The Perspective Compression Effect or How to Use Telephoto Lens Creatively

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When we start using telephoto lenses and learn the differences on how they affect our photography in comparison to wide angle lenses, some of the concepts are obvious and easy to understand because of our previous experiences.

For example, telephoto lenses have a narrower field of view, making it is easy to grasp because all of us have used telescopes or spyglasses before.

When we read that telephoto lenses bring objects closer, it is a very obvious concept because we have all used binoculars at some point in our life.

But, when we learn about the telephoto lens “perspective compression effect”, it doesn’t always resonate right away.

I remember when I was first starting in photography and read about the “lens compression effect”, I did not understand the concept at first because the article was very long and very technical, even including some elements of physics.

But, when I came across the featured photo, I thought it would be a perfect example to demonstrate how telephoto lenses compress the perspective. I wish someone had just shown me a similar photo so that it would have been as clear with little or no explanation.

I took this photo in the local park of Montreal not far from where I live. During this time, I was getting ready for my road trip from Phoenix to Los Angeles with plans to drive through Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. That day, I bought a brand new telephoto lens (Canon 70-200mm 4L) and went to the park to test it.

Montreal. Kahnawake. Catholic Church
Montreal. Kahnawake. Catholic Church
Loc: 45.428264, -73.678156

If you look at the featured photo, you can see the narrow area of water behind the trees and in front of the church. That narrow stream is actually one of the biggest rivers in the world, the Saint Lawrence River, and, at the location where I took the photo, the river is approximately 1.5km (1 mile) wide.

The long focal length created the effect of narrowing the distance between the foreground and the background in what is also known as the perspective compression effect. The 1.5km distance was “compressed” into a couple of hundred meters at most.

Understanding this concept can be very valuable in helping us to use the focal length as a creative tool in our photography.

Below is the photo I took almost from the exact same spot as the featured photo but, this time, I used a short focal length (10mm), which made the same place seem almost unrecognizable. The same church is hardly visible at all as it looks like a tiny dot on the horizon.

Shooting and Processing

The idea for the composition was to use the row of trees as the natural fence and to get everything in focus from the trees to the infinity. I shot on a tripod and took only three bracketed shots (-1, 0, +1) since the light was not very dynamic.

For the featured shot, I used “hybrid” processing. First, I processed the three bracketed photos in Photomatix but, I was not fully satisfied with the result. I liked how the water and the trees came out but the sky and the grass in the foreground looked horrible. Then, I processed single RAW in Lightroom using a preset based workflow (I used HDR Blend preset from my Landscapes Lightroom Preset Collection Vol.1), concentrating on the areas of the sky and the grass only. When I was happy with the result, I blended the two images in Photoshop with the help of transparency masks. From the Photomatix HDR image, I used areas of the water, the trees and the background elements and, from the single RAW file, I used areas of the sky and the grass in the foreground.

Deconstructing Featured Photo

Camera: Canon 60D
Lens: Canon 70-200mm
Focal Length: 122mm
ISO: 100
Aperture: F8
Bracketing: 3 shots (-1, 0, +1 )
Tripod: FEISOL Tournament CT-3442  – Check my FEISOL Tournament CT-3442 Review.
Ballhead: FEISOL CB-40D


Lightroom: import, tagging, color balance, export to Photomatix.
Photomatix: I used 3 bracketed shots to merge image to HDR ( -1, 0, +1 ), 16-bit tiff image was exported to Lightroom. (check my tutorial Before & After – HDR With Photomatix)
Lightroom: Preset based processing (you can always download free presets here) of the single RAW image.
Photoshop:  I blended 2 images together using transparency masks. I used the Stamp Tool to remove distractions in the foreground (leaves, tree branches)

  • Pierre Lachaine says:

    Nice picture, but the narrow strip of river is more an effect of the angle from which the shot was taken, rather than of long focal length. The picture would look different taken with a wide angle lens, but you could still get the narrow strip of water by taking the shot from a low angle. Long focal lengths don’t really compress distance more than any other lens. What they do is get you only the smaller part of a picture that would have been exactly the same but in the middle of a wider picture if taken with a wider lens from the same spot.

    The effect of compressing distance comes from camera to subject distance, not actually the focal length of the lens itself. Ultimately, you get a “compressed” distance between foreground and background only because of where you get to stand by using a longer lens. But even if we do say that focal length compresses distance, it’s distance that’s being compressed, not size. The size of something in the background doesn’t get smaller or narrower, it gets bigger. In this picture, the river looks narrower only because of the height from which you are taking the picture with whatever focal length you happen to be using.

    • Pierre, it is not about the water, it is about perspective. If you forget about the river and try to asses the distance between the trees and the church, the effect of compressed perspective is obvious.

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