Lens compression is absolute nonsense – It doesn’t exist, and here’s why

May 26, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Lens compression is absolute nonsense – It doesn’t exist, and here’s why

May 26, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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This post will probably upset a few of you. Don’t care. Lens compression is a myth, I’ve been saying it for years, but when I try to explain why, peoples’ eyes start to glaze over. This video from Dave McKeegan, however, explains and demonstrates the principle wonderfully. Although, as Dave says, it really doesn’t matter.

Dave does go very in-depth into explaining the technical side of why lens compression doesn’t really exist, and if you’re not technically minded in the least, you’ll probably want to watch some parts of the video two or three times to fully understand what the demonstrations… uh, demonstrate. But it’s worth sticking with it. The better you know the principles, the better you’ll be able to use your gear.

But in short, “compression” is a combination of perspective, angle of view and depth of field. None of which really have anything to do with the specific lens you’re using. Yeah, that sounds counterintuitive, but bear with it.

Perspective is the position at which your camera resides to take the shot relative to the scene before it. If you have two lenses of wildly different focal lengths, like 35mm and 150mm shooting from the same position, both images will provide the same perspective. If you set the aperture on both lenses to an equal diameter, they’ll also have the same depth of field. And if you crop that 35mm image down to the angle of view of the 150mm lens, and scale them to match, both images will effectively be identical, from an optical standpoint.

Notice I said “equal diameter” on the aperture, and not an equal f/stop number. It’s not the f/stop that needs to be the same between the two lenses of different focal lengths to get the same depth of field – this we know – but the same physically sized iris opening. To get the same depth of field between these two lenses, the 35mm in Dave’s demonstration was at f/1.4. The 150mm lens was at f/8. Dave explains why that happens, too, and where we start to hit the limits of physics and current lens technology.

To bypass current lens technology limitations, though, you can see this explanation from 2018 using 3D software that effectively has infinite resolution. It uses the Dolly Zoom to explain the same point – and why “zooming with your feet” is also nonsense.

As I said, it’s a pretty in-depth video, but if you’re into geeking out and understanding the underlying principles, or if you just want to understand why certain lenses behave in a certain way, it’s well worth a watch.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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7 responses to “Lens compression is absolute nonsense – It doesn’t exist, and here’s why”

  1. Krzysztof Szyper Avatar
    Krzysztof Szyper

    And focus plane is not a plane, but we just call it like that.

  2. Greg Sheard Avatar
    Greg Sheard

    David Mckeegan ?

  3. David Carlyon Avatar
    David Carlyon

    These discussions are tedious. So what you’re saying is that lenses don’t literally squish objects in the distance together? I’ve often wondered why I don’t get complaints when using telephoto lenses, about pushing people together, causing property damage by compressing vehicles and buildings closer together. Thanks for clearing that up for me!

    Seriously, though, you can see “telephoto compression” with the naked eye. Just look at things far off in the distance and how their sizes appear relative to each other, compared to similar things close up. But since cameras and lenses don’t have infinite resolution outside of computer simulations, I think it’s incorrect to say compression doesn’t really have anything to do with the lens you’re using. Sure, you can crop an effectively 400mm image out of a 35mm lens – so go ahead and save your back and budget by doing bird photography with only a 35mm. Or shoot headshots with a wide-angle from a telephoto distance and then crop the hell out of the photo to end up with a fraction of the detail.

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      “Seriously, though, you can see “telephoto compression” with the naked eye.”

      Unless your eye is zooming in, there’s nothing “telephoto” about it. It’s simply perspective. That’s kinda the whole point the video’s making. :)

  4. Justin Case Avatar
    Justin Case

    Thank goodness someone thought up the expression ‘lens compression’ as a shorthand to encapsulate the complexities of composition that arise from different focal lengths – and therefor different angles of view and fields of focus. Otherwise we’d need to blather on endlessly as Dave McKeegan does here making a well-formed but tedious explanation.

    Sorry Dave. I guess we all have our pet peeves. Mine’s the one about zoom lenses being ‘more versatile’.

    1. David Mckeegan Avatar
      David Mckeegan

      Some people like tedious, some don’t – each to their own :)
      I get that the term “lens compression” is just a collective name to simplify things but I have spoken to people who were genuinely under the impression that compression was specifically down to focal length and were considering buying a new lens that was only a few mm longer because they wanted more compression

  5. Adam Osborne Avatar
    Adam Osborne

    I’m having flashbacks to the articles about how larger sensor size didn’t mean shallower depth of field. Trying to throw out conventional wisdom on a technicality, while completely ignoring practicality.