Why do the Carters look so tiny alongside Joe Biden and his wife Jill in this picture?

Carly Earl explains it to Naaman Zhou
·4-min read

Hi Carly. As our resident photography expert, I have a question. Something about this photo featuring Joe and Jill Biden and former president Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter seems … off?

It sure does. Where to begin … The scale of Biden v Rosalynn is very unusual – he looks three times the size of her and even though the natural physical changes during old age may be playing a role here, I don’t think ageing shrinks you that much. Also, the scale of Jimmy Carter’s feet compared to the rest of his body is weird – sort of like a reverse statue of David. Finally, notice the lounge chairs, they look like they are from a doll’s house. That seems unlikely.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

So the Bidens are not, in reality, about three times bigger than the Carters?

No, they aren’t. I’m sure Joe Biden is quite a bit taller than Rosalynn, but not by that much. The image is possibly distorted by using a wide-angle lens. When taking photos in a smaller space you often don’t have room to move far enough back to get everyone in the frame, so you use a lens that can take it all in. Unfortunately, if you use a lens that is really wide, while also standing very close to the subjects, it will distort the photo, making those close to the camera appear giant while shrinking those further away.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

The opposite happens when you use a zoom lens, it will compress the space, making subjects in the image appear closer together. Like the image below.

A composite showing two shots of Bondi beach, the left-hand side is taken with a 400mm lens and the right-hand side is a 28mm lens. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
A composite showing two shots of Bondi beach, the left-hand side is taken with a 400mm lens and the right-hand side is a 28mm lens. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

So those people aren’t all packed together at Bondi beach?

No, they aren’t. As you can see, the image on the right shows a pretty sparse beach in comparison with the one on the left. The one on the right was shot with what’s called a standard lens which has a focal length of 28mm. The one on the left was shot with a zoom lens with a focal length of 200mm.

Right. Well, the highly unofficial website “Potus.com” tells me that Jimmy Carter is 177cm tall, making him only the 32nd tallest president. Joe Biden is only 5cm taller, at 182cm (equal 20th), so camera trickery must be at play here.

Are there any special settings or equipment that I could copy if I also wanted to take a photo where I looked uncommonly large next to a former president?

You don’t need special gear to create this optical trickery. If you have an iPhone 11 or 12 you actually can use the wide-angle setting in the camera on the phone to capture a wider field of view. So just ask whatever former president you encounter to step back slightly, then get yourself in front, and snap.

If you’ve got a professional camera with interchangeable lenses, you can get an even more dramatic result. If you use a lens with a focal length of say 10-15mm, you can make yourself loom over a Potus (or their friends and family members).

Amazing. I’m going to find George W Bush and make him look like a very small child. Where does this stand in the pantheon of great trick photos?

Well, for inspiration, you can’t go past this iconic photo of then-New Zealand prime minister John Key shaking hands with All Blacks forward Sam Whitelock.

Former New Zealand prime minister John Key congratulates Samuel Whitelock after the 2015 Rugby World Cup semifinal match between South Africa and New Zealand in London.
Former New Zealand prime minister John Key congratulates Samuel Whitelock after the 2015 Rugby World Cup semifinal match between South Africa and New Zealand in London. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Getty photographer Phil Walter used a 16mm lens for that one, combined with a low position, and, like the Bidens and the Carters, was in a small-ish room.

For an Australian version, here’s former opposition leader Bill Shorten with a mullet.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Related: 'Like a beautiful painting': image of New Year's mayhem in Manchester goes viral

And who could forget this 2016 photo of a night out in Manchester that had the composition and density of a Renaissance painting – complete with the golden ratio.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Watch: All the new iPhone Photos tricks you need to know