As a 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 definition of foreshortening in photography
- What causes foreshortening
- How foreshortening works
- Tips to capture foreshortening
- Common mistakes
Let’s dive right in.
More of a visual learner? Check out the video I made on this topic:
Table of Contents
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.
In this image I took, I have the subject extending their hand and the hand is foreshortened.
Outside of photography, to foreshorten — means to portray or show an object as closer than it is.
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.
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.
Michelangelo was a great practitioner of foreshortening:
What Causes a Foreshortened Image in Photography?
Foreshortening in photography is caused by the optical illusion that occurs when an object or distance appears compressed due to the angle at which it’s viewed.
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:
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.
Tilting the camera downwards while photographing a person can make their head appear larger than their body:
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.
Here is what a photo at 50mm looks like:
Here is what a photo at 35mm looks like in the same exact spot:
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.
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:
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:
Here’s the bottom line:
Combine the different types of lenses along with a change in camera angle and manipulate your subject’s position.
You will be able to create different types of foreshortening effects.
Why Take a Foreshortened Image in Photography?
Why would a photographer want to use foreshortening?
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.
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:
Photographers love experimenting with new techniques and ways to improve.
Foreshortening is a great technique to experiment with.
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.
By incorporating foreshortening into your work as a photographer, you can add variety and interest to your portfolio.
You can also push the boundaries of your artistic expression while also adding a new tool to your photography toolbelt.
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.
One common pose to use is having the subject reach out their hand towards the lens which will foreshorten their hand and arm:
Another pose is having the subject reach out their foot towards the lens which will foreshorten their foot and leg:
One common angle 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:
Another is to shoot straight on or tilting slightly downwards if trying to foreshorten their hand and arm:
Here’s the biggest thing to remember when foreshortening with portrait photography:
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.
Product Photography Foreshortening
Foreshortening in product photography is great to add depth and dimensionality to your images.
This will make 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.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Foreshortening in Photography
Using foreshortening in photography can be challenging.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
A corporate headshot or brand photography session may require a more straightforward and traditional approach.
4. When Photographing 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.
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.
Foreshortening focuses on the way the objects or parts of the objects are represented within that composition to one another to affect perspective.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Nate Torres is a seasoned photographer and marketing consultant, providing educational photography content while also teaching photographers how to grow their business and brand through SEO. Nate shares his insights on his YouTube channel, “Nate Torres,” and on his personal photography blog, Nate Torres Photography. Beyond the lens, he’s an authoritative voice in the photography industry, serving as a speaker and photography author for renowned photography publications such as Photofocus, SLR Lounge, and Fstoppers. An entrepreneur and lifelong learner at heart, Nate is also the co-founder of Imaginated, an educational platform. Nate shares his insights on his YouTube channel, “Nate Torres,” and on his personal photography blog, Nate Torres Photography. But his expertise doesn’t stop at photography. Whether it’s elucidating the nuances of marketing within the realm of photography or sharing broader marketing insights, Nate Torres brings to the table a wealth of expertise, ensuring readers and audiences benefit from both his photographic acumen and marketing knowledge.