What is Foreshortening in Photography? Complete Guide

Are you an aspiring photographer looking to add depth and dimension to your images? Have you ever heard the term “foreshortening” and wondered what it means for your photography?

As an experienced portrait photographer, I’ve learned that foreshortening can be an incredibly powerful tool for creating dynamic and engaging images. But what exactly is foreshortening, and how can you use it to take your photography to the next level?

In this article, I’ll be exploring the ins and outs of foreshortening in photography, including how it works, the techniques you can use to achieve it in your own work, examples of foreshortening, and why photographers may or may not want to use foreshortening. With a clear understanding of foreshortening, you’ll be able to create images that pop off the page and capture your viewers’ attention.

So if you’re ready to take your photography to the next level, read on to discover everything you need to know about foreshortening in photography.

More of a visual learner? Check out the video I made on this topic:

Make Your Photos Look 3D – Foreshortening in Photography

What is Foreshortening in Photography?

Foreshortening in photography is a perspective technique to make an object or subject appear closer with less depth.

The goal of foreshortening in photography is to create an image that appears to be coming toward the viewer, making it more engaging and visually interesting.

For example, in this image I took, I have the subject extending their hand and the hand is foreshortened.

frame within a frame photography
example of foreshortening

Outside of photography, to foreshorten — means to portray or show an object as closer than it is. So essentially we just take this definition and apply it to the photography realm.

It’s also important to note that “foreshortening” actually comes from the art world in general, where it refers to the technique of depicting an object or figure as closer than it actually is by shortening its length in the drawing or painting.

This technique can be found in many forms of art outside of photography such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and even film.

In fact, Michelangelo was a great practitioner of foreshortening.

What Causes a Foreshortened Image in Photography?

Foreshortening in photography is caused by the distortion of perspective that occurs when the subject or object is viewed at an angle, rather than straight on.

This perspective is distorted due to the way our eyes perceive depth and distance. When we view an object straight on, the object appears to have true proportions and dimensions.

When we view an object at an angle, however, the dimensions appear to change. The parts of the object closest to the lens will appear larger, while the parts of the object furthest away from the lens will appear smaller.

For example, have you seen those classic photos of people posing in front of the Eiffel Tower where they appear to be putting their finger on top of the Eiffel Tower? That’s an example of foreshortening.

Foreshortening in photography is influenced by four main factors:

1. Changing the Camera Angle

The first factor that can create a foreshortened image has to do with the photographer’s camera angle. When the camera is tilted or angled a certain way, the subject’s proportions in the x and y axes change, which can create the illusion of foreshortening.

For example, tilting the camera downwards while photographing a person can make their head appear larger than their body and vice versa if you tilt the camera upwards.

2. Adjusting Focal Length

The second factor that can create a foreshortened image is by adjusting the focal length. When the focal length of the lens is adjusted, the photographer can change the size of the subject in the frame.

A longer focal length lens can make the subject appear larger in the frame while a shorter focal length lens can make the subject appear smaller.

When the longer focal length lens is used on a subject at an angle, the parts of the subject close to the camera lens will appear larger in the x and y axes, creating the illusion of foreshortening.

3. Manipulating the Subject’s Position

The third factor that can create a foreshortened image is by manipulating your subject’s position in the frame.

For example, you could ask the subject to lean towards the camera to make their head appear larger in the frame than their body.

Another example, and a more creative one, is to have your subject reach out with their hand towards the camera lens to make a 3D look and effect as if they’re reaching out to the viewer.

4. Using Different Types of Lenses

The final factor that can create a foreshortened image is by using different types of lenses.

For example, wide-angle lenses (lenses less than or equal to 35mm) can be used to exaggerate the distortion of perspective and create a more pronounced sense of foreshortening.

On the other hand, a telephoto lens (lenses greater than or equal to 60mm) can be used to compress the perspective and create a more subtle sense of foreshortening.

Combine the different types of lenses along with a change in camera angle and manipulate your subject’s position and you will be able to create different types of foreshortening effects.

