It’s All in Your Perspective

Tower Bridge
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During the past several years, I have migrated to smaller gear. Importantly, this has included the diminutive Sony RX100 camera. For the money, this may be the most versatile small travel camera on the market today (though the competition stiffens every year – which is a good thing 🙂 ; and there are a couple other systems – like the Olympus 4:3 outfit, and the Fujifilm XT series – that have a heavy pro following). But no matter what gear you might be carrying, or using, there are going to be compromises and things a particular “kit” is just not going to be able to handle. For me, with the gear I carry and the travel I do, it is more often than not, two things: “reach” and “perspective.”

The only way I know of to fix the “reach” issue is to add a heavy telephoto to the mix, or get closer (which isn’t always going to be an option). So I haven’t attempted to “fix” that. Rather, I am working around it as best I can. Perspective, however, I have learned, I can “fix.” Well, at least I can improve it in post-processing.

The only way I know to fix the “reach issue is to add a heavy telephoto … or get closer the subject

Perspective is, in some ways, the opposite problem of “reach.” It often involves being too close, or the lens being “too wide” (if that is possible 🙂 ). Sometimes the same solution can be applied; i.e., moving. For many years, very good photographers did not have the quality zoom lenses we have today and used to “zoom” with their feet. When possible, that is still excellent advice. But moving away from your subject creates new challenges. It makes the subject smaller in the frame. It introduces elements and obstructions into the image that you often do not want. And often the need is to get higher and that is not always possible. I love shooting landscape images (when I get the opportunity) from the top deck of the cruise ship because it aids in perspective for tall subjects by getting me higher. But walking around on location, I often do not have that luxury. If you can find a way to get higher, or have the opportunity to work and area and find higher viewpoints, seek them out.

Tower Bridge
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

To try to ameliorate these issues, I have learned yet another virtue of post-processing software. Perhaps unfortunately, my usage will most center around Adobe’s products, because it is what I have and know. I have been impressed with the capabilities of other software – notably OnOne (which unfortunately, hasn’t worked well with my hardware), and am sure they all have built this feature in their software. It is worth exploring. This is not a full on tutorial. There are a ton of them out there already. This is really more designed to bring this issue to the reader’s attention and then encourage some exploring of your own.

Fixing perspective issues, I have learned, is yet another virtue of modern post-processing software

I have been able to remarkably improve the perspective on several of my travel images, mostly using the Transform Perspective tool in Adobe Photoshop. The Tower Bridge image was the most pronounced example I could find in my recent “take” of hundreds of images in the British Isles. We were on a “whirlwind” 4-hour tour of parts of London, and the bridge was not planned by our guide to be a part of the tour. But we cajoled him into getting us somewhere close enough to stop and photograph it. This is the location he go us too. This is obviously an image better shot from a distance, and because of the urban landscape, from somewhere high. But that wasn’t going to happen. When I got home, I was not surprised – but was still mildly disappointed with the results of my several images. But I went to work with Photoshop’s Transform Perspective tool, and the second image is my result. I believe it is much more pleasing.

Using the tool requires a combination of other tools, including some of Photoshop’s “content-aware” features, and other straightening tools. There is a bit of a learning curve. (for example, I had to learn that this tool does not operate on the background image, and you need to create a duplicate layer to do the corrections on, which is always a good practice anyway, for non-destructive editing). Also, perspective corrections also often change the aspect and scale of an image (stretching and/or squeezing), and there is a scale tool for working with those adustments. Something I find particularly useful in Photoshop, is to pull “guides” (horizontal and vertical lines) out from the margins around the areas I am trying to get horizontally or vertically level. Guides also help with correcting vertical perspective. In Adobe Light Room, you can use the Lens overlay feature to create (and scale) a grid overlay pattern on the image (although my brief expirimentation leads me to believe that is is not a versatile as the Transform Perspective Tool in Photoshop).

