Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Right side up or upside down? You decide.

with 48 comments

There’s a story—maybe true, maybe not—that after General Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown in 1781, the British band played the song “The World Turned Upside Down.” That’s a good lead-in to today’s picture from Southeast Metropolitan Park on February 11th. While I was processing the photograph of the choppy water (thanks, breeze), the thought came to me that a person viewing the picture would be hard-pressed to decide if it’s right side up or upside down. With that it mind, I’ve presented it both ways. Take a minute and see if you can you tell which one matches reality and which one has been rotated 180°.

This prompts the linguist in me to ask two other questions. Why does English fuse the up and the side in upside down but keep the right separate from the side in right side up (or hyphenate it)? And why does English normally say upside down rather than the synonymous downside up? Google’s Ngram viewer shows that in 2018 upside down occurred about 1500 times as often as downside up.

Do you think you’ve figured out which version of the photograph is the correct one? To find out, scroll on down. Let me know if you got it right or wrong.

Call the picture at the top topsy turvy. The second version of the photograph is the one that is true.

And now I’ve reminded myself of the great comedic routine
in which the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 23, 2022 at 4:32 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , ,

48 Responses

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  1. oh, i so would have guessed the opposite!)


    February 23, 2022 at 4:43 AM

  2. I got it wrong too! But the video was great consolation. 😂


    February 23, 2022 at 5:27 AM

  3. My decision was incorrect. I was confused as Danny Kaye.


    February 23, 2022 at 6:30 AM

  4. “Fooled” me, as well. I chose #1.


    February 23, 2022 at 6:37 AM

    • It’s strange that the upside-down version strikes everyone so far as being the right-side-up one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 6:48 AM

  5. I guessed it correctly. But I can’t take much credit for being right, as there is a 50/50 chance of coming up with the correct answer. So what swayed me to choose the second picture were the ripples on the water’s surface, which seem to appear more natural at the bottom than at the top.

    Peter Klopp

    February 23, 2022 at 8:17 AM

    • Good for you! You’re the first person in five to get it right. Maybe you’ll have started a ripple effect.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 8:20 AM

  6. I guessed wrong. A tricky visual, Steve.

    Jane Lurie

    February 23, 2022 at 9:46 AM

    • Some interesting optical principle must be at work here, given that 5 out of 6 people have now gotten it wrong. I wish I knew the physics involved.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 10:12 AM

  7. I got it wrong too. The yellow patches seem to my eye to be moving upwards on the inverted image so maybe that sends a message to my brain that it’s the upside. I’m not saying it’s logical, just trying to work out what might be happening! I’m glad I’m not alone anyway.

  8. I was sure the first one was the original orientation.

    Alessandra Chaves

    February 23, 2022 at 10:56 AM

    • How fickle human perception can be. I looked back at my archive several times to make sure I correctly identified the second picture in this post as the correct one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 11:05 AM

  9. I chose the second image. My reasoning? You would have taken the photo from land, and the bank would have sheltered at least a portion of the water; the smooth water would have been nearer the shore. There are circumstances where the first photo could have been an accurate portrayal, but I was pretty sure you weren’t in a boat looking toward the shore.


    February 23, 2022 at 11:43 AM

    • Nautical you to the rescue! Even before your analysis I’d been wondering how people’s perceptions might or might not change if I cropped off the still water.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 11:51 AM

      • With that stretch of calmer water cropped off, it would have been much more difficult. It still would be possible to identify from which direction the wind is coming in each image, but without information about the position of the observer, knowing which image represented reality would have been tough.

        Just as an aside, if you look at the little green ‘islands’ in the second image, you can see how even their almost negligible bit of height has set up the same kind of smooth water on the leeward ‘shores.’ One of those bits of smooth water would have made a lovely anchorage.


        February 23, 2022 at 1:57 PM

  10. Got it wrong.
    What do you think of “rightsize,” I see that pretty frequently.

    Robert Parker

    February 23, 2022 at 12:09 PM

    • Only two people have gotten it right so far.
      Yeah, “rightsize” is another one of those trendy terms. Google’s Ngram viewer shows it surging from around 1980 to 1995, then coming down substantially and plateauing for the past few years:

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 3:04 PM

  11. I think “The World Turned Upside Down,” although an appealing story, is just a legend. Cornwallis claimed to be too ill to attend the surrender, and sent his second-in-command, who tried to surrender to the French general, who sent him to Washington, who sent him to his own second-in-command. O’Hara pinch hits for Cornwallis, runs the bases to Rochambeau, to Washington, to Lincoln and…he’s outta there!

    Robert Parker

    February 23, 2022 at 12:55 PM

    • It does seem “The World Turned Upside Down” came about as a bit of revisionist history, a story too good not to pretend was true. And maybe we could say your analogy based on the American pastime was too good to pass up as a would-be bit of American history. It gave you a chance to call balls and strikes on our past.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 3:09 PM

  12. Wow I got that wrong haha! 🙂

    M.B. Henry

    February 23, 2022 at 2:53 PM

    • You’re in good company. So far only 2 out of 11 have picked the right one. It’s proving to be a good illusion.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2022 at 3:11 PM

  13. “Wrong!” === add me to the growing list who guessed wrong! For me it is the darker colors are closest (usually) and get lighter as more distance between the viewer and the subject… A ‘trick’ of drawing is to shade ‘darkest’ up close and let it fade softer and softer into the distance — and the same for the sky – darker up close and light in the distance.
    Even when knowing the right answer, it still seems wrong.

