Large Bidens, Tiny Carters: A Have a look at Photographic Distortion

It was a comfortable 86 degrees in Plains, Georgia when President Biden and Jill Biden visited former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter at their home on April 29.

Dr. Biden wore a lemon-covered dress and two delicate silver bracelets. Mrs. Carter wore a long-sleeved white T-shirt, sneakers, and an elegant watch. Mr. Biden wore a royal blue suit and Mr. Carter wore a sports coat over a T-shirt.

“We just had a good time,” said Mr Biden later.

Reporters weren’t allowed in, but a photo of the two couples the Carter Center posted on Twitter Monday – with their toothy grins and teacups – seemed to back it up.

Only one thing was wrong: at some point during the visit, the Bidens seemed to have grown into giants.

Dr. Biden is 5-foot-6. As far as the world knows. Mr. Carter, 96, was about 5 feet 10 tall. But even when she kneeled, she seemed to dwarf him. And Mr. Biden, who is six feet tall, seemed to hover over the man he had come to pay his respects. It was as if the hosts had been turned into hobbits.

“Did you do a trick with the Gandalf / Hobbit perspective or are the Biden’s really that gigantic?” A man asked on Twitter. Another user asked if she is “the only one who thinks this looks like a tiny doll museum and Joe and Jill are giants?”

In a thread on Reddit full of hobbit jokes, others countered that age may have shrunk the former president to three feet. Or maybe, some wondered, something was wrong with the lens.

So what is it

Reached by phone Adam Schultz, the White House chief photographer, confirmed he took the photo but declined to explain. “It’s up to people to find out and think about it,” he said.

The answer can be found in Mr. Carter’s gigantic shoes, said Pete Souza, former White House chief photographer of President Barack Obama. They look huge compared to him.

“This is an indication to me that the foreground has been distorted by a super wide-angle lens,” he said.

Such lenses can be helpful when a photographer is trying to capture multiple people in a small room and can’t come back far enough to put everyone in the same frame with a different lens. But they are known to distort proportions, said Mr Souza.

Jaron Schneider, the The editor-in-chief of PetaPixel, a photo and camera news website, had a similar theory.

“It’s called perspective distortion,” he said.

Wide-angle lenses make objects that are closer to the camera appear much larger than objects that are just a little further away.

Because the Carters sit back, the wide-angle lens exaggerates the few inches between them and the Bidens, Mr. Schneider said. Had the Bidens and Carters been sitting on the exact same level, this effect would not have been so noticeable. Because of this, the two men’s shoes appear to be of a similar scale.

The placement of the chairs also exacerbates the distortion, he said. The center of a wide-angle photo usually looks natural. However, once you get closer to the edge of the photo, the proportions become increasingly distorted. If everyone had been pushed around the lamp, the effect would not have been so noticeable.

“Wide-angle lenses have that angle no matter how optically correct,” Schneider said, adding that this type of optical distortion can be fixed in post-production.

But it could look more realistic while editing the photo, which would be frowned upon, said Doug Mills, a photographer assigned to the New York Times Washington office.

Mr. Mills was outside the Carter’s house during the photo session and saw the lightning go off inside. He agreed that it was likely that a wide-angle lens was used to solve the problem of capturing all four subjects in a small space.

Some asked why the Carter Center would post a distorted photo or why it wasn’t edited to remove the distortion.

“That would be totally forbidden,” said Mills. Official White House photographers should adhere to ethical rules similar to those of photojournalists, he said.

For all its amusing flaws, the picture is history.

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