One important item to be aware of, is that all the above corrections will almost always result in the loss of some of your image (i.e., cropping). When shooting in these situations, it is wise to leave some space around the subject to allow for later cropping. One of the most useful editions to Photoshop in recent years is “content aware” technology. Content aware allows you to remove, replace, move and even crop items (without having to eliminate cropped elements), letting the Photoshop engine make its best “guess” at filling in the space based on the surroundings. It is certainly not perfect. But it is pretty surprisingly good, a lot of the time. Of course, it is nothing you couldn’t already do – manually – but it was painstaking enough that most of us just cropped the best we could, instead. To the best of my knowledge, the Content Aware feature is not yet available in Light Room. But in Photoshop, I can often use content aware cropping, content aware fill, or both, to retain elements of an image that would otherwise have been lost to cropping. Busy images do not work as well, but images with simple graphics or mono color (sky, grass, etc.) work well, often with little or no cleanup afterward.

I recently saw some images posted by another talented shooter taken with a wide-angle lens, that showed perspective distortion at the edges – a possible characteristic of wide-angle lenses with “grand landscape” type images. Reaching out to him, I learned he (like I would guess the majority of shooters today) uses Adobe’s Light Room (which has really been made and marketed to photographers). I am old school, and set in my ways (which may really just be another way of saying “lazy” :-)).

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

But I do have Light Room, so I looked at it. The “Transform” tool performs a similar function (it is also resident in the ACR converter that I use to convert my raw images – which is supposed to be the same “engine” as Light Room). I imported the Eiffel Tower image into Light Room and used the Transform tool in the Develop Module to correct the perspective on this image. Fortunately, this one only required some mild vertical correction and the application of the sliders were pretty easy. In doing my research I found this really well-written article on how to accomplish perspective corrections in Light Room and Photoshop (although it is really most a Light Room article). Even if you use other post-processing software, there is useful information in this easy-to-read tutorial and I recommend reading it.

Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I felt like it deserved a tougher test, so I took one of my poorly executed images through the same “hoops.” The Amsterdam image is obviously one where the shooter (yours truly) did not get his handheld image level in the camera to start with. But just making a quick “rotate” adjustment in any software reveals that there is more at issue here than just the level part (for what its worth, Photoshop has a “straighten” tool built into its cropping tool for fixing these types of issues. My experience has been that I get better results using guides and doing it myself, but YMMV). So, once again, I imported this image into Light Room, and went directly to the Transform Tool. I used the sliders for rotate, vertical and horizontal to get this one “right” (note that there is still a perspective issue on the wing to the left on the building – which may be fixable, but is beyond my talent level at the moment). There is also a slider for scale (you inevitably will get some cropping and may have to make an image smaller or even larger to fit the space properly and maintain all elements of the photo) and for adjusting aspect ratio. These same tools exist in ACR, but the Light Room implementation seems much more intuitive and easy to use. Either way, I think its pretty powerful stuff. Here is the result. I think it is much more pleasing than the original. I did my post-processing from start to finish in Light Room on this one.

Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Earlier, I emphasized “similar” because the Photoshop Transform and Light Room Transform tools are not exactly identical tools. I suspect the “engine” is the same under the hood, but the controls are very different. After some playing I came to the conclusion (based only on my own limited experience) that I was still getting my desired result more effectively using the Photoshop Transform Tools. One thing that the Photoshop tool has is something called “skew.” This allows a little more “freeform” correction, by adding a horizontal or vertical slant to the subject. I find that when I am having trouble matching the vertical perspective and the horizontal rotation, that this is very useful for changing the horizontal in the image without completely changing the vertical. Images like the Eiffel Tower image often present such challenges, and I did apply some skew transformation to several of my tower images on my website. I most certainly used it on the Tower Bridge image. I also think it is easier to minimize the loss of parts of the image from cropping using Photoshop. However, this tool often means using either creative cropping, content aware replacement, or some combination of both.

When shooting in these situations, it is wise to leave some space around the subject to allow for inevitable cropping

These tools require some ability with software, patience, and the willingness to work on post-processing to obtain a desired result. I appreciate that not everyone wants to do this. But I think that the results are often worth the effort. I have been using the Transform Perspective tool for a long time, now. But perhaps not to its best use. I encourage you to try some of these tools. Use non-destructive techniques, or at least, work on a copy of your original image, and don’t be afraid to play around. What is the worst you can do? And maybe learn something. I do almost every time I play around with a new tool.

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