On Monday, a photo came out with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden kneeling next to Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. The older couple is dwarfed by the Bidens; Joe and Jill look like ogre-sized heads of state, while the Carters look Smurf-sized, sinking into their large floral-pattern chairs.
It makes for a funny photo, but obviously doesn’t speak to each person’s actual size. Joe Biden isn’t tall enough to dunk, and Jimmy Carter isn’t really that small. So why does it look that way?
Well, photographers regularly have to use techniques that make photos feasible when their working conditions make them nearly impossible. In the case of the Bidens and Carters, the photographer had to get four people, all confined to a small room, into a single frame. The result is some common photo trickery that we actually see pretty often but tend not to think twice about.
Why the Bidens looked so big (and the Carters so small)
Jack Crosbie, a photographer and writer, tells Lifehacker that the size disparity basically boils down to these two things: “Mostly what you’re seeing is kind of bad framing, as the photographer had to use a wide-angle lens in what was probably a pretty small room,” he says.
“Everything gets stretched out on the edges with a wide-angle lens,” Crosbie continues, noting that what you’re seeing with a wide-angle photo is the fish-eye effect.
There’s also the fact that the Carters are smaller than the Bidens, just not to degree shown. Being seated didn’t help either, as Crosbie explains:
Posture is also important in this picture as the Carter’ are both sitting down, folded in chairs and the Bidens are kneeling upright facing the camera.
So, in reality, the photographer had to get four people, all huddled into a small room, in a single frame, and using a wide-angle lens gave the effect of pushing the Carters back a little deeper and making the Bidens appear bigger.
What other tricks do photographers use?
There are plenty of other tricks that photographers use regularly, most of which go unnoticed by regular readers. Here are some we encounter most often:
Telephoto lenses can make places look more crowded than they are
One thing that observers should always be aware of is the limitation of a single frame. There’s only so much area that handheld cameras can capture with one snap, as Scott Heins, a New York City–based photojournalist, tells Lifehacker:
Thirteen people can show up for a protest/march but I could photograph them up close with a fairly telephoto lens to make it look like the event was packed with people.
Heins says that telephoto lenses are often used to give the illusion of condensed space, when in reality the space being photographed isn’t that crowded. “A telephoto lens will compress distance between things, so people appear much closer to one another depth-wise,” he says.
In the early days of the pandemic, this kind of photo caused a stir, particularly when droves of people were photographed congregating in parks. The images of revelers failing to socially distance were shocking to the uneducated observer, but in reality people were a lot further apart than they looked.
Compositing can make people look together when they’re really not
One lesser-known technique that happens frequently, especially in an editorial sense, is compositing. It typically happens when you’re trying to get many, many people into one shot when it’s unlikely that all the subjects will ever really be in the same vicinity. It applies to “photos that you’ll often see in magazines that are big group shots,” Heins says.
He goes on to explain:
Like the entire cast of a Star Wars movie—those photos will very often be multiple pictures put together because it’s pretty impossible to get all 6-20 people in the room at the same time. This goes beyond just like Photoshopping a bunch of people together on a cover, since the “set” of the photo (often a big pretty room) suggests pretty firmly that everyone’s all in the same place posing.
Of course, you might be able to tell when this is done with a standard tool like Photoshop, since certain edited images can appear quite crude. When it comes to the really professional jobs, though, it gets a little harder to tell when there’s trickery behind the scenes.