2

Why do objects in photos appear smaller than they do when viewed by the naked eye?

For example, a mountain would appear far smaller in a photo than in real life.

Does it have to do with the field of view and zoom level? If so, how can I take a picture that does not compromise the FOV?

  • 1
    This is more a question about human physiology and psychology than about photography. Our brains have an amazing capacity to "zero in" on a particular portion of our vision's field of view and ignore much of the rest of the information coming from our optic nerves. The same is true of our auditory nerves that allows our brains to filter background noise. This is also related to why the moon looks much larger near the horizon than when higher in the sky. When the moon is closer to the horizon as a point of reference we block out more of the surrounding scene than when it is further from it. – Michael C Jun 23 '15 at 4:29
7

The only way to simulate with a camera and lens what our brain does when we look at distant objects is to use a much longer focal length. This, of course, also reduces the field of view in a dramatic way.

If you want a foreground object to remain the same size in your photo while increasing the size of objects in the background you can back away from the foreground object and then use a longer focal length to maintain the size of the foreground object.

For example, if you are 20 feet from the foreground object with a 50mm lens you can back up to 40 feet and use a 100mm lens. You've double the distance to the foreground object (increased it 100%) as well as doubled the focal length, so the foreground object should appear roughly the same size assuming it is relatively flat. Items 1,000 feet behind the foreground object will appear almost twice as large: you've only increased the distance to the background by just under 2% from 1,020 to 1,040 feet, yet you've doubled the focal length! And you'll only capture about 1/4 as much of the background scene with a 100mm lens than with a 50mm lens.

This is more a question about human physiology and psychology than about photography. Our brains have an amazing capacity to "zero in" on a particular portion of our vision's field of view and ignore much of the rest of the information coming from our optic nerves. The same is true of our auditory nerves that allows our brains to filter background noise. This is also related to why the moon looks much larger near the horizon than when higher in the sky. When the moon is closer to the horizon as a point of reference we block out more of the surrounding scene than when it is further from it.

2

There may be some psychological and human perception factors involved, but, fundamentally, objects in photographs are as big as you make them. That may sound a little over-simplified, but, really, it's all there is to it. If you have an image of a mountain, and you hold it in your arm and look at the real mountain in the distance right next to it, the photographed mountain may look either smaller or bigger depending on a) the size of the print and b) how much of that print is filled by the mountain.

If the mountain is too small, there are basically three ways you can adjust this.

First, you can of course get bigger paper and print bigger. Eventually, your printed mountain will look bigger than the distant one.

But if you're starting from a mountain which only fills a small percentage of the frame, that might be a very large piece of paper with a lot of stuff you don't care about around the edges. So, second, you can crop the image and expand. This is exactly the same as making a larger print, except... don't print the parts you don't want. Then, you can have a relatively large mountain, without all that wasteful forest and sky around it.

But, your camera might not have captured enough detail for that mountain to look good cropped. You can improve this with a better camera, higher quality lenses, using a tripod, shooting on a day with less haze, and more, but there's also an easy first step — instead of cropping to get a mountain that fills the frame, do it optically. So, third, use a lens with a narrow field of view to make the mountain fill more of your camera's sensor.

We call a lens with a narrow field of view a "long" lens — or, often, "telephoto", although this is not technically correct. A lens with a wide field of view is usually just called "wide" (although you'll hear "short", too). And, a lens in between is called "normal" — and that's partly because these lenses tend to give a field of view which roughly corresponds to human vision when printed about 8×10 and held at a comfortable viewing distance. On a 35mm film camera or a full-frame DSLR, this is around 43mm, give or take — a number corresponding to the diagonal of the sensor, so convert as appropriate for other sensor sizes.

So, to recap, yes, it absolutely has to do with field of view, which corresponds to "zoom" — or at least to focal length. The exact magic number varies based on print size, but overall, match your lens focal length and print size appropriately, and you can make that mountain either bigger or smaller.

For more on the technical details behind this, see

  • the weird thing is not only does it appears smaller but also squished compare to the foreground – WindowsMaker Jun 23 '15 at 15:28
  • 1
  • 1
    And, in fact, if you match the field of view for the size and viewing distance for your print, and, of course, stand in the same place, there will be no difference in perspective between the print and your perception. – mattdm Jun 23 '15 at 15:39
  • quite impressive that human eyes can achieve those telephoto propertirles without sacrificing FOV – WindowsMaker Jun 23 '15 at 15:52
  • 1
    They don't! Your eyes are actually only sharp in the center and are basically optically unimpressive. However, they dart around unconsciously and your brain builds up a mental model, which you perceive as offering both detail and a panoramic field of view. This is, in fact, roughly what you could do by combining many photographs into a large panorama, and then printing room-sized. – mattdm Jun 23 '15 at 15:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.