foreground this effect takes place? Can you share any information to help people like me understand this?

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This is a really nice question. The related question is: What does it mean to say that a wide lens exaggerates angles and distances? I look forward to reading the answers to this. – anon Dec 19 '11 at 4:18
See also What is background compression? – mattdm Jun 23 '15 at 15:31
And for wide angle, What's the succinct reason for face-warping in wide angle lenses? (although really the answers here cover that as well). – mattdm Jun 23 '15 at 15:32
up vote 21 down vote accepted

The flattening or compression effect is not caused by a particular kind of lens, it applies to all lens in the same way. Actually, this property of lenses applies to our own eyes as well. The factor that affects flattening is the distance from the camera to the subjects.

Consider the following exercise:

Place two friends 1 meter away from each other. Place yourself in line with them, so that you are 1 meter away from one of them, and 2 meters away from the other. Move a bit to the side, so that you can see both. From this position, you can easily estimate what the distance between your two friends is. Now walk 100 meters back along the imaginary line determined by your two friends. Again, move a bit to the side so that you can see both. Can you really tell now how far away from each other they are? Will you see your friends in a significantly different way if one of them moves an additional meter apart from the other? You won't, because from 100 meters away, a difference of a meter is not significant.

The thing is, our eyes have a fixed field of view, so in addition to flattening, we experience a scale reduction as we move farther away from the subjects. With a camera you can magnify the effect by using a long lens. But the compression will be exactly the same no matter what lens you use.

Wikipedia provides some good examples on Perspective Distortion and shows the math behind the Angle of View.

From that page, I like this animation of a cube that goes from extreme extension to extreme compression, when changing the focal length and distance to camera:

Image copyright 2007 SharkD, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0

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Look up 'triple reverse zoom' or 'dolly zoom'. For a visual representation, this Wikipedia page has a decent example:

It's actually very easy to learn how this works for yourself:

  1. Find a nice bumpy object to photograph with a deep background. A person on a street is a good choice
  2. Get a zoom lens and photograph them as close as possible
  3. Back up in regular increments zooming in on each step to get a similar crop on each photo
  4. Go home and compare the photos to see the 'flattening' effect
  5. Now go back and rescue your subject...
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Cool! There's some great visualizations there, and that's a place I would have never thought to look. – mattdm Dec 19 '11 at 15:25
+1 for one good visual triumphs words, and easier to understand. – Global nomad Jun 15 '12 at 20:34

I believe the effect has to do with the RATIO of distances from the camera to various parts of the subject / scene. For example, if you take a wide-angle shot of a person's face, their features are exaggerated because the camera-to-nose distance might be half of the camera-to-ear distance.

On the other hand, consider the same shot taken with a telephoto lens (same framing / composition). In this case, you are standing further away, so the camera-to-nose : camera-to-ears distance is around 1:1. This is why telephoto shots are more flattering to the models.

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