Why Take a Foreshortened Image in Photography?

We’ve discussed what foreshortening is in photography and what causes it, but why would a photographer want to employ this technique?

Here are the four main reasons why a photographer may want to consider taking a foreshortened image in photography:

1. Create a Sense of Depth

If your objective as a photographer is to create a sense of depth, then foreshortening is a technique you may want to consider.

Foreshortening is a great way to add depth to an image to make it more visually interesting and dynamic.

2. Emphasize the Subject

Foreshortening can also be used to add emphasis to your photo by highlighting and drawing attention to certain parts of the subject or to create a sense of action.

For example, a foreshortened image of a runner against a track background can create the impression of speed and motion. This is often popularized in movies and with the Flash superhero character.

3. Add Drama

If your goal as a photographer is to add some drama to your image, then foreshortening can accomplish this by exaggerating the proportions of the subject.

If done correctly, it could create a more intense and emotional impact on the viewer.

4. Experimentation

Photographers love experimenting with new techniques and ways to improve. Foreshortening is a great technique to experiment with because it can be a bit challenging in terms of which parts of the body to foreshorten without it looking clownish, and it can also be rewarding when you get it down.

Overall, by incorporating foreshortening into your work as a photographer, you can add variety and interest to your portfolio and push the boundaries of your artistic expression while also adding a new tool to your photography toolbelt.

Foreshortening vs Perspective

Based on other discussions among photographers, there appears to sometimes be confusion about the difference between “foreshortening” and “perspective” and the difference between the two.

In short, perspective is more concerned with the overall composition and structure of the image, while foreshortening focuses on the way the objects or parts of the objects are represented within that composition to one another to affect perspective.

Perspective refers to the illusion of depth with objects in the distance/background appearing smaller and more compressed than the objects in the foreground.

Foreshortening, on the other hand, is a technique that distorts the perspective by using camera angles, focal length, manipulation of the subject, and different lenses in order to create the illusion of objects receding or advancing into space within the frame.

How to Take Foreshortened Images in Photography

Now let’s dive into how to capture foreshortening in your photography based on different photography niches.

Portrait Photography Foreshortening

In portrait photography, foreshortening is a great technique you can use when you want to add depth, drama, and emotion to your portraits.

The main things I look at when I want to take a portrait that uses foreshortening are the parts of the body I want to be foreshortened, the angle I’m in, and the lens I’m using.

When it comes to the parts of the body that can be foreshortened, they are often the hands/arms and the legs/feet.

Common poses to use are having the subject reach out their hand towards the lens which will foreshorten their hand and arm, and having the subject reach out their foot towards the lens which will foreshorten their foot and leg.

The common angles to use when using foreshortening is to either shoot low while tilting the camera up which is great to use when trying to foreshorten their foot and leg, or to shoot straight on or tilting slightly downwards if trying to foreshorten their hand and arm.

foreshortened foot image example
foreshortened foot

The biggest thing to remember when foreshortening with portrait photography is to avoid any unflattering instances of foreshortening such as where it looks like one leg is shorter than another or if they look like their arm is in their body.

Ways to avoid this include making sure everything is bent and at an angle, this way you avoid instances that make the subject look unflattering.

The camera lens I often like to use is a 35mm lens which is more on the wide-angle side.

Landscape Photography Foreshortening

You can implement foreshortening into landscape photography by changing viewpoints, looking for lines and shapes, and experimenting with framing.

Examples of foreshortening in landscape photography include images that use wide-angle lenses to exaggerate the perspective, such as the shot of a road receding into the distance, or images that use a strong foreground element to create a sense of depth, such as a tree or rock formation in the foreground of the image.

Other examples could include images that use leading lines or shapes within the landscape to create a sense of foreshortening, such as a winding river or a mountain range that appears to stretch off into the distance. By using these techniques, photographers can create dynamic and visually interesting images that capture the beauty and majesty of the natural world.

foreshortened landscape image
foreshortened rocks in landscape image

Product Photography Foreshortening

Foreshortening in product photography is great to add depth and dimensionality to your images — making the product appear more dynamic and visually interesting.

