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Win With Viewpoint And Perspective

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Here's how viewpoint and perspective influence the success and communicative power of your photos.

Viewpoint, sometimes referred to as angle of view, is a critical consideration for the photographer working to create a great composition. The choice of viewpoint allows you to explore all manner of feelings in the image including power, intimidation, vulnerability, weakness and seduction.

Perspective allows you to represent three dimensional objects, in relation to each other and the space that surrounds them, in a two dimensional image like a photograph, drawing or painting.

In theory perspective allows you to achieve this in a way that stays true to the actual size and position of these objects within the scene depicted.

In practice you can exaggerate perspective and, as a consequence, change the impression of an object's size and its position, relative to other objects and its surroundings, by altering one or more of the following:

  • The viewpoint from which the photo is made.
  • The camera to subject distance.
  • The focal length of the lens used to create the image.

Viewpoint And Perspective Equals Experience

This photo was made at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France. The short, steep climb up the spiral staircase leads to the roof where you’ll soak up fantastic 360 degree views of Paris.

While staircases are interesting, the curved shape of a spiral staircases is quite unique. When viewed from above they remind me of a nautilus shell, which is symmetrically perfect.

The fact that I created this image from such a high viewpoint helps tell the story associated with the climb up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

It's the physical nature of our endeavors that's often not all that well communicated in the images we make.

Does that matter?

The efforts and exertions you undergo to make a photo are part of your experience in making that photo.

They might also be part of the story you tell through the use of a title, caption or when recounting the tale over a glass of refreshing amber nectar.

If the effort you undertake to create a photo can be illustrated in that image then it’s probably worthwhile doing so.

You’d probably be adding drama, tension or emotion to the image and, in doing so, helping to prepare other travelers for what's in store should they decide to undertake the same adventure.

And adventure is at the heart of all great travel experiences. Is it not?

Birdseye Viewpoint For A More Powerful Photo

Such an extreme angle of view is referred to as a birds eye viewpoint. It provides a way of seeing the world that's so different from the way we normally perceive it.

I'm reminded of the story I heard once about the first hot air ballon flights over Paris. They were somewhat revolutionary in that they provided a perspective of Paris never before seen.

I made the above photo with a Canon 5D Mark II camera and a Canon 24-105 mm f/4 IS lens @ 24 mm.

That's the wide angle end of that particular lens and, because wide angle focal lengths exaggerate perspective, it enabled me to move in close and emphasize the top of the stairwell.

But the exaggerated perspective that comes about through the use of a wide angle focal length also works in reverse.

While what’s close to the lens appears larger than it is in reality, distant subjects appear smaller and further away than they do to the naked eye.

Notice how the bottom of the stairwell seems particularly small and further away. In reality, when the stairwell isn’t crowded with tourists, you could probably make your way down those stairs in one or two minutes.

Worms eye viewpoint provides dramatic perspective of the Arc de Triomphe stairwell.

Worms eye viewpoint provides dramatic perspective of the Arc de Triomphe stairwell.

Worms Eye Viewpoint Increases Drama

The opposite to a birds eye viewpoint is referred to as a worms eye viewpoint.

As you can see, from the color image of that very same stairwell, that by photographing from a very different viewpoint you can explore the structure in a totally different way.

Notice how the graphic nature of the stairwell is emphasized in the lower parts of the image.

Once again, I’ve been able to achieve that by using a wide angle focal length and making the photograph very close to the areas of the scene I most wanted to emphasize.

Of course the warmth, coming through the incandescent lighting, also provides a sense of nostalgia which I think is appropriate to this particular image.

Perspective enhancing shape and scale of a bulding along Nanjing Road, Shanghai.

Perspective enhancing shape and scale of a bulding along Nanjing Road, Shanghai.

Perspective In Photography

Likewise, photographing at an angle to subjects can emphasize shapes and scale within the scene.

That’s exactly what I’ve done in this night photograph of an illuminated building and traffic lights along Nanjing Road in Shanghai.

By photographing side on to the building I’ve been able to bring out the three dimensional shape of the building far more than if I’d photographed it straight on.

