Ready For My Close-Up

The photograph of President and Mrs. Biden and President and Mrs. Carter made at their recent visit seems to have broken the Internet, with shock and laughter and mockery and “well, ackshully” fact-checking galore. I wouldn’t normally add to it, but I occasionally teach people how to photograph, and this picture is a great example for explaining explain certain optical phenomena.

First, here’s the picture:

The light is consistent across the frame (particularly, look at shadows under chins) and there are no signs of compositing or cutting-and-pasting image elements. The photographer probably manipulated contrast, did some color correction, and added a bit of sharpening, but that’s about it.

So why do the Bidens look so big and the Carters look so small, almost like dolls or puppets? What we are seeing here is the effect of a wide-angle lens used at very short range; on 35mm film, the focal length would be no longer than 24mm, and could be as short as 16mm. The photographer likely had very little room to work with and could not get the camera back far enough to use a longer lens.

Wide-angles used close-in create deep perspective and exaggerate the sizes of objects both close to the camera and at the edges of the frame. The effect is analogous to the Mercator map projection, where Greenland is rendered larger than South America, though it is in reality much smaller. In this photograph, two particular size relationships are telling:

  • Compare the size of Jimmy’s head and his feet. He looks like he’s wearing clown shoes; that size distortion/perspective exaggeration is an inevitable effect of this combination of lens and camera position.
  • Though the Carters are smaller people than the Bidens to begin with, and older, both Carters are also sitting farther away from the camera than both Bidens. If the photographer were using a longer lens from farther away it wouldn’t be so noticeable, but the same perspective exaggeration that makes Jimmy’s feet huge makes both Bidens look much larger than both Carters.

Modern image software offers tools that can be used to reduce the effect of distortions at the edge of the frame, but there’s nothing really that can be done to modify near/far exaggerations without accurate depth data for every pixel in the whole image, and doing that transformation without making it look silly is computationally quite expensive.

I must unfortunately report that this is not a case of nefarious Photoshopping, but rather of a photographer constrained by a small space to a particular tool that has interesting and potentially amusing side effects.

And that’s the way it is. This is Nicholas Haggin, wishing you fair subjects and following light.

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