Ways you can implement foreshortening in product photography is by changing the angle of your camera, experimenting with lighting, and playing with composition.

Examples of foreshortening in product photography include images that use a low angle to make the product appear larger and more prominent, such as a close-up shot of a watch or jewelry.

Other examples could include images that use a wide-angle lens to create a sense of depth and dimensionality, such as a shot of a camera or electronic device on a table with a strong foreground element.

By using these techniques, photographers can create dynamic and visually interesting product images that stand out and capture the attention of potential customers.

foreshortened product image
foreshortened product image of wine glass

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Foreshortening in Photography

Using foreshortening in photography can be challenging, and there are some common mistakes that photographers can make when attempting to capture dynamic and visually interesting shots. Here are some of the most common mistakes to avoid when using foreshortening in photography:

Over-Exaggerating the Perspective

The first mistake you’ll want to avoid is over-exaggerating the perspective.

While foreshortening is all about exaggerating perspective, you don’t want to overdo it. If you go too far with it, it can create an unnatural and distorted image that doesn’t look aesthetic.

Ignoring the Background

The second mistake you’ll want to avoid is ignoring the background when foreshortening.

While the subject is important, it’s also important to pay attention to the background because if it’s cluttered or distracting, it can detract from the impact of your foreshortened shot.

Not Adjusting Camera Settings

The third mistake you’ll want to avoid is not adjusting camera settings.

Foreshortening can require different camera settings such as a wider aperture to create a shallow depth of field, or a slower shutter speed to capture movement in a shot, so it’s important to know your camera settings before trying a foreshortened image.

Forgetting About the Subject

The final mistake is to avoid forgetting about the subject. This one may sound like a no-brainer but imagine you have your subject stick out their hand in order to create foreshortening.

Well imagine their hand is covering their face — now the subject is overshadowed and unrecognizable.

When Should Photographers Not Consider Using Foreshortening?

While foreshortening is a great technique for creating dynamic and visually interesting images, there are some situations you’ll want to avoid using it.

Let’s take a look at those situations now:

When Photographing in Tight or Limited Space

Foreshortening often requires a wider field of view, which may be difficult to achieve in a tight or limited space. In these situations, it may be better to use other techniques to capture the shot.

When Photographing Certain Subjects

Foreshortening can be challenging when photographing certain subjects, such as animals or objects with irregular shapes.

In these cases, other techniques such as perspective or symmetry may be more effective.

When Photographing for a Specific Purpose or Audience

Foreshortening can create dramatic and visually interesting images, but it may not always be appropriate for the specific purpose or audience of the photo.

For example, a corporate headshot or brand photography session may require a more straightforward and traditional approach.

When Shooting for Documentation Purposes

Foreshortening can create a distorted perspective, which may not be ideal when shooting for documentation purposes.

In these cases, a more objective and accurate approach may be necessary.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, foreshortening is a great technique to have under your photography toolbelt.

If you haven’t tried this technique before, I recommend you go out and try it to see if you like it. Good luck and happy photographing!

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes a foreshortened image?

A foreshortened image is caused by the distortion of the perspective of an object or subject in a photograph, resulting from the angle and position of the camera, the focal length of the lens, and the placement of the subject within the frame. This distortion can create a dynamic and visually interesting image, but it can also result in a distorted or unrealistic representation of the subject.

Why is it important to learn about foreshortening?

Foreshortening is an important technique for photographers as it can add depth and dimension to their images, creating a more dynamic and engaging composition. Understanding foreshortening can also help photographers avoid common mistakes and make more intentional decisions when composing their shots.

Who was known for the technique of foreshortening?

The technique of foreshortening has been used by many artists throughout history, but one of the most famous examples is the Italian painter Michelangelo. He was known for his skill in depicting the human form in dynamic and dramatic poses, often using foreshortening to create a sense of depth and movement in his works.