Photographing at an angle to the subject is a simple technique that’s particularly important when you’re dealing with such a vividly colored building.

That’s because important elements of composition like line, shape and texture can be diminished in power due to the seductive and, often, overpowering allure of color.

When it comes to photographing city buildings try raising your camera, from a low viewpoint, to emphasize the towering height of a building.

To fit the top of a building into the frame it’s often necessary to tilt your camera backwards. In doing so you'll likely skew perspective as is demonstrated in this Nanjing Road night photo.

That action may exaggerate the height and dominance of the building in the composition.

You’ll either like the result or not. But it doesn’t cost anything to try and we all know that experimentation is at the heart of creativity.

A portrait of two pilgrims exploring visual tension near Amarapura, Myanmar.

A portrait of two pilgrims exploring visual tension near Amarapura, Myanmar.

Backgrounds And Perspective

Of course the word perspective can also relate to how an individual responds to a photo. Your own, individual response can effect the meaning derived from an image.

Have you ever made a portrait with a tree or telephone pole sticking out of the subjects head?


Actually, there’s the rare occasion when having a vertical line appearing to come out the back of someone’s head could be advantageous.

Way back in 1999 I had been photographing a young novice monk at the Kyauktawagyi Paya, a temple near the city of Amarapura in Myanmar. No sooner had I finished than these two gentleman presented themselves to be photographed.

It’s not the first time this has happened to me, but one of only a few times when I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be photographing the people in question. In fact they turned a joyous experience into quite a tense situation.

I decided the best way to proceed was to acquiesce and make their photo so that I could continue exploring the site in peace.

What’s different about this photo is that I made a conscious decision to try and record the situation, as I perceived it, by introducing an element of visual tension into the image.

I did that my asking the two men to stand against the beautiful, golden background and positioning one of them so that the most obtrusive of those vertical lines in the background appeared to run right through his head.

Given that the philosophy that underpins by photography is to create beautiful, life affirming images this is not the way I normally make portrait photos.

However, the juxtaposition of the beautiful golden background and the strange, untrusting and aggressive looks in the eyes of these two men produces an interesting duality that makes for a powerful documentary image.

Actor Reef Island in Mildura on the set of Summer Coda.

Actor Reef Island in Mildura on the set of Summer Coda.

Change Viewpoint To Clean Up The Background

Okay! The question that remains is how can you avoid creating images where there’s an appearance of a stick or pole popping in or out of your subject’s head?

There's numerous ways you can prevent this problem from occurring. In the simplest terms you move yourself and/or the subject to produce a clear and less distracting composition.

Sometimes that means swapping places with the subject.

No! I don’t mean handing the camera to them. I'm taking about swapping positions so that you're photographing from where they were standing.

While this action might well produce a better composition you might end up photographing your subject under light that's not particularly flattering.

Needless to say, while a great picture usually showcases great light and fantastic composition, if you're trying to make a beautiful portrait you have to use light well.

So let's go back to our portrait with a telephone pole sticking out of the subject’s head. Well, if the light is great on their face the best action would be to change the angle from which you're making the photo.

For example, move left and the background will move right, in relation to your subject, thereby moving any nasty, distracting elements away from their head.

If you move the camera far enough you'll end up moving the telephone pole, or other visually distracting element, completely out of the frame.

That’s what I did when making this portrait of Australian actor Reef Ireland on location in Mildura during the filming of the Australian motion picture film, Summer Coda.

The position of the camera, in relation to the subject, is critical to producing a great composition and also as a way to influence mood.

By moving your camera upwards and photographing down on your subject you’re able to both control how much of the background is recorded and also effect the emotion explored in the image.

Tilting the camera down tends to draw attention to the eyes and, depending upon the subject and the nature of their gaze, a range of moods can be expressed.

Here’s just a few possibilities:

  • Increase the attractiveness of an adult in a portrait photo (e.g., come hither, young man).
  • Increase the appearance of cuteness in a child.
  • May make a young child appear vulnerable.

