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At what distance should a viewer look at photos?

There are two different opinions on that.

1. Many people say that only relative angular sizes matter. The advocates of this approach believe that actual sizes are not important. Because of this, a painting in a museum and its reproduction in an album are perceived almost equally.

In my opinion, that is not true. Of course, the brain can adjust perception to a certain extent. But such an approach does not work in all possible cases. My impression of art albums often differs from my impression of actual paintings. Albums are typically viewed from the distance of one to two feet. Only short-sighted people can bring printed pictures closer to their eyes. At the same time, it would be quite strange to look at an album picture from distance. Thus, people often have to look at the printed images at rather unnatural angles of vision. As a result, their feelings are completely different.

2. According to another theory, the angles of vision should be the same for the painter and for the viewer. In case of photography, this means viewers should look at the photograph at the same angle as the photo lens did.

This approach does not take into account the peculiarities of visual perception. Thus, it is not absolutely correct either.

I believe, the truth is somewhere in between. One should know the recommendations of the second approach. At the same time, one should remember that it is not necessary to follow them strictly.

Now let us discuss the optimal observation distances for the 35mm photography. They can be easily calculated, if we know the magnification at which the photo was printed. Table 1 contains the optimal distances in cm for various focal lengths and print sizes.

Table 1. Optimal viewing distances (cm, 1ft = 30.38 cm)

The values in the red cells are difficult to use in practice.

The green cells show most convenient distances. They correspond to the cases when a viewer holds the image in his hands.

The distances in the blue cells are quite long. They represent the situation when the picture hangs on a wall.

The table contains only one green line, and that line corresponds to a 50mm lens. This means the pictures taken with a 50mm lens are very convenient to look at. This may serve as another explanation of the fact that 50mm prime lenses are so popular with photographers.

The table also explains why pictures taken with a wide-angle lens often look better if greatly enlarged. That is why many people who like to photograph landscapes prefer to project slides on large screens. Wide-angle images can enter the green and blue zones in the table, only if the corresponding final pictures are big enough.

How large should images for the Web be?

An average computer user looks at the screen of his monitor from the distance of 1.6 feet. With this in mind, it is easy to calculate optimal image sizes for the Web. Of course, they depend on the focal lengths of the corresponding lenses. The results can be found in Table 2.

Table 2. Optimal image sizes for the Web (1ft = 30.48 cm)

According to the table, if you want to place a photograph on the Web, you should take it with a lens with the focal distance of 50mm to 100mm.

Pixel sizes can be easily calculated if you know your screen resolution.

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Problems of natural visual perception are also discussed in my article about the theory of perspective.

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