The eye level of most photographers is between five and six feet from the ground. Most tripods will support a camera at this height. But if all your photos are taken at eye level, (the same as most other photographers), what will be different about your photo? The objective of a good photographer should be to present their subject in a way that it will be eye-catching, different, and invoke a “wow” response from the viewer, not a “meh” or a yawn. Learn how changing your perspective can change, (and Improve!), your photography.
“You walk like others? You talk like others? You think like others? Then the world doesn’t need you because others are already abundant in the world! Be original!”
― Mehmet Murat ildan
To have your photo seen, don’t be one of the “herd.”
It’s an easy habit, (and a lazy one), to walk around with your camera, raising it to your eye when you see something interesting and snapping off a shot. Of course, that’s what it will be, a “snapshot,” nothing better or different than what so many others might make. With little thought given to composition, even if it might be taken in a scenic setting, of an iconic landmark, or perhaps a shot of a person, it will likely be less than captivating. I’ve seen this more times than I wish; a group of tourists, (or even a bunch of photographers in a workshop), all lined up in front of “The Scene.” The tourists raise their cameras to their eye, the workshop students (who’d like to think they are savvier) use tripods. Then they all shoot away from eye-level height like gunners on a firing squad. Now, how much different will their photos be? How different than the postcard you could instead just buy at the gift shop?
“Be yourself because an original is worth more than just a copy.”
I’ve heard this too many times at camera club meetings or places where photos are shown, the first question out of someone’s mouth, “Where’d you take that?” Not “How did you make that?” or “What were you trying to communicate here?” or any of a hundred other questions they could ask. I wonder if they think they could go to the same location, (and maybe even put their tripod in the holes left by mine?) and replicate my shot or the famous one from that location done by another photographer. Maybe they could, but why would they want to? I guess they could mark that “checkmark” on their bucket list – Been There, Shot That, Next! I guess if you feel you need to add that photo to your “collection,” then go for it, but I have a Newsflash – The world is not impressed by copycats.
“Sometimes to stand out you need to sit down.”
―Anthony T. Hincks
I’m not sure I’m using the quote in the context Mr. Hincks intended, but the point here is the same, sometimes to make a good photo you need to get down, get up, get high, get low, get sideways, whatever it takes, but to find a different perspective for your shot. Find an angle that better communicates what it is you want to say about your subject, one that draws the viewer in, or one that presents the subject in a way not normally seem. Your intended message should dictate the perspective and angle from which to shoot as well as the focal length you choose. Determine first what you want to say and then compose your shot to best say it.
Film School Composition
Cinematographers, who create stories and most often are filming people, have terms for how they frame their shots and the angle from which they shoot. They will use these when discussing what kind of image they wish to make, those choices typically driven by what it is they are trying to communicate. Let’s look at those briefly because the same concepts apply to still photography, especially when it is of people.
Medium Shot – Typically from the waist to the top of the head. Basic establishing shots to connect with the subject and their setting.
Close-Up – A head or face-only shot, designed to allow us to see the persons emotions and connect even more with their humanity.
Long Shot – Good for putting the subject in their environment or giving space for action. Very long shots may communicate isolation.
Low Angle – When the camera angle is low and looking up at the subject, they will appear larger and more dominating or powerful.
High Angle – A high angle will minimize the subject making them seem small, weaker, or less dominant.
Dutch Angle – Typically we try to keep the horizon level in our shots. A Dutch Angle is a tilt of the camera and communicates that something isn’t right. It can also create diagonal lines in the shot which are more dynamic and create tension.
Extreme Close-Up – Often just the eyes of the subject or maybe the hands. We can easily see the emotion of the subject and relate to it.
Over the Shoulder – A shot from behind the subject which makes us feel as if we are standing with them, observing what they are or being “in” the scene with them.
These are good concepts to know when photographing people, but how can you employ them with other subjects? Let’s take a look.
Change Your Elevation
Rather than always shoot from eye level as you stand, how would it change your photo if you shot from a “birds-eye” angle looking down? From a “worm’s eye view” down on the ground looking up? Pay attention to not only how this changes your view of the subject, but how the background changes. What if you put the camera on the ground? Held it above your head? Shot from a tall building, or perhaps put it on the end of a long pole? Shot from a mountaintop or off a cliff?
