The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
8. A Matter of Perspective
Down Low or Up High
Set yourself up in front of your subject, hold up your camera, frame your shot – click. That’s how most photos are taken: from our normal angle of view, at our everyday level of sight. We look up to see and take pictures of anything above eye level and we look and photograph down at anything below it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you take all your pictures from this perspective, you risk your photos becoming predictable and dull on account of the all-too-familiar point of view. This is especially true when several pictures placed next to one another have the same perspective, perhaps in a vacation travelogue, in a photo book, or in a slideshow. For this very reason, it’s advisable to liven up your photos a bit by changing your perspective. Climb up on a tower, stand on a chair, step up to the next floor, crouch down, take a knee, have a seat, lie down on the ground – (almost) everything is possible.
The main constraint related to the play of perspective is the same related to the foreground: photographers should attempt to map three dimensions of reality onto a two-dimensional medium. The missing dimension – spatial depth – is left up to the viewer’s imagination. Viewers subconsciously use clues in the picture for help, and this is where the perspective comes into play.
Perspective is all about how you capture spatial objects in two-dimensional representations. Your camera’s position determines the perspective of a photo. And since you decide where to position yourself and your camera for a shot, it’s your responsibility to select the perspective. Doing so amounts to one of the most critical factors in a picture’s composition because it has a tremendous influence on how your picture will ultimately be perceived.
Taking a picture in the traditional way of holding the camera to your eye and exposing the scene that is directly in front of it gives the viewer the impression that he or she is at eye level with the subject (if it’s relatively close to human-size). This is our daily perspective, which makes it feel familiar, but also conventional and unspectacular. Always using the same perspective – particularly the normal perspective, because it’s the most comfortable to establish and usually the most self-evident option – is one of the main reasons photos come across as boring.
Having said that does not mean that you should avoid the normal perspective. But there is a lot that speaks in favor of not using it for every single picture. Because the normal perspective matches the natural angle of view at which we take in our surroundings, applying an unusual perspective can be a particularly effective manner of capturing a subject in a surprising way.
Elephants in Kafue National Park, Zambia (aerial photo). Fast shutter speeds are necessary when photographing from a helicopter. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/1000 s • f/3.2 • ISO 1250
Before the evening tea ritual in the Libyan Sahara: A view of the campfire and teakettle from an unusual perspective. | Nikon D700 • 62 mm • 1/40 s • f/2.8 • ISO 3200
A general rule to keep in mind is that a good perspective supports the overall intention of a photo, and it should be evident to the viewer that the photographer gave some thought to his or her position and angle of view. This isn’t tantamount to saying that any photo is a good one if it features an unconventional perspective. The success depends on the subject and the motive of the photographer, and each perspective has certain characteristics that can benefit or detract from the strength of a photo.
Taking a picture from above, from a bird’s eye view, causes the subject to appear small and compressed. If you want to convey that your subject is diminutive, then this perspective is perfect for you. A bird’s eye view also provides a good overview of a situation, such as the view from a mountain over the surrounding landscape and valleys; a photo from the grandstands of the entire playing field, stadium, and crowds; or a shot from the top deck of a ship surrounded by ice floes.
Looking over the shoulder: Absorbed in reading, a Tibetan monk sits at the Stupa of Boudhanath, Nepal. Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/320 s • f/5.6 • ISO 640
However, other photos taken from this perspective can appear condescending depending on the subject. This is especially true when sitting, crouching, or kneeling people are photographed. Photographers often carelessly shoot from their standing position because they don’t want to take the trouble to sit, crouch, or kneel down. It’s pretty much the same with photographing children: An adult photographer needs to kneel down to take pictures of children at eye level. Doing so will not only reduce or avoid perspective distortions. Getting yourself down to the kids’ eye level is also highly advisable to avoid ending up with photos of more or less wide-eyed youngsters looking up at the much taller photographer. (You may, of course, have good reason to set up a photo this way.)
Finally, meeting a subject at eye level is not only a question of optical equality. It takes time and consideration, respect and readiness to strive for a successful picture. For this reason alone, the attempt is worthwhile no matter what your subject is.
