The majority of photographs are taken with the camera at eye level, but by shooting from higher or lower viewpoints you can add a sense of surprise and drama to your compositions because they give us a view of the world we’re not used to.
Shooting from a low viewpoint with a wideangle lens will introduce more distortion, with features close to the camera dominating the composition and verticals converging dramatically. Because you’re forced to look upwards you can also make the sky a more integral part of the composition — it effectively becomes the background.
Try shooting with the camera held just a few inches above the ground — shoot blind, check the image, and try again if it doesn’t quite work. More and more cameras are being made with flip-up rear screens these days, so you can shoot from unusual viewpoints but angle the screen so you can see what you’re getting and have some control over the composition.
High viewpoints offer a bird’s eye view of the world — you can take amazing shots from tall buildings and monuments, looking down on the streets below. Use a wideangle lens so you can include the horizon or a tele zoom to home in on details far below.
Another way of implying distance and depth in a photograph is by including features that help us to quantify the scale of a scene.
People are the most obvious choice, as the human body is relatively consistent in size. If you capture a person dwarfed by a waterfall, for example, it immediately becomes clear that the waterfall is huge, whereas without the person we wouldn’t necessarily have anything to compare it to. Other features of relatively consistent size can also be used to suggest scale — such as trees, buildings and animals.
For the strongest effect, make the feature you’re using for scale small in the frame and use a telephoto lens to compress perspective so that the large and small elements appear close together. Wide-angle lenses aren’t so good for emphasising scale due to the way they stretch perspective — in fact, they can reverse the effect by making foreground elements appear larger than those in the distance.
Sometimes it works in your favour when you intentionally avoid any scale reference because it creates a sense of intrigue, which holds the attention of the viewer. Ripples on a sandy beach could easily be an aerial shot of sand dunes in a desert, for example, while a close-up of the texture in rock could be a shot of the Grand Canyon. Without something to give us a clue of the scale it can be impossible to tell.
‘For the strongest effect, make the feature you’re using for scale small in the frame and use a telephoto lens to compress perspective so that the large and small elements appear close together’
Whether natural or man-made, lines are a powerful compositional aid. As well as leading the eye into and through an image, they can also be used to divide an image into different areas, or to add a strong graphic element.
The most obvious lines are those created by man-made features such as roads, paths, tracks, bridges, telegraph wires, walls, hedges, fences and avenues of trees. Shadows, too, can create strong lines, especially early or late in the day when the sun is low. Natural features such as rivers and streams, although not necessarily straight, have the same effect as they wind through a scene into the distance and take your eye on a fascinating journey.
Assumed lines can also be formed by the layout of features or objects in a scene, such as stepping stones across a stream. Although there is space between them, our brain automatically joins up the individual elements. The same applies when photographing people — the direction of a person’s gaze will act like a line because your eye follows it to see what that person is looking at.
Horizontal lines echo the horizon and the force of gravity so they have a soothing effect, whereas vertical lines are more active, producing compositions with a stronger sense of direction. To maximise the effect, shoot with your camera in portrait format so the eye has further to travel from the bottom of the frame to the top.
As the eye tends to travel naturally from the bottom left to the top right of an image, diagonal lines travelling in this direction are effective because they carry the eye through an image from the foreground to the background. Finally, converging lines created by features such as roads and railway tracks add a strong sense of depth because they appear to get closer together with distance and our eye can’t resist following them. The converging effect is best emphasised using a wideangle lens — the wider the better — so the lines appear wide apart close to the camera and rush away into the distance to the vanishing point where they appear to meet.
CREATIVE USE OF SPACE
For years I preached the virtues of filling the frame and avoiding ‘windy’ compositions.
But as I’ve got older and maybe a little wiser I’ve realised that there can be strength in the creative use of space in a monochrome image and I often find myself intentionally pulling back on the zoom or physically moving further away from my subject so I can surround it with space.
Not only does this simplify the image enormously, especially if that space is a light tone or white, but it also helps to focus attention on the main subject, which stands out starkly against the empty background.
I also find that leaving space in an image encourages the viewer to spend longer looking at it, almost as if the emptiness has opened their mind and allowed their imagination to run free.