How To Spot A Misleading Crowd Photo

How To Spot A Misleading Crowd Photo
Members of the public relax on the beach at Botany Bay on May 26, 2020 in Margate, England. (Photo: Dan Kitwood, Getty Images)

As businesses reopen and people take to the beaches and parks, you’ve probably seen news photos or video that appear to show people packed into dense crowds, blithely ignoring social distancing guidelines. But these photos can be misleading, and it’s thanks to a camera trick.

A fairly common technique photographers favour when shooting crowds is to use a zoom or telephoto lens. This compresses the foreground and background of a picture, making everybody look like they are closer together. For example, in an article on crowd photos Outdoor Photography Guide writes that a 300mm lens “compresses the crowd and makes it look larger yet more compact, creating more vibrant, more amplified photos.”

What this means as you’re looking at news photos (not to mention Twitter threads shaming states for reopening too early): that photo of a “crowd” may actually be of people scattered around the beach or park that isn’t really crowded at all.

This technique can be used to deliberately mislead, but it’s also just a handy way of showing many people in a crowd without having them all appear at different sizes and with a lot of space in-between. I want to be clear that a photographer who uses this technique is not necessarily trying to lie to you; there may be another reason why they photographed the scene the way they did. For example, one newspaper editor pointed out that the photographer of a much-shared beach reopening shot “shot the photo…with a long lens because she wanted to get as much of the beach as she could to accurately depict the scene.” For better or worse, it’s a common technique for shooting crowds.

How a long lens can distort a scene

Photo: Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

The aerial photo here is of the same beach, on the same day, by the same photographer, as the one at the top of this page. See the red and white umbrella in the lower left of the aerial shot? OK, good. Now find the red blanket with dark green umbrella at the top centre.

Now scroll up and look at those two umbrellas in the other shot. (The red and white umbrella is in the centre of the photo, the dark green one near the camera.)

From that original shot, you’d get the idea that the green umbrella people are right up against the dark blue towel. From the aerial view, it’s clear that they’re quite far away. Considering that most people are between five and six feet tall, you can use sunbathers for scale—are people staying 1.5 metres apart? In most cases, far more.

For a further tutorial on how different camera lens lengths can change the appearance of a crowd, landscape architect Jeff Cutler photographed a local beach with several different lenses to show exactly what each one sees.

This camera trick works with video, too: The one in this tweet is an especially egregious example, as pointed out in one of the replies. Is this boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland “packed”? There are definitely more maskless people in one place than is probably wise, but the camera lens exaggerates the density:

Watch the video and count for yourself. The man in the baby carrier appears at 0:03 and seems like he’s just over the shoulder of the woman standing still in the foreground:

…but by the time the clip cuts off—20 steps and 13 seconds later—he’s still behind her.

These misleading crowd shots are a problem as we reopen because people are nervous. A lot of us are trying to avoid crowds and these shots make it look like our neighbours are ignoring rules about physical distancing. Maybe some of them are, but the situation is probably not as dire as the photos show.

Here’s another example, of a restaurant that reopened when rules required that tables be separated from each other by more than the usual distance. A photo appears to show that the rules aren’t being followed; a photo from another angle (supplied by the restaurant) tells a different story.

Meanwhile, these photos and videos give us fodder to argue with each other on social media, driving tensions ever-higher. If infections don’t rise with reopening—perhaps because people are being cautious during their outings and maintaining proper distance—you know someone’s going to dig up these photos to claim that everything was crowded and things turned out just fine anyway.

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