Eye level is also important when it comes to animal and safari photography. Appealing pictures of animals are often created with the camera at or near the eye level of the animal – the floating grebes would be photographed not from the elevated shore of a lake, but from a camouflaged hide a few centimeters above the water surface; the antelope not from the safari jeep, but from the ground.
Getting a low camera position that roughly corresponds to the normal perspective of certain animals isn’t always easy when on safari. But you can try to avoid taking pictures from the top of your safari vehicle with a sharp downward angle, for example, and instead opt to photograph through a window. This will bring your vantage point down a few feet so that you’re closer to the eye level of zebras, gnus, or antelope.
In your excitement when taking pictures, don’t forget about your surroundings and the prevailing conditions. To get the shot of the chinstrap penguin jumping out of the water shown on the opposite page, I had to crouch down on some wet, slippery rocks while holding my camera out in front of me at ground level. Prefocusing and a quick shutter speed established the necessary sharpness; the low position of the camera enabled me to capture the animal at eye level and allowed for the inclusion of the foreground, which brings depth to the image and conveys information about the penguin’s habitat. Only seconds after taking the photo, a wave crashed over the rock almost submerging my camera and lens. The photo on page 72 was taken just a few seconds after the picture of the penguin; you can see the water breaking over the rocks. By sheer luck my equipment sustained no damage.
Got up just in time: A wave breaks over the rock formation where I had been crouching down to get the low-angle picture of the penguin (opposite page). The two images were separated by only a few seconds. Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/1250 s • f/5.6 • ISO 400
Heading home to the colony: A chinstrap penguin hops onto land on Elephant Island, Antarctica. I positioned my camera close to the ground with an outstretched arm to get as low a position as possible. Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/1250 s • f/5.6 • ISO 400
Close together: Live toads sit in a basket at the morning market in Luang Prabang, Laos. Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/100 s • f/2.8 • ISO 320
Taking a picture from a worm’s eye view – upward from below – makes subjects appear dominant and powerful. Small objects appear large, large ones appear huge. Vertical lines like trees, edges of buildings, and lamp posts appear longer than they actually are and the perspective distortions reveal the relatively low position of the camera. Looking up at an object or person can also convey wonder or reverence for the subject.
With people, the worm’s eye perspective can quickly lead to unflattering images. The chin gains prominence and the nostrils are given more attention than is advisable. For portraits it’s usually best to use the normal perspective or position your camera slightly above your subject’s eye level.
There are a couple of other things to consider when taking pictures with an upward angle: first, the often extreme contrast between a dark subject and a bright sky, and second, the fact that the camera’s exposure meter may be fooled by the excessive quantity of light entering the camera’s lens, resulting in underexposure. The latter problem you can correct manually. The contrast problem, however, is a fundamental one. To prevent your subject from becoming an unwanted silhouette, or your sky from becoming a wash of white lacking any detail when you meter for a correct exposure of the foreground, you will either need to change your camera’s position to find a darker background or use fill flash to brighten the foreground and reduce the contrast at least a bit. Chapter 13 (page 112) covers this in greater detail.
This weaver bird’s nest in Kenya hung less than two meters above the ground – ideal conditions for exposing at eye level. Nikon D300 • 600 mm • 1/400 s • f/4 • ISO 200
Way up high: At 328 meters (1,076 ft), the Sky Tower is a symbol of Auckland, New Zealand. Being busy with determining a composition that included the reflection, I completely overlooked the flagpole in the foreground – a case of selective perception. | Nikon D70 • 27 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 200
Looking downward, by necessity: Rockhopper penguins on the Falklands come within arm’s reach. I made this documentary picture using a compact camera. | Leica D-LUX 6 • 24 mm • 1/1600 s • f/4 • ISO 160
Looking downward, by design: A foreign visitor to the penguin world (Falklands). The elevated standpoint produces a good overview of the scene and the animals’ habitat. | Nikon D700 • 260 mm • 1/6000 s • f/5.6 • ISO 200