How to Use Lens Distortion and Compression in Photography
A camera lens doesn't exactly reflect the world as you see it. If you've ever heard that a camera can add 10 pounds, that's sort of true. Though a camera can also stretch you out and distort you. For me, lens distortion was always most apparent in photos of myself. They’re always just a bit off. Photography is not a direct copy of what you see. This has been one of those things that I’ve intuitively understood but never really thought about until recently.
With photography there’s a lot of reasons that images don’t quite match reality. First, there’s aperture which creates bokeh. We don’t see things in the world with bokeh. There’s also editing, which allows you to morph an image in a way that can be entirely different from reality. On the subtler end, there’s lens distortion and compression. What lens you’re using will have an impact on the overall distortion or compression on your final image. Depending on your lens and focal length that distortion can be almost imperceptible or extremely noticeable.
For years I predominately used a 35mm prime lens. It’s hard to notice lens distortion when you’re only using one lens. These days I have a relatively wide range of lenses and when I switch between them frequently, I really notice the distortion and compression from each lens. I personally think there’s always a time and a place for distortion and compression in photography if it’s used thoughtfully.
Seeing lens distortion in photography
Before you can purposefully use lens distortion or compression, you need to be able to notice it. I recommend setting up an item to shoot or a location and shooting it from the same spot with a range of focal lens. Even knowing about lens distortion, I was a bit shocked to see how drastically different something can look depending on the lens and focal length I used.
Some photographers I know use wider angle lens to slim or lengthen their subjects. Classically, a lot of portrait photographers used 50mm lenses because they’re considered the closest to reality or 80mm lenses because they create particularly good bokeh.
One afternoon, I set up my camera and photographed myself starting from a 15mm focal length up to a 400mm focal length. When I was putting together the final lens distortion GIFS, I felt like I had spent an afternoon staring at a funhouse mirror.
These days, I've noticed a lot of fashion bloggers gravitating to wider angle lenses. I personally tend to photograph most people with a 35mm focal length. To me, it tend to look a bit more flattering than a 50mm or 80mm but doesn't distort the subject too much.
It drives me a little crazy when I hear photographers advise people against using anything wider than a 35mm. Food can take lens distortion pretty well. There aren’t that many straight lines in food photography so you have a lot of wiggle room. While I almost never use my Zeiss 15mm for food photography, I do occasionally find myself using the 24mm focal length with my Canon 24-70. The wider focal lengths work particularly well for tablescapes.
To be honest, I don't spend that much time thinking about my focal length for food photography. I just hate when I hear photography advice given as an absolute so I always want to point out that it's ultimately a creative endeavor. You can use distortion in food photography. There's no rule against it.
Landscapes and cityscapes
With landscapes and cityscapes I often enjoy using the extremes of lens distortion and compression to create a dramatic image. With wide open landscapes, using a 15mm makes them feel even more intensely open. When I want to create an image where it feels like a skyline is looming over someone, I tend to use a much higher focal length in order to compress the image.
Below, all of the images were taken from the exact same spot at an aperture of 5.6. They were all edited exactly the same way. Their differences are entirely due to lens choice.
I often use the Zeiss 15mm for landscapes. It really stretches out the foreground. Also, this is unrelated to distortion but the Zeiss color rendition is by far my favorite. The 15mm Zeiss for Canon is a complete pain in the ass. It's heavy. It's bulky. It doesn't auto focus but the colors are just insanely lovely. I have been half tempted to scoop up the 35mm Zeiss f/1.4 for Canon but it feels a little profligate.
I shot this with a focal length of 50mm. Now that I've gone on and on about the Zeiss color rendition, I am very tempted to complain about the blues and greens in this image. Anyway, there's little overall distortion in this image. It's good if accuracy is your main goal.
I shot this image at a 100mm focal length and it's not the best image but it's here to make a point, not look pretty. When I was starting out, I always just wanted to know what the "best" lens is and it took me a while to understand that it completely depends on what I'm trying to accomplish. The zoom is great if I want to compress something and give the impression that things are closer together than they actually are or if I just really need the zoom (like while on safari, which is literally what I bought this lens for).
For example, it's really difficult to get a shot of the skyline looking so close to the Lincoln Park honeycomb structure without the compression of a zoom lens.
Final thoughts on lenses
When I was starting out, I remember reading some sort of rant about how photography enthusiasts always ask about lens they should use and that a professional would just know. At the time, I really didn't know what lens I should use in what situation but the rant made me feel like I also shouldn't ask or experiment. Now that seems a bit absurd to me. I know how to do certain things very well but there are a lot of cameras and lenses out there. I definitely don't know how to use every single piece of photography equipment ever made. It's helpful to understand distortion and compression as concepts and to experiment with lenses and to ask questions along the way.