    Great work, Professor; you nudged your collective audience into some serious attention to details!

    Playamart - Zeebra Designs

    February 23, 2022 at 11:12 PM

    • I’m glad to hear the insights of a painter. I wonder if an ambiguous photograph like this could be used in art schools as a counterexample to the principle you outlined: darker colors closer, getting lighter farther away. In photography, I’ve long been fond of landscapes which the sky is darker and the ground is brighter, therefore reversing what I think of as the normal order.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 24, 2022 at 6:34 AM

      • There is a visual ‘distortion’ called a ‘push-pull effect’ – and one is also reminded that putting something small in front of something larger, the perspective looks wrong. The tallest items usually loom closest to the viewer.

        Looking for a quick example of the above, I really enjoyed this post, and I think that it will be of interest to you as well -http://stevenbelledin.blogspot.com/2012/06/stairs-to-infinity.html

        Playamart - Zeebra Designs

        February 24, 2022 at 3:05 PM

        • I read the article you linked to. I get what you said about small versus large.

          Then I searched for the push/pull effect and found a site saying it’s “An optical sensation colors cause: the impression that each hue appears to recede or advance to a different depth from the eye. This term was coined and the concept promoted by painter Hans Hofmann (born in Bavaria, active in the USA, 1880-1966), often associated with Abstract Expressionism. His late paintings are characterised by the juxtaposition of strongly colored rectangles, which he said displayed this push and pull effect. The paintings were often worked out by pinning rectangles of colored paper to the canvas.”

          Another hit was a painter named Richard David Serros:

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 24, 2022 at 4:01 PM

  14. Got it right.. The 2nd one somehow felt more comfortable.. Especially the little waves caused by the floating plants.. 🙂


    February 24, 2022 at 1:42 AM

    • Congratulations. You have good intuition. You’re only the 3rd out of 13 so far to get it right.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 24, 2022 at 6:36 AM

  15. I chose the second because the water farther away would be “choppier”. Either way they are a good example of how an abstract can or cannot mimic reality.

    Steve Gingold

    February 24, 2022 at 3:47 AM

    • Seems like the “wind” is turning a bit, with your correct take being the second in a row. The ancient question of what is real continues….

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 24, 2022 at 6:43 AM

  16. I’m utterly confused, Steve, no longer know which side is up and which down, which is right and which left. But I’m relieved to know that the stakes aren’t as high as confusing the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace, and the flagon with the dragon.
    This was a new one for me, and my tummy still hurts from laughing…


    February 24, 2022 at 11:54 AM

    • They say laughter is the best medicine, so from what you say, that classic comedy routine made you healthy. I’m impressed that the actors in the scene managed to rattle off the words without messing up. It would be interesting to know how long they had to practice.

      Sounds like you didn’t make out as well on up versus down and right versus left as you did on the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace, the flagon with the dragon, and the brew that is true.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 24, 2022 at 12:12 PM

      • I don’t know about healthy, but it focused my attention on something lighthearted for a few minutes. Otherwise, my heart is extremely heavy with sadness and incredulity.


        February 24, 2022 at 12:36 PM

        • You may have heard me recount how my Russian-speaking father and his family escaped from the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Throughout his almost 90-year life he never trusted any Russian leader. I hope Putin isn’t trying to make Ukraine the 21st century’s Sudetenland.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 24, 2022 at 1:45 PM

          • I should add that my father grew up in the part of the Soviet Union that is now Ukraine. The fact that his native language was Russian tells you that the Russians controlled that area a century ago.

            Steve Schwartzman

            February 24, 2022 at 1:58 PM

          • I can’t believe this is happening in 2021. It’s completely heart-rending.


            February 27, 2022 at 9:32 PM

            • It is.
              At least the western European nations, after decades of complacency, finally seem to be waking up and realizing the danger.

              Steve Schwartzman

              February 27, 2022 at 10:06 PM

              • I have neither the insight nor the understanding to judge who did or didn’t do what was necessary, or if something could even have been done to prevent this.


                February 28, 2022 at 2:17 PM

                • You’re right: we have no way to know how things might have been different if only X had done Y, or A had done B, or….

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 28, 2022 at 5:46 PM

  17. I got that right. I could see that the ripples at the bottom of the photo (above your name) showed the light hitting the top surface and the shadow lower. But it was very hard to tell, especially looking at the water higher up in the image.

    Ann Mackay

    February 26, 2022 at 12:25 PM

    • Then congratulations for joining the successful minority. I took the picture but I still checked several times to make sure that at the end I correctly told people which version was true to life.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 26, 2022 at 12:32 PM

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