This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography. Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background. This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.
Point of View: Height
Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera. What did we do? We shot from a standing position. Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level. This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.
Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position. You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them. Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s? There’s only one way to find out. Get up or get down and shoot! It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.
The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it. You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose. Or you squat, getting a bit lower. Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod. When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.
You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower. For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground. Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.
When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:
- Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger. For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above). If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number). Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
- Foregrounds change position. Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background. As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion. This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette. You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background. Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
- Backgrounds recede. This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements. Even tall mountains tend to shrink. Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar. It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject. It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try. And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well. That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination. You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.
Here are some ideas:
- Climb a rock or mountain. We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us. In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop. It can also add interest to a group photo. Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth. The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill. I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
- Or a tree! Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows. While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots. So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree. I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV. I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is. But how would I have known for sure without trying?
- Tote a ladder around. This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances. For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically. For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
- Go flying. I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane. In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds. If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all. You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot. In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.
- Get a drone. I don’t really like drones. For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera. But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry. They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.
I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting. Not often, but it happens. I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there. In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything. Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.
But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day. A good way to check if you are truly motivated is to simply observe yourself. Are you moving your feet? Are you changing position and height?
The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible. All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise. So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV. Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!