Why do things photographed at a distance look smaller in photos than they do to your eyes?

For some reason, I was reminded tonight of our family trip to Disney World in 1985, and the photo I took of Spaceship Earth from the far end of the International Lagoon or whatever they called it. To my eyes, Spaceship Earth looked huge, even from however far the other end of the water was. But in the Polaroid photo I took from that point, Spaceship Earth looked like a ping-pong ball!

Why did this object that looked so huge to my eyes look so tiny in the photo (and “because the photo is tiny” doesn’t seem right…it looked tiny even at the scale of the photo)?

Because your eye isn’t a camera.
The brain processes images sent form the eye in very complex and subtle ways. One example is the appearance of the full moon near the horizon - it looks much bigger than when it is high in the sky, and yet it is actually the same size.
Also, many cameras use a lens whose angle of view is greater than the eye, so objects appear smaller (but, you see more of the scene).

The term ‘standard lens’ in photography refers to a lens whose angle of view matches that of the human eye. As beowulff says, it is common these days for cameras, particularly on phones, to default to a wider angle of view which accentuates the effect of perspective.

I immediately thought of Mt. Hood when I saw this thread title. In many pictures, the mountain looks small and distant, like this. In real life, it looks closer to this.

The first one obviously has a much wider field of view. But doing a google image search for “Mt. Hood from Portland” shows a variety of pics of the mountain looking big and small, in both narrow and wide views. So what gives?

A camera produces a picture with the same resolution all over. Your eye registers a much higher resolution right where you’re looking and reduced resolution as you move towards the edges. Add to that the mental processing in your brain and what you’re looking directly at with your eyes becomes really dominant. You don’t notice this so much since if you try to compare one object with another you change focus back and forth and they are treated all the same, but whereas the eye and brain treats anything you look at as “important!”, the camera treats everything the same, but “unimportant”.

And 1985? With a Polaroid? In 1985, my parents were still using a Kodak Instamatic. I can remember all those photos from family trips, particularly the photos my mom took of “the scenery”. Those scenery photos were nothing to look at, because you could never figure out what the focal point was supposed to be. She was taking a photo of Mount Adams? So why do I see almost nothing but an expanse of fir trees? (Washington, “The Evergreen State”.)

My dad’s sister eventually introduced him to the joy of the 35mm SLR camera, and wow, now you could actually see the point of the photos.

Whilst all the above is true, there is a very critical issue with photographs that is almost always ignored.

For the perspective to be correct, there is only one correct viewing distance for the image. You need to view the printed (or screen) image at the distance where the angle of the real view matches the angle as seen by your eyes. So, for instance, if you have a “normal lens” ie it subtends 90 degrees of arc corner to corner, and you print it on a 6x4" print. The correct viewing distance is 7 inches. That is vastly less than anyone ever views such a picture. And as noted above, many cameras now use even wider angled lenses - so the viewing distance is even closer.

Put you image up on a goodly sized computer monitor, and work out what the correct viewing distance is. It will be uncomfortably close to the monitor. But if you do get your eye at just that distance you will find something magic occurs. Your brain will start to process the geometry as correct - and it will start to perceive depth, and the picture will look “right”. All the wrong scales, foreground emphasis, and everything else that we complain about will melt away. No magic. Just get the geometry right.

When the old masters painted scenes, they got it right. Usually with painstaking effort. You will find that viewing those painting from just the right distance has the same immersive effect. They needed big canvases to do it. Photos are no different.

I think this is it. Scan the photo, display it full-screen on a 52-inch TV, and stand 26" away from it, and things in the photo will appear to be the correct angular size.

The first photo was taken with a standard or wide lens, the second one with a telephoto lens. This is how you control perspective.

If you want to make the background object (e.g. mountain) look small relative to the foreground object (e.g. building), you get close to the foreground object and use a wide-angle lens. The foreground object fills the picture, but the background object looks tiny because of the wide-angle lens. If you want the background object to look big, move further away and use a telephoto lens. The foreground object will still fill the picture (telephoto lens compensates for the greater distance), but now the background object looks much bigger in the photo.

This is also how the Dolly Zoom effect (examples) works. The camera moves away from a person (usually) and zooms in at the same time, so the person looks like the same size but the background gets bigger.

If the photo was taken with a standard lens then the correct viewing distance would be equal to the image diagonal, i.e. 52" for a 52" screen.

…here is another example of what different focal lengths do to an image.

Doesn’t make sense to me. Once you are dealing with a 2D image, varying the viewing distance makes no difference at all as to perspective. The only difference is how much of your field of vision is filled. This does not explain the OP’s question.

That is a great demo. However, the explanation on the linked page leaves out the most critical point–in every photo used to make that animated GIF, the distance from the camera to the subject is different. As the focal length gets longer, the distance to the subject increases as well to keep him the same size in the image. It’s the distance to the subject that matters most in determining these perspective effects. You get the same effect with the naked eye, but because the eye does not magnify the image as you get farther away (like a lens), the brain compensates and you don’t notice it.

If you stand at the exact spot the photo was taken and hold up the picture at the correct viewing distance you should, in theory, be able to align the image so that it exactly matches that part of the scene it obscures. At any other distance the perspective of the scene and image won’t match. For a standard lens this viewing distance is the diagonal of the image.

I think it does. It’s about apparent size, not perspective. If you hold a photo in your hand, the image of the object fills a much smaller part of your field of vision than the real-life object did, from where you took that photo. So it looks small to you.