Forced perspective requires practice and an open mind

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Minnehaha Falls flowing into a mug
Who doesn't enjoy a cold cup of Minnehaha Falls in the afternoon?

Forced perspective is a technique that creates illusions and produce an array of different effects with strategic use of environmental context and other cues. Commonly found in fun houses, film, and any tourist’s photograph of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, this illusion manipulates the eye’s perception of depth and size to create fun and interesting photos.

Forced perspective is used in all kinds of mediums. The Statue of Liberty uses forced perspective to look proportional when viewed from its base, Michelangelo’s David uses a similar technique. In painting, linear perspective was first utilized in the 1400’s by Filippo Brunelleschi. Before this, size and depth were hardly explored, in regards to perspective, on the 2-dimensional canvas.

With photography, we can play around with cues to alter the sense of size and depth to force perspective. These cues include distance, focus/blur, lighting, and environmental context.

Examples of forced perspective

We shot many photos to try out these effects, some of these were successful, and some of these were difficult to execute.

A man holding his arm out, creating the illusion of pushing on a tower at the Armory
Ben takes on the Armory at the University of Minnesota campus.

One of the most fundamental examples of forced perspective alters the size of objects. This technique takes advantage of the angle of the camera and lack of depth perception in a single lens. This type of forced perspective is very common in film– ubiquitous in the Lord of the Rings movies. Unfortunately, some of the cues in our photo give away the secret. First of all, the visible ground between Ben and the Armory tower detracts from the effect. There is also a road between them, so we cropped the image to enhance the effect as much as possible.

Using the correct angles makes the distant object appear much closer. Most of all, a larger depth-of-field is necessary to hold both subjects in focus, and at a similar exposure.

Making close subjects appear huge

A harmonica appears to be thrust down onto a man (Ben)
Ben fends off a harmonica in a Minneapolis skyway.

It is also possible to make small, closer objects seem huge. This photo also uses a smaller aperture of f/16 to hold the two main subjects at a similar level of focus.

Witch's Hat Tower is overlaid by a pocket watch, vaguely making it look like a clock tower
The Witch’s Hat Tower in Prospect Park, St. Paul, MN is the rumored inspiration for Bob Dylan’s haunting song “All Along the Watchtower.”

Extra work was necessary for this photo, and we were still stuck with a misty-looking shot — fitting for the weather at the time. The Witch’s Hat Tower in Prospect Park is overlapped by a small pocket watch held up by string (visible on the watch), but was edited out in Adobe Lightroom. We used the Spot Removal Tool to clone the sky over the string. We also added a radial filter to increase the exposure on the pocket watch and more closely resemble the exposure of the Witch’s Hat. After many shots, while the watch swung and twisted back and forth, we landed a shot that matched the tower as closely as we could. We’d love to see your attempts on our Facebook page.

Don’t allow forced perspective to intimidate

A man sits at a chair looking at a piece of paper, but everything is sideways
An empty hallway at the U of M campus– sideways.

A fun use of forced perspective creates the illusion of defying gravity. This technique is very dependent on having a great location. Employing this technique is as simple as turning the camera sideways and promoting this perspective by adding environmental context.

This technique is difficult if you lack carpeted walls and empty floors. Therefore, laying a table sideways, adding people, and taping things to the wall may serve to improve this illusion. An ideal location is also absolutely necessary. Also, make sure that your model is holding a realistic-looking pose.

With forced perspective, it’s important that you don’t feel intimidated. This is a fun technique that requires the photographer to think outside the box and see their surroundings in a new perspective. Ideas may not come immediately, so an open mind is key to achieving and visualizing these shots.

How could we improve these techniques? Where did we execute forced perspective strongly and where did we blunder? Share your opinions in the comments.

4 COMMENTS

  1. How much of a challenge was it to communicate with your model about hand position and small details? I find that even in less technical shots it’s hard because things like pinky position jump out at you, but can be hard to make clear.

    • It was extremely difficult! Even with a different example that I was trying to do on my own was hard (I was squishing the head of a statue and it didn’t turn out very believable). With the pocket watch, I said the same thing over and over as it swung back and forth slightly. Very public places don’t help with focus, either.

  2. Forced perspective gets me all the time. I recently saw a video of a “giant sea turtle” but the videographer just filmed his subjects further away from a regular turtle. regardless, millions of people believed it and liked the video.

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