Tall tales: Telegraph misrepresents turbine visualisations body's comments

  • 23 Aug 2012, 17:00
  • Ros Donald

Photo: Dirk Ingo Franke

The Telegraph is claiming that the body that oversees visualisations for new UK wind turbine developments has accepted that photographers are using "tricks" to make windfarms seem smaller. We contacted the organisation, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), to find out more - and it turns out that's not quite true.
Small, or far away?

Is that windfarm small, or is it far away? According to the article, deciding how large something is in comparison to the landcape is more complicated than our normal sense of perspective might suggest.

The industry standard for wind farm visualisation involves imposing images of the proposed wind turbines onto a panoramic photograph taken using a 50mm lens. The Telegraph article, largely based on the views of Inverness-based architect Alan MacDonald, argues that this is misleading because it makes the wind turbines appear smaller. The article says:

"....the wider the angle and the further away the zoom, the smaller the objects in the picture will look.

"In the most extreme cases a turbine can be made to look four times smaller than the reality, according to Mr MacDonald. Expert analysis shows that a much more accurate picture of what people living by the wind turbine will see is using a single frame and 75mm focal length."

The expert analysis the article refers to is MacDonald's own assessment. His company, Architech, creates visualisations and 3D models for planning applications.

The Telegraph includes photographs, provided by Architech, to illustrate the size-related confusion photographs of windfarms might induce.

Wind visualisation

According to the article, the top picture uses the industry standard 50mm lens, while the bottom one was taken using a 75mm lens.

Very basically - we are not extending our remit to photo-checking - the shorter the lens focal length, the wider the angle of the photo it will take. So a shot using a 50mm lens takes in more of the landscape than one using a 75mm lens. According to this photography tutorial, you'd use a 50mm lens to photograph "street and documentary" subjects, while a 75mm lens is often used for portraiture.

SNH published a set of guidelines in 2006 , which explains how different lens types might change the scale of objects in the picture. Appendix D of the document says :

"Changing from a 50mm focal length lens to a 100mm lens will exactly double the linear scale of the image."

Later, it adds:

"The only difference between using the 50mm lens and the 100mm lens that the base image taken with the 50mm lens will have to be enlarged more than would be the case with the 100mm lens."

But according to MacDonald, it's not just the length of the lens that causes a problem. He says the accepted practice of stitching together 50mm shots to create a panorama on an A3 page is misleading. He claims the human eye does not take in the whole panorama, focusing instead on the middle section of the picture. "A printed 50mm photographic image will always under-represent our perception of the scale of a more distant object because we are looking at a flat image devoid of any depth information," Macdonald adds.

MacDonald submitted his concerns to SNH, which is holding a consultation on ways it could update its guidelines. SNH's guidelines are there to create a standard way to present visualisations across the UK.  He suggests that a 75mm lens should become the standard for producing visualisations, instead of 50mm, and that photographers should avoid panoramic shots.

A little bit misleading

The Telegraph piece gives the impression that SNH agrees with all of MacDonald's concerns. It says:

"His concerns have been accepted by Scottish National [sic] Heritage, which issues planning guidance on 'wind farm visualisation' across the whole of the UK. Brendan Turvey, policy and advice manager for renewables at SNH, said developers have "definitely" made turbines look smaller than they are.He said one of the biggest problem is pictures of the landscape being taken at a distance and then shrunk to fit into a report so that the turbines also appear to be smaller."

But that's not what SNH said, according to Turvey. He told us the organisation accepts some of MacDonald's concerns, but that doesn't mean it agrees with everything he says:

"We agree that a 75 mm image does probably give a better representation", he says, and that "printing images at a larger size is also beneficial".

SNH disagrees, however, that a single frame image gives a better idea of what a development will look like than a panoramic photo. Pointing out that "people tend to walk around", Turvey adds:

"We've always said to plan and consult, you need a wider panoramic image that gives landscape and visual context".

He adds that the Telegraph also makes it sound like SNH has admitted that the photographs are intended to confuse people - and that SNH has "been complicit in that". He says: "We refute that strongly", adding that some images may have made windfarms look smaller but that it wasn't deliberate. "Photographers have been following guidance and finding a compromise between giving good representations and fitting the images to the page", he says.

SNH spokesman, Calum MacFarlane, says the organisation also feels the article gives the impression that it admitted that developers were deliberately misrepresenting the size of windfarms. He told us:

"The Telegraph article is not accurate. We accept some, but not all, of Mr Macdonald's concerns. We don't agree with the suggestion that developers have deliberately made turbines appear smaller.  In our view most developers have followed our current guidance in good faith, and provided good quality visualisations which are perfectly adequate for decision making.  Images are shrunk to make them fit on standard paper sizes, not to deliberately underestimate impacts."

He continues:

"Everyone's experience is evolving in this field and our aim is to improve the guidance to reduce the risk of underrepresentation in future."

Sounds disappointingly undastardly.

Turvey says SNH has written to the Telegraph's editor to clarify that it doesn't agree there's been deliberate manipulation, and that it doesn't agree with all of MacDonald's suggestions. So far, though, the letter doesn't appear to have made it into the paper - unless it's just been printed really small - or very far away.


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