It used to be if you wanted an aerial shot you needed a helicopter or airplane. Images like this were not typically something amateur or even serious hobbyist photographers could make. Enter the drone, which has made aerial still photography and video a possibility for those without deep pockets. I will not attempt to cover the broad topic of this rapidly emerging genre of photography but suffice it to say that one reason it has become so popular is that it offers new ways to see things and that is the focus of this article. This Improve Photography article might be a good place to further explore drone photography.
Because you shoot from a tripod doesn’t mean you can’t explore unique angles for your photos. First, you might want to think beyond the conventional tripod. Devices like the Joby Gorillapod allow photographers to explore low angles or mount their camera in places they ordinarily couldn’t while still stabilizing the shot. Another device worth looking into is the Platypod, a plate to which a head and camera can be mounted allowing shots from just a few inches off the ground. There are many other travel and mini-tripods available as well.
If you are purchasing a new tripod and think very low shots might be something you’ll want to do, consider purchasing a tripod without a center column which limits how low you can go. If you already have a tripod with a center column, take a look to see if you can purchase a short center column as a replacement which will also help you get down much lower.
What if you want to get high? Ok, let me rephrase that… what if you want to take photos from a higher angle? Jim Harmer wrote an article on a DIY technique using a painter’s pole that could be just the ticket. You will need to explore a wired or radio trigger to trip the shutter and perhaps a creative means of seeing what your shot looks like, (some cameras support WiFi image transfer and can send images to your phone), but you can work out those details and the expense will be far less than a drone. The objective is the same… coming up with a unique angle which will capture a viewers attention.
Change Where You Look For Shots
Much of finding more interesting angles for your photos is teaching yourself to look a little differently. Before setting up your tripod or putting your camera to your eye, take a little time to look over the scene and subject. If the subject allows, take your time, walk around and really look at the scene from different angles and from high and low. Maybe you can shoot through something to give reference to the subject or put a visual “frame” on it.
Use the Angle to Enhance the Story
What is it you are trying to say about the subject? Maybe you’re photographing a tree and want to emphasize its height. Tilt the camera up and shoot up the trunk. Perhaps you are photographing a child. Do you want to emphasize how small they are? Shoot down on them. If you want to be equals with them or be neutral, get down on their level and photograph them at eye level. Or make them look larger and shoot up. Perhaps you’re photographing sports cars and want to make them look dynamic. Try a Dutch Tilt to create more diagonal lines and increase the drama. The point is, pick your elevation, angle, focal length, and other methods of composition with purposeful intent. Shooting from a standing position at eye level isn’t wrong, just be sure that angle compliments what it is you want to say about your subject. Always be ready to be a little unconventional if it better communicates your vision or results in a shot different than what everyone else might do.
Make POV shots
Another term from the film industry is POV or Point-Of-View. What would you see if you were Riding a motorcycle? Driving a car? Skiing? Fishing? You name it. A photograph like this may often include your own arms, legs, hands or feet or whatever prop would normally be seen in that situation. The idea here is to make the viewer of the photograph experience the scene as if they were personally involved in it.
Angle V.S. Perspective
I have used the terms Angle and Perspective interchangeably in this article so far and they are not quite the same. Angle relates to the relation of the camera’s direct line of view to the subject. It is measurable in degrees. If we call a straight-on shot Zero Degrees, and upward angle might be 45 degrees. The camera can move on an X, (left and right), Y (up and down), or Z (forward and back) axis relative to the subject. In aviation terms, this is called Yaw (left and right), Pitch (Up and Down), and Roll (Tilting left and right). The point is, how you capture the scene will vary depending on its position and viewpoint relative to the subject.
Perspective is something different. In still photography, we capture a three-dimensional world on two-dimensional media. So what are some ways you can help create an implied third dimension?
We create photographs to share our vision with others and when we do so, we want to direct their attention to various parts of the image. We also want to create the perception of depth, giving the illusion of a third dimension in the image. One way we do this is through compositions that have implied “leading lines” that direct attention or move the viewer's eye through the scene.
A visual clue in our two-dimensional photographic world that tips us off an object is further away is overlap. If one object overlaps and obstructs a portion of another, we perceive that the unobstructed object is closer and the overlapped/obstructed one further away.
This is the world of the landscape photographer where haze can aid the illusion of depth. As light passes through the air, the more of it between that object and the light, the more impact on the sharpness, color, contrast, and definition of that subject. The visual clue to distance and the creation of depth is that further objects are less defined.
