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It is commonly believed in some photographic circles that telephoto lenses compress perspective and magnify background objects relative to foreground objects to produce an illusion of reduced separation. No, they do not! They really do not! However, perspective compression is a real phenomenon and a photographer can use it to achieve particular results with any lens. It just has nothing to do with the lenses themselves. The apparent compression actually arises from the distance of the camera from the subject. Compression is most noticeable when the distance is large - which happens to be the circumstances in which a telephoto lens is most likely to be used.


Anyone who does not accept this should conduct a simple test. Using a wide-angle lens take a photograph, for example, of a road lined with parked cars or utility poles. Then, without moving, change to a telephoto lens and take a second picture in the same direction. On a computer, zoom in on the centre of the wide-angle shot and compare the result with the telephoto image. There will be no difference in perceived "compression".

Perspective distortion is influenced by the angles of view at which an image was captured and subsequently viewed. Printed photographs are normally viewed at a distance broadly equivalent to their diagonal dimension. For example, a 10" x 8" print of a wide-angle picture might be viewed at a convenient distance of about 13". In these circumstances apparent "distortion" effects created by the wide angle of view of capture are apparent. However, if the same picture is viewed from a much shorter distance, so increasing the angle of view, the wide-angle "distortion" should disappear. Similarly, viewing at a greater distance a picture captured using a telephoto lens, so reducing the angle of view, reduces or removes so-called telephoto compression.

The image of hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, in Arizona shows apparent perspective compression. It was captured using a 300mm lens mounted on a full-frame DSLR. However, exactly the same image could have been captured by cropping and enlarging an image taken using a wide-angle lens.


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