When Is a Traffic Jam Not a Traffic Jam? #360

Under the Influence of Lens Compression–

This week, my studies in Studio Production drew me into a different kind of “Alternative Universe”–the distorted unreality of Lens Compression.  

I remember the first zoom lens camera (35mm, film) I ever bought and the astounding freedom I felt when zooming in and out to capture that perfect frame.   What I failed to grasp when stalking my cats and the butterflies that tormented them was the changing depth of field that made the elements in my photos seem closer together when zooming in for a close-up.

The above photos were shot from a video: the frame on the left is a wide shot (zoomed out); the frame on the right, is a tight shot (zoomed in).  Notice that the cars in the tight shot appear closer together than the cars in the wide shot.  This phenomenon is called lens or aesthetic compression. If the width of the pictures represents the X-axis and the height of the pictures the Y-axis, the depth or perceived depth in the pictures is the Z-axis.  The act of zooming in on a scene creates compression or a crowding effect along the Z-axis or the dimension of perceived depth in the frame.  This makes elements along the Z-axis appear to be closer together.  (1)


In the above diagram think of x axis as picture width, y axis as picture height and z axis as picture depth. (2)

Even more phenomenal, this crowding effect in video also alters the perceived speed at which objects move along the Z-axis.  The closer the zoom, the slower the perceived movement of objects coming toward the camera from the horizon. (1)

So,  if I am a typical news hound trying to sensationalize a boring story on a slow news day, I could take my camcorder up onto a bridge overlooking I-495–the dread Capital Beltway–and zoom in on the heavy rush-hour traffic, thus making the cars seem closer together and creating the illusion that traffic is moving more slowly than in actuality.  With lens compression, I can visually exacerbate the rush-hour traffic into a bonifide traffic jam.

Seriously, I cannot imagine a news day so slow that a segment producer would go out and manufacture a traffic jam, especially in our current volatile political climate.  But this manipulation could be used to, let’s say, make a crowd at a rally or other event seem denser that it really is by shooting the photo or video using the elongated focal length of a zoom shot to create the crowding effect.  In an era when the size of a crowd seems so critical, this technique might come in handy for White House photographers.

Once again, when watching and listening to anything produced by the US media circus, buyer beware.  What you see is not necessarily what you get.  Media professionals know all the tricks that cameras can do;  those tricks, coupled with clever editing of both audio and visual elements, can completely alter the reality of any scene.

“The camera can be the most deadly weapon since the assassin’s bullet.”

 –Norman Parkinson (3)

Photo by M. Daniels from YouTube video: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VN5WB8mVnlo


  1. Zettl, Herbert; Telivision Production Handbook, Twelth Edition; San Francisco State University, 2015: Pages 120-122.
  2. Graphic From:  https://www.siggraph.org/education
  3. Brainy Quotes: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/normanpark116652.html

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