When square isn’t

Winter is great for making images of shapes – the stark world of white snow and dark other really helps visualize design elements that help photographs look interesting.  But it’s important to make sure you see what you expect.

I’ve found that curves and short focal lengths can make an unsettling looking world in an image.  For example, all the following images were made with the camera square on the horizon with a short (28mm) focal length.  I wanted to show the wooden walk curving into the center of the image from its start in one of the corners.  It took me a while to get my eye and camera into sync, though!

Looking at this first attempt makes me dizzy.  It feels like the world is slipping downhill to the right.  Not sure I want to cross that bridge!  The walk definitely takes my eye from the corner to the center, but it feels like a pretty slippery trip.

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How about if I simply move to the right a bit?

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No, that makes it worse.  Now the world is definitely tilting to the right and downhill.  Maybe I’m on the wrong side of this scene.

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OK, I moved to the other side of the bridge (which was level and flat after all).  This doesn’t look quite as dizzy but still just a bit tilted to the left.  Maybe I’m too high for this focal length.  Or perhaps I am leaning a bit?

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Yeah, that’s much better.  All I did was squat down a bit and take the same composition.  Now the near part of the bridge looks solidly level and not a distraction; leads my eye to the back center like I want.  Can I add a little height back?

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That’s what I want.  The front part of the bridge is still tilted a bit to the left but without the visual cue of the left edge it’s less of a distraction.  My eye is quickly moving along the bridge to the back center, which looks perfectly normal against the horizon.

How could I have done this differently?  Well, I could have used a longer focal length – say 100mm – and backed away from the scene a bit.  This would have minimized the curvature in the scene added by the 28mm lens, but it would have also limited how much I could put in the foreground.  I’m glad it worked using the 28mm – the scene has some depth to it with minimal distortion.

The curve works just like I intended – see if you can ignore following it with your eye all the way back into the scene.  Granted, it would be a significantly more interesting image if there was a reward for your eye reaching that point; say, a polar bear glancing around a tree.  But that would be a much more challenging image to deal with than just short focal lengths and curves!

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