Utilizing Focal Length
Take some time to view the same subject or scene through a wide-angle and telephoto lens. Pay attention to the differences;
- Wide-angle – The perspective is more exaggerated than normal – Closer objects will appear larger, further objects smaller. The difference will expand as the focal length become shorter. Wide angle lenses will also have more inherent depth of field.
- Telephoto – The perspective is compressed. Even objects fall apart may seem closer to the same size and closer together. Depth of field may be much smaller.
The Near-Far Technique
Something landscape photographers will often want to do is create an image that is sharp throughout, from the nearest object to the furthest, from that object at their feet to the distant mountains. Unlike the “shoot-from-eye-level-crowd,” making this work takes good compositional techniques, the proper lens selection, and knowledge of both in-camera setting and post-processing editing techniques. Properly done, the effect can be one of making the viewer of your photo feel like they are standing right there observing the scene.
I did a previous article about the work of my good friend and fellow photographer Dan Mottaz. I consider him a master of this technique. He credits noted landscape photographer David Muench as his inspiration and has taken Muench workshops. As I write about finding new perspectives for your photos, I think this style helps the photographer create images which stand out, often because they present the scene in a unique fashion. I could easily write an entire article about this technique, but here are a few key things to making it work:
- Wide angle lenses – Dan is a full frame Canon shooter and one of his “weapons of choice” when making his near-far shots is the Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8L lens. Very sharp, fast, and with excellent depth of field, he is able to make shots from the objects at his feet to infinity.
- Small apertures – Dan will often shoot at small apertures to maximize his depth of field. That said, he is also mindful of what is called “diffraction,” the fact that small apertures like f/22 will often not yield the sharpest results. (See Lens Sweet Spot below).
- Focus-stacking – Shooting multiple shots at different focus points and blending them later in Photoshop often figures into Dan’s technique. He can ensure that everything is in focus even when a small aperture isn’t enough to get it done in a single shot. How many shots that might be varies with the composition and how close that nearest object might be. Sometimes just three shots will do it and he will typically hand-blend those using layer masking in Photoshop. Usually, more sophisticated focus stacking using Photoshop tools or specialized programs like Helicon Focus or Zyrene Stacker isn’t necessary.
This is a concept well beyond the scope of this article, but one you will want to become familiar with as you pursue especially landscape photography. Simply put, for every photo there is a point at which, if the lens is focused there, everything from half that distance to infinity will be in focus. (Check out these IP articles on the subject – Where to Focus for Landscape Photography and Photo Taco Podcast – Hyperfocal Distance Explained.) This is where you want to focus to get the maximum depth of field in an image. Fortunately, we now have special handheld computers, aka “smartphones” and apps that, with a little input, can calculate that distance for any camera and lens combination, aperture and distance. Plug in the numbers and it will tell you what will be in focus. Dan is an iPhone user and likes Digital DoF. I’m on the Android and use DOF Calculator.
Lens “Sweet Spot”
You may have heard this term and wondered about it. The simple explanation is that every lens will have an f/stop, (and of course there are other factors that affect this too) where it will deliver its sharpest image. Typically, this will fall in around f/8 to f/11, but that varies by lens. Does this mean you should always shoot at those apertures? Probably not as many other things will likely determine what aperture you want to choose. Just know that most lenses, (and even more so less expensive lenses), will not be as sharp either wide open or fully stopped down, but rather somewhere in the middle. Just something to know.
Creative Depth of Field
Of course, there may be times when you don’t want everything sharp front to back and want to employ a limited depth of field. Aperture selection and focal length are the keys to controlling that. We’ve strayed a bit from the article theme of creatively changing your angle to get more creative shots, but the concept here is the same – find ways to make your shot different.
“To be noticed all you have to do is standout from the crowd.”
― Anthony T. Hincks
You can call me names but as an aspiring photographer one name I never want to be called is “Snapshooter.” To me, that’s the person who sees something, puts the camera to his eye and snaps a shot, with no thought or regard to angle, composition, camera controls, or ways they can make the shot better, different, or communicate the reason they made the photograph. I challenge you to think differently. Do what you need to so that your images are intentionally creative, unique, tell a story, and show the viewer something in a way they may not have seen it before. Change Your Perspective and you will Change Your Photography! Happy shooting!