A lot of people say you shouldn’t photograph down on children, as it makes them look vulnerable. But that’s not always the case and it’s worth noting that, even in our politically correct world, there may be times when you consider it appropriate to explore the notion of vulnerability.

I wrote a post all about photographing people from different angles and viewpoints. It’s a comprehensive post, with lots of beautiful photos from India, that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

The post is titled Children Photographed From Above.

It’s important to see how moving the position of the camera, relative to the subject and the background, can change the perspective of the scene you’re trying to photograph.

It's great fun experimenting and seeing how moving your viewpoint can place emphasis on different aspects of the scene and, in doing so, help you make more interesting photos.

The Father Of Perspective

Known as the father of perspective, Italian architect and designer Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) rediscovered the principals of linear perspective construction known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Linear perspective leading to a vanishing point on railway tracks at Murrayville.

Linear perspective leading to a vanishing point on railway tracks at Murrayville.

What Is Linear Perspective?

Linear perspective is used by photographers to convey a sense of depth and three dimensional space within the bounds of a two dimensional photo.

It's achieved when parallel lines appear to join together at a so-called vanishing point on the horizon.

This photo of railway tracks made at the Murrayville Railway Station in the Mallee region of south eastern Australia was made with the last light of the setting sun.

It was an experiment that aimed to illuminate only the railway tracks and drive the backlit silo and trees into silhouette.

I photographed from a low viewpoint to exaggerate the sense of three dimensional space and to emphasize the railway lines. Notice how the railway line on the right leads towards a vanishing point on the horizon.

To make use of linear perspective in your own photos you’ll need to make use to these three factors.

  • Parallel lines
  • The horizontal line (e.g., horizon)
  • Vanishing point

Think for a moment about how you can use parallel lines to achieve this magnificent illusion when photographing roads, railway lines or rivers.

As they recede back into the distance they converge towards each other until, eventually, they appear to join together to form a single vanishing point on the horizon.

It's worth noting that what we call the horizon is actually a kind of visual illusion where the sky appears to meet a large body of land or water.

When constructing an image that makes use of linear perspective it's important to consider where you're going to place the horizon.

For example, where you place the vanishing points in the image will be determined by the height at which you place the horizon. What's more the height at which you place the horizon will impact on the sense of elevation you create in the image.

Imagine you're photographing a simple landscape image consisting of earth and clear, open sky. The closer to the bottom of the frame the more sky will be included.

As a result the image may resonate with themes associated with notions of air, space and spirituality.

Conversely, with the horizon placed much higher in the frame, the image would probably feel more earth bound.

Wide angle lens changing perspective at the Palace of Versailles.

Wide angle lens changing perspective at the Palace of Versailles.

How Wide Angle Lenses Change Perspective

The fact is that objects that are close to the camera appear larger than they really are. You can see this fact illustrated in this photo of a highly decorative vase in front of the magnificent facade at the Palace Of Versailles near Paris, France.

Because I’ve photographed at an angle to the building you’ll see how much narrower it seems to be the further back into the frame your eye travels.

The reality is that the height of the building remains unchanged from back to front. However, our perception is that the height of the building actually changes the further away it appears.

The use of a wide angle lens both exaggerates the size of the foreground subject (i.e, vase) while minimising the apparent size of the background building.

This phenomenon is one way that photography challenges the way our eye and brain perceive reality.

Move And Make Better Photos

This post explores a few definitions from the world of composition which I hope you’ve found useful.

But as I look at these images I’m reminded of the fact that we experience many places, events and relationships during our time in this world.

What matters most is what we make of those experiences and how we decide to record them through the photos we create and the stories we tell.

I strongly recommend that you consistently explore viewpoints that produce more variety in your own photography.

It's easy, fun and often the single action you need to take that will elevate the images you make from ordinary to something quite special.

“Photography is a physical endeavor.”

— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

Give it a go and remember that, by moving, you’re not just stimulating the mind you’re doing what you need to do to create more visually interesting and emotively compelling images.

Put simply, moving makes photography more fun and, as a result, better photos will be achieved.

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