Photographic Techniques: Forced Perspective

Anyone who’s been photographing for a while will already know this trick from the photographer’s grab-bag of tricks. Some of the rest of you might know what it is, if not the proper name, from gag photos taken on vacation. For the rest of us, the term “forced perspective” didn’t enter our lexicons until after Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring movies were out and we were left wondering how he managed to make the actors playing the dwarves and the hobbits appear to be so much shorter than the actors playing the humans and the elves.

Forced perspective is the trick of using the fact that the human eyeball is not all that great at judging size and distance without clear references. Knowing how to properly manipulate this bug in our eyesight is what makes the successful use of forced perspective trick people into believing that the actors playing the hobbits are so much shorter than the actors playing the humans and elves.

The way that forced perspective is used is to set the stage for the image in such a way that the viewer has no way to judge just how far away the objects or people are from each other. For instance, in this picture of the leaning tower in Pisa, the perspective makes it look as if the man is holding up the tower. We have no clear visual cues as to where he is standing in relation to the tower. His hand is off to the side with no visible gap between it and the tower to our view. Thus, even though we know that the tower is much, much larger than the man and that it is physically impossible for him to 1) be tall enough to be taller than the tower, 2) hold the tower up at all, our eyes are tricked into seeing a man holding up the leaning tower of Pisa.

Peter Jackson expanded on that trick in Lord of the Ring and hit upon a way to allow the camera to pan or move without disrupting the illusion that allows the forced perspective trick to work. How exactly Jackson did this will be covered in a future entry. For now, we’d love to hear how you’ve used this trick in your photography. Share your photos on Facebook with us or drop us a line in the comments below!

— da Bird