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.

How To Buy A Lens

Before buying a new lens, ask yourself: “What about my current lenses keeps me from making better pictures?” or, alternatively, “Why am I dissatisfied with what I have done so far?” Without a goal, you’re either taking a random shot and hoping it works, or giving in to Gear Acquisition Syndrome; that is, buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff.

If image sharpness is the problem, work on technique and support (monopod/tripod) before upgrading your lens.


If you want more or different focal lengths, ask yourself why you want them. For instance, do you want that ultra-wide lens to “get it all in”? That doesn’t always make for a good picture; ultra-wides do much better when used to get real close to stuff and exaggerate perspective, or when shooting in close quarters (indoor architectural/group shots).

Come Fly With Me

If focus is the problem, first test your understanding of the focus system, then test each lens/camera combination you use for focus errors. Remember that autofocus systems have finite tolerances; there is a range of performance considered acceptable by the manufacturer. If you can’t repeatably generate a focus error under controlled and measured conditions, it’s quite likely you need more practice using the focus system, or your expectations of its performance are unrealistic.

We All Live in a Yellow Paradox

If distortion or chromatic aberration is the problem, there may be no option to buying a different lens if you can’t work around it or correct it in post. If there is a serious optical fault not covered by the above, and the lens is under warranty, it probably needs to be sent in for repair or exchange.


If you want shallow depth-of-field but only have slow (f/3.5 and slower) lenses, a new lens is your only option. There’s no substitute for fast glass when you need it.


Finally, if you’re looking to improve your photography, I highly recommend picking a single lens, preferably a prime lens, and working with it exclusively for an extended time. You will learn its strengths, its weaknesses, and its quirks, and you’ll get used to thinking around its limitations to create the pictures you want. There’s nothing like upgrading the photographer to make your pictures better. 🙂

Subtractive Synthesis

The following image was included in last night’s omnibus post, but on further reflection I think I should give it its own space, because there are a couple lessons it can teach us.


I’d been wanting to try the 90mm on a bearded iris but the irises nearby kept dying before I could get to them. Miraculously, I found one not only alive but in full beauty, and had all my equipment ready to immortalize it. This is not a true macro shot, of course, but no other lens in my bag could give me what the Tamron did in this picture. I am pleased with this image and it prints very well, but there is one oddity that bears further examination.

Photography is a subtractive art. To borrow Saint-Exupéry’s definition of engineering elegance, a photograph is complete not when you have nothing left to add, but when you have nothing left to take away. Naturally, photography has developed many ways to take things out of the frame: choice of lens, choice of perspective, physically moving or rearranging objects, cropping, burning, airbrushing, and the various kinds of clone/heal operations available in Photoshop and similar software.

I did not notice the spider on the upper petals until I was reviewing my shots later that night. I could have cloned it out, as I did with the petal of another flower in the lower left corner (note to self: holding the other flower out of the way with one’s hand is far faster and easier), but I chose to leave the spider there. Why? First, I had another shot taken a few minutes before, featuring the same species of spider:


Second, I should have held the intruding flower out of the way before I photographed the iris, but the spider becomes both a unifying element across the shoot, and a whimsical oddity reminding us that life is not tidy. To eliminate all poossiblity of extraneous matter in a shot like this, I would have to cut the flower, remove any unwanted arthropods, take it to my studio, put it in water, light it against an appropriate background, and photograph it there. A studio shot was not an option here; apart from wanting to photograph the flowers in situ in the soft evening light, the iris belongs to my neighbor, so I couldn’t cut it in the first place.

By now you may be wondering “When is he going to talk about the ethics of image manipulation?” This topic deserves a post of its own, but briefly I can say this: I consider most of my photographic work to be fine art; that is, I seek to create photographs that depict what I felt, rather than scientifically accurate documents of a place or thing. In this context, there is no problem with cloning/retouching; they are legitimate tools of artistic expression. If I were doing documentary photography or photojournalism, the changes I made to the image of the iris would be completely unacceptable.

Printing Grab Shots Large

Thom Hogan is solely responsible for making photography my primary hobby. I am indebted to many other photographers for ideas and technique, but were it not for reading Thom’s review of the Nikon D70 when I was looking for a camera, I wouldn’t be here today. I recently had occasion to experimentally verify his maxims for printing when working with an old vacation snapshot.

Continue reading “Printing Grab Shots Large”