How to fool people with your camera

Photos reveal. They can also mislead, especially when used to support an argument or to deliberately misinform, and especially when combined with a misleading caption.

Russ Grayson
4 min readJul 12, 2020

HOW do you use your camera to make something look like something it is isn’t?

A good example of this occured when, in early 2020 during the Covid 19 pandemic, a photo was published on social media showing what was allegedly overcrowding at Farmgate Market, a farmers’ market in Hobart, Tasmania. The poster put up the photo to claim that the market organisers and visitors did not follow social distancing. It contributed to a minor controversy that reached all the way to the state premier who commented on the alleged overcrowding.

What, though, if there was no overcrowding? A couple people who were at the market that day said as much. How, then, could a couple photos be wrong? Easy. It comes down to how those photos were made.

Optics-a simple excursion

Let’s take a brief and very general excursion into camera optics. Specifically, the lenses we use with our camera.

If you have your camera close-by, and if it has a zoom lens, zoom from the widest setting at the wide angle end to the furtherest you can zoom at the telephoto end. Maybe you noticed that when you zoomed to around the 50mm setting the view looked similar to what you see with your eyes. At the wide angle end the scene appeared distant and objects small. But at the telephoto end, something interesting happened. The scene appeared not only closer but objects in the scene appeared clustered together as if they were right next to each other with little space between.

This clustering of objects is diue to the foreshortening effect of telephoto lenses. And that is what accounted for those social media photos that triggered condemnatory comments about overcrowding and ignoring social distancing at Farmgate Market. Those people who were there were right, social distancing was observed. Commentators were fooled because the photos were made with a telephoto lens.

How it works

Let’s see how this works with a couple photos made at Tasmania’s Bream Creek Farmers’ market.

The photo below was made at an angle to a line of people hungrily anticipating a feed of sourdough donuts. It was made with the lens set to telephoto. Were you to take it at face value, you might interpret the image as showing people ignoring the recommended 1.5m social distance and as evidence of overcrowding at the market.

Overcrowding and ignoring social distancing at the farmers’ market. Or is it?

Now, let’s look at the next photo. It was made within a few minutes of the first as shows the same line of hungry donut eaters. What do we see? Well, we do see a few people standing closer than the social distancing recommendation, however they may be families rather than strangers. Most appear to have some distance between them.

This photo tells a different story. It comes down to camera angle and what we are tying to show.

So, how come two photos of the same line create such different impressions?

  • the first photo, made with the lens set to telephoto and made from an angle to the line from the rear foreshortens the field of view to make the line look like a cluster of closely-spaced people
  • the second photo was made as a side view with the lens around the 50mm mark and shows the line spacing as it actually was.

Photography for actuality

As citizen journalists, we should be able to interpret photos to understand whether what they show is the actuality. We might want to expose photos claiming to show something as tricks of optics and that the truth was different than claimed.

We also want our photos to show the actuality as accurately as possible.That’s why stopping to think about how best to capture something is a good idea:

  • what is the best angle to use to do this?
  • what lens setting, telephoto/wide/intermediate range?
  • what caption do we use to describe what is happening in our photo so as to interpret it for viewers?

It’s about trying to capture truth in photography.



Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast .