It’s a problem we all have when we photograph tall buildings or tall structures like the Burj Khalifa. In the picture, the building looks like its falling over backwards. The problem is called linear distortion, and here’s how to handle it.
Linear distortion results from holding your camera with the lens at an angle to – and not parallel to – the face of the structure. (By the way, you get the same effect if you crouch down and angle your camera up at a person. In the print, your subject looks like a falling-down giant.)
The obvious solution is to keep the face of your lens parallel to the face of the structure. But this is often easier said than done. If you’re at the base of the Empire State Building or the Qutub Minar or the Eiffel Tower, and you want to capture the structure from top to bottom, you have to angle your camera up. What to do?
The best solution is to get farther away. The farther away you can get, the less you have to angle your lens up. If you get far enough away, you can capture the entire structure from top to bottom without angling your lens up at all.
A second solution is to use a view camera. These cameras allow you to adjust the angle of the lens and the angle of the film plane. They can often eliminate linear distortion even when you’re close to the structure because you can angle the lens and back to be parallel to the face of the building. (This is a reason that architectural photographers often use view cameras.) But you don’t have a view camera. So, can you get a similar result with your 35mm camera?
Generally, no. The lens on your 35mm camera is fixed with respect to the film plane, so if you point your camera up at something, you’re going to get linear distortion. There is one exception. You may be able to avoid this distortion if you use a PC (which stands for Perspective Control) lens. This is a specialty lens that can be adjusted off center to cut down on distortion. While it’s not nearly as versatile as a view camera, it’s better than the regular fixed 35mm lens. PC-type lenses have been made by Canon, Nikon and Leica (Leitz). Since they are quite expensive, and you won’t use them frequently, our suggestion is that if this type of lens intrigues you, look for one in the used-lens aftermarket.
The practical question is this: What should you do if you’re at the base of the Empire State Building, you’re shooting with a 35mm camera, you don’t have a PC lens, and you don’t want to walk 10 blocks to get far enough away? You have no choice but to angle your camera up and live with linear distortion. But here’s a tip: Center the building in your viewfinder so that the vertical lines of the building all point toward the same central point. Yes, the building will appear to be leaning back, but the lines will all be symmetrical. This is much easier for the viewer to accept than if one side is angled back more than another. So, if you must live with linear distortion, aim for symmetry!