It’s not just wide angle distortion that makes this photo of Bidens and Carters weird
By now you’ve probably seen the photo of President and First Lady Biden with the Former President and First Lady Carter. It is notable for its historical aspects, but it also looks quite strange. The Bidens eclipse the Carters, who sit in oversized armchairs. It almost looks Photoshopped.
I’ve seen a few explanations for attributing weirdness to a wide-angle lens before, but that’s only part of the story.
Yes, the photographer almost certainly used a wide angle lens like the Nikon 14-24mm or Canon 16-35mm zooms. Both are extremely popular with photojournalists who generally like to get up close and personal with their subjects and often need to shoot in tight spaces.
When you shoot with a wide angle lens, you will get some distortion. You’ve probably been through this before, but if not, turn on your phone’s ultra-wide camera (if it has one) and take a close-up photo of your face. Your nose will be huge and your ears will fall in the background. It’s not very flattering unless you go for the Johnny Depp Fear and loathing in Las Vegas see.
Ultra-wide-angle lenses rarely allow for flattering portraits, especially up close. This is in part because of the optical distortion inherent in the lens itself. Light from the very edges of the mount enters the lens at an extreme angle. Pick an object in your room that is on the side. (It should be 70 degrees rather than 90 degrees from your line of sight.) Now hold your smartphone or other camera directly in front of your eyes. The sensor that picks up the light will be parallel to your face and faces straight ahead. Imagine the path the light bouncing off your off-center subject must take to reach this sensor. It’s a very tight turn.
This strange light path leads to a distortion. Many high-end lenses (especially zooms) have a glass element on the inside specifically designed to help correct this. But when you get really wide, it’s hard to overcome the amount of distortion that occurs.
The different types of distortion
In wide angle lenses, you will usually encounter a phenomenon called barrel distortion in which the entire image appears to tilt outward from the middle. For example, if you take a photo of a square box on a lens with barrel distortion, it will look puffy with its edges curving outward.
The opposite effect is called cushion distortion in which the image pushes from its edges towards the middle of the frame. This happens more in longer lenses or at the longer end of a zoom lens. Finally, there is a hybrid form of distortion called mustache distortion in which the middle tilts more than the sides.
It can be difficult to determine exactly what kind of distortion you’re looking at if it’s not a straight shot with straight lines in the frame that look skewed. To combat any distortion, photographers can use an optical technique and software like Adobe Lightroom, which automatically applies lens profiles to images taken with specific glass to clean up optical distortion. Every time you take a photo with your iPhone, it applies a similar correction.
The presidential photo no longer contains EXIF ââdata to indicate exactly which lens was used when it was taken, but it was obviously a wide-angle model. To say that it was simply “lens distortion” that made the Carters and Bidens look disproportionate seems inaccurate.
It’s all about perspective
When you get closer to or away from a subject with any lens, you experience a phenomenon called perspective distortion. It has little to do with the lens and everything to do with the distance between the camera and the subject and the relative distance between objects in the image.
Consider that wide-angle selfie you took with your smartphone. To fill the frame of your face, you have to be very close. Now let’s say you had to be four inches from your face just to get a full screen shot. In this scenario, the distance from the tip of your nose to your ears is probably about the same distance.
Take a photo with that same super wide-angle lens at arm’s length, then zoom in on your face. You’ll lose some picture quality because your phone’s camera doesn’t have a ton of megapixels, but you’ll also notice that your face looks pretty normal. This is an example of perspective distortion.
Now consider again the image of presidential families. This photographer is almost certainly up to his subjects due to space constraints, so they have to use a wide angle lens to fit all of the people in the frame. Rosalynn Carter is clearly more distant than any other subject, which is why President Biden looks like a giant next to her. Just look at his foot – it’s almost equal with Jimmy Carter’s. It is the relationship between the objects and the distance to the photographer that counts here.
If you zoom in on Dr. Jill Biden’s face, which is closest to the edge of the frame, you’ll see that it doesn’t look stretched, if at all, as it’s facing the camera directly, so it’s there is no distortion of perspective. . With barrel distortion, you would expect it to shrink as it nears the edge of the frame. With a cushion distortion, you’d expect her face to stretch. In this case, it really didn’t do much either.
Since wide-angle lenses generally require photographers to get close to their subjects, we often inexorably link the lenses themselves to the effect of distortion. But it’s not always that simple. The classic photographic textbook called Light: Science & Magic by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua does everything possible to clear this up. âWhen most photographers first use a wide-angle lens, they decide that the lens introduces a lot of distortion,â he says. “That is not exactly correct. The position of the camera determines the distortion of the perspective, not that of the lens. “
So what can you do with this tedious knowledge? Well, aside from annoying your friends with the differences between optical distortion and perspective, it might help you take better photos. This includes selfies. If you hold the camera too close to your face, you will exaggerate the distance between your features, which could give you a bad image. Try holding the camera a little further away, then zoom in. Or just lean over it.