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Picture imperfect: why photos of ‘crowded’ beaches may not be what they seem

As summer approaches and the weather heats up, Australians will be packing their swimmers, Eskies and beach umbrellas and heading off to enjoy the beach.

But since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, beaches have posed a dilemma for health authorities. Unlike indoor venues it is hard, if not impossible, to regulate visitor numbers at beaches, but they are also important venues for public exercise, relaxation and wellbeing.

Bondi Beach in Sydney’s east was closed for weeks at the start of the coronavirus outbreak after pictures emerged of a crowded beach and promenade amid a localised Covid-19 outbreak.

And as the weather warms up, more and more pictures of beachgoers enjoying themselves – and seemingly not following social distancing guidelines – are appearing in tabloids and on social media.

But pictures aren’t always what they seem.

Over recent months, social media users have questioned the way newspaper photographs have been shot and whether they appear to show people closer together than they actually are.

The walkway at Bondi beach shot from the same location with two different lenses.

Dr Heather Faulkner, an academic in photography at Griffith University, says this can occur through the use of a telephoto lens.

“A long focal length gives us what we call a flattened perspective,” Faulkner says.

“That means the foreground, mid-ground and background are flattened against each other, they seem to be brought closer to each other.”

Faulkner says the telephoto lens condenses the space between subjects, making people seem closer together.

“Depending on the length and millimetres of the lens a photographer uses, the scene gets more and more compressed.

“You can make things look like they’re stacked on top of each other.”

Guardian Australia’s photo editor Carly Earl, on assignment in Bondi, took two different shots from the same vantage point to demonstrate the difference in perspective.

The first, taken with a standard lens, shows a beach that is well populated, but the crowds are dispersed, particularly in the foreground.

Shot with a 24-70mm lens, standing up 60mm. Bondi Beach at 2:15pm. 3rd September 2020.

The second shot, taken with a telephoto lens, appears to show a much more crowded scene with less distance between groups of people.

Shot with a telephoto 400mm lens. Bondi Beach at 2:15pm. 3rd September 2020.

Earl says the way a photo is taken can have a huge impact on the way a story is perceived by the reader.

It’s important for picture editors to be conscious of how images can be interpreted, she says.

A much truer picture of social distancing on a beach can be shown when shooting directly down from above.

Guardian photographer Mike Bowers uses a drone regularly in his photographic work and says pictures shot from the air more accurately represents how crowded a beach really is.

People enjoying themselves at Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro amid the coronavirus disease in Brazil.

“Of course,” he adds. “Using a drone above a beach where people are sunbathing can bring with it accusations about the true intent of the operator.

“You would perhaps need the surf lifesavers to make a public announcement that the drone was in fact monitoring separation and not being pervy.

“There is something about drones that really seems to push people’s hot buttons.”

Paula Masselos, the mayor of Waverley council which covers Bondi, said that although most people were doing the right thing, some photos could still be misleading.

“There have been some photos in some publications that have shown people weren’t social distancing, but when we checked, they were. So it’s just a matter of the angle of the photo that was taken.”

“I’m hoping that the photographs that are taken will accurately represent the reality on the ground.”