The Perspective Compression Effect or How to Use Telephoto Lens Creatively

When we start using telephoto lenses and learn the differences in 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.

The Perspective Compression Effect or How to Use Telephoto Lens Creatively

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
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.

Focal length 10mm on APS-C camera (15mm equivalent)
Focal length 16mm on APS-C camera (24mm equivalent)

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 a 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


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)

by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.