An Optical Illusion. Or is It?

The early morning light was beautiful this morning as my dogs and I wandered down to the river on the first part of our long, daily walk.  Our apartment is nearby and we are looking down at the nicely, tree-framed buildings in Riverside across the St. Johns River as we walk. The light is wonderfully crisp and clear and I scold myself for not carrying a camera (other than an iPhone camera) with me at all times.

We have made this trip many times. I liked how the buildings are framed by the darkness of the trees and when the light is dramatic, the Park Lane Tower glows in its architectural glory. Built in 1926, it is a 16-story condominium that is believed to be the third earliest high rise in the state of Florida.

Every day the building is a focal point as we walk towards the river.  A few weeks ago, I discovered something very interesting – an optical illusion – I think:  As you see it framed by the dark silhouettes of the surrounding trees, your mind records a visual memory of the building’s size. When you walk past the trees in the park at the end of the street and close to the concrete bulkhead by the river, the landscape opens up and you immediately take in the vastness of the river before you. I normally look towards the Fuller Warren Bridge Downtown and check out the traffic on I-95. Next I scan the water just to the south of the bridge for dolphins; despite that it is pretty far up the river from the Atlantic, they are often here and in schools of 4 or more. I then look further south towards Ortega and the Jacksonville Naval Air Station; Finally my eyes scan back to the west – in Riverside – where a scattering of high-rise buildings line the river – including the Park Lane Tower.

As my eyes lock onto it, they are telling me, “no, that is not the Park Lane because it is smaller and we are actually 50 – 100 yards closer than where we were when we first glanced at it.” But then I look again and realize…it IS the same building! Why is it smaller?

It took me several subsequent walks down to the river to realize it was an optical illusion. I even pointed it out to Vicky when she joined us one evening. She couldn’t believe it either! Each time I noticed this, I always made a note to myself to bring my camera to document this.

Today, as I saw the beautiful morning light, I promised myself I would go back for my camera and try to catch the illusion in this brilliant bath of sunlight.

I stopped about 50 yards in front of the scene and shot it with my zoom lens set at 80mm. As I peeped through the viewfinder, I immediately saw the camera lens was not falling so much for my optical illusion. Still, my results are a bit of an illusion – I’ll let you decide…

After photographing from the street, I walked down to the park towards the bulkhead. There was a man fishing from the bulkhead and another man sat on a nearby park bench and I could see in his face he was overly curious as to what I was doing:

“Hey man, whatchya takin’ pictures of?” he asked.

“Do you want to see an interesting optical illusion?” I briefly described it.

“You’re not havin’ no flashbacks, are you? I thought you was behaving kinda trippy when I seen you takin’ pictures in the middle of the road…”

“No, see for yourself – when you leave the park. That building is larger when you get down the street.” I was beginning to realize my little revelation was not so incredible in the mind of this bystander…

“You’re not a police officer, are you?”

“No, why?”

He pulled a large can of malt liquor out of a bag. “Good, then! But then…you was acting too trippy to be a cop…”

“Cheers,” I told him, “Check out what I’m talking about when you leave.”

“OK, man. See ya. And you have a good day, OK?”

So he wasn’t impressed. Maybe some of you might be…


"Cedar Street Illusion 1", by Robert Leedy, ISO 200, f/11, 1/125 sec., 80mm lens, 10:57 a.m.


[click on images to enlarge, if you wish]

The Park Lane is the building in the center of the frame – just to the left of Enzo Torcoletti’s granite and marble sculpture, “Coming Home” [by the way, this is an appropriate name and placement – I joke with myself that it was in my honor of arriving in Jacksonville.]

Now that I look at this image, I realize the camera is telling me it never lies. If there is an illusion, it is only slight in the comparison of these two images.  If any of you are anywhere near this location, you should stop by and see for yourself. It really is much more dramatic to the naked eye. My only explanation is that the human eye must act independently as a sort of zoom lens. As I stared at the framed building from down the street, the building seemed to dominate the scene much more than it does in this photo. And the fact that it is framed by the silhouetted trees probably adds to the illusion of its larger size.

In the image above, I am 50 yards or so from the man sitting on the bulkhead. Now I will walk towards him and take another image of the building from the river’s edge.  See if it appears smaller in the image below:


"Cedar Street Illusion 2", by Robert Leedy, ISO 200, f/25, 1/125 sec., 80mm lens, 11:02 a.m.

Here the building appears in its correct color, beige. It appears white in the former image only as it was a bit more difficult in the exposure and is a bit washed out. The only difference in the two photos is the lens opening (smaller in the one above, or second image) and the time they were taken – minutes apart.

OK, the more I look, the more I realize there is not much of an optical illusion. Again, the camera never lies. Maybe I am being “trippy”? But I swear, it works in person. And the results are much more dramatic. The human eye has a flaw, by golly! Of course, I’d never trade my eyes for a camera lens – not in a million years!


I guess you had to be there…

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