A Matter of Perspective

©Jim Chung

The concept of forced perspective photography is well known. Think of Will Farrell in “Elf” or the Hobbits in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. No computer-generated imaging or other wizardry was used to change the relative size of the actors so drastically, just clever perspective placement. A common, low-tech example is seen in the long tradition of tourists employing forced perspective photography to give the impression that they’re holding up Italy’s tilted Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Cellphone cameras are ideal to experiment with this technique since their small imaging sensor translates to a deep field of focus. This is key because all the subjects in the image must be in sharp focus to convey the illusion that they’re all on the same focal plane. To accomplish the same effect, DSLR and mirrorless cameras require a stepped down aperture to between f/8 and f/12. While lens diffraction will soften the image in the smaller APS and Micro Four Thirds sensors, that enhances the illusion since the sharpness of all subjects is similarly affected. I prefer to use wide focal length lenses so I can include background, which gives context to the story being told and reinforces the illusion.

If your setup includes people, use a reasonable shutter speed and minimize ISO to maximize dynamic range. Since I’m in a lot of my images, I use an intervalometer to trigger multiple captures. You could use the camera’s delayed shutter release, but ideally you want multiple images with a delay between shots. The delay allows me to change my pose and position so I can choose the most photogenic and convincing image.

I’m a motor sports photographer with a great affinity for and knowledge of that world. During the two years of the pandemic lockdown, I found a way to expend my creative energy by constructing a series of realistic automobile-themed forced perspective portraits I could also use as pranks on social media.

I told Facebook friends I purchased a rare 1968 Mazda Cosmo that had finally made the long transit from Japan and was now parked outside my house (below). Everyone was convinced.

©Jim Chung
I showed my friends this photo of my 1968 Mazda Cosmo.

Now look at the same image before cropping (below).

©Jim Chung
The Cosmo photo before cropping

I’m using an accurate and detailed 1:18 scale model of the white Cosmo. To get the right placement, the distance from camera to tree is about 18X the distance from camera to car. I use a laser ranging meter to help get the setup close, but the small red laser dot is hard to see in daylight. Your visual cortex is fantastic for fine-tuning adjustments when things just don’t seem right.

I used cork sprayed with flat black paint to simulate asphalt and aligned the platform to the street curbing. The camera height and angle are set first to duplicate the conditions in which you would normally photograph a real car, then the model platform is adjusted to suit. In this fashion, background items like the tree and lawn appear through the glass windows of the model car just as they would in a real car, further reinforcing the illusion. The shadow cast by the model is a possible giveaway but not typically noticed by the casual viewer.

Shortly after the new year, I began a narrative on Facebook in the Olympus Camera group (my personal Facebook friends no longer believed anything I posted). I said I’d made a new acquaintance who happened to be the owner of a famous car, one that’s familiar even to non-autophiles.

People who would normally swipe over yet another photograph stopped to view it, like it, and comment on the extraordinary beauty of the car, the city, and the landscape (alas, I was not included).

©Jim Chung
I told the Olympus Camera group on Facebook that a friend had acquired a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 made famous in the James Bond movies. I claimed that I “borrowed the car” for this image of me looking across the vastness of Lake Ontario.

James Bond movies made the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 famous. To celebrate the latest Bond movie last summer, the Aston Martin factory undertook to hand-build 25 new vehicles, all with working Bond gadgets. The price tag was slightly less than $4 million each. In my narrative, I “borrowed the car” to take the image (above) of me looking across the vastness of Lake Ontario, with Toronto showing in the distance standing in for an exotic seaside Bond location.

©Jim Chung
Here we see the real scale.

This scenario (above) included a much larger scale model (1:8) and base (4x3 feet) than the previous Mazda Cosmo setup. The base was mounted on a sturdy Manfrotto 028B Triman tripod with a geared column and an 029 three-way head. This made it possible to adjust the position of the heavy base to fit the environment. The large base also allowed me to hide a park bench (almost directly underneath) that would have ruined the illusion. Snow made it easy to blend the transition from the base to the surroundings. I ran the car through the snow to create the tire tracks and to allow snow to stick to the tires.

During a lull in the snow, I found a quiet parking lot to test some of the car’s Bond gadgets for the gathering Facebook audience (below left).

©Jim Chung
©Jim Chung

I demonstrated the DB5’s tire shredding mechanism, the rear bulletproof barrier, and the smoke-shield exhaust system. The Facebook crowds were stunned to see the working James Bond gadgets, as promised by Aston Martin.

For the setup, I used a much smaller base because I was going for a tighter shot this time (above right). The lighter base allowed me to use the smaller Manfrotto 410 geared head for precise adjustments. With the larger 1:8 scale model I could position the camera much closer to it, and the details continue to remain convincing, allowing me to compose shots that are not wide-angle. In smaller scale models, the car emblems tend to be stickers, but in this giant model, the DB5 emblem (to the right of the license plate) is made of raised metal, like the real thing. Igniting a smoke bomb inside some PVC plumbing pipe and directing  it through flexible vinyl hose under the model generated the smoke.

Snow returned with a vengeance while I contemplated a scenario that would feature the working headlights on the model as well as the hidden machine guns underneath them. And I wanted a venue that would silence even the most incredulous members of the group.

I told Facebook readers that I drove my friend’s DB5 to pick up coffee and doughnuts from the drive-through window at Canada’s iconic Tim Horton’s restaurant. I pop out to take a quick snapshot with the machine guns deployed and the ramming bumper guards extended. Eagle-eyed individuals pointed out the license plate was different in all three images, another Bond feature of the car.

©Jim Chung
People were aghast seeing such a rare and beautiful car driven through this terrible weather but also happy to see it being used and enjoyed.

I don’t appear in this image because I didn’t want to hold up the traffic or risk the restaurant manager’s ire. There’s only a limited amount of time to set up, get the shot, and get out before curious people undermine the scene or you’re asked to leave the premises.

Forced perspective photography is a wonderful way to indulge your own secret Walter Mitty. The world is a harsh and dangerous place. I never fail to crack a smile when I see and read people’s reactions to these creations. 

Jim Chung is a health care provider and photographer in Toronto, Canada.