Every so often, a novice photographer tags along with me in the field. At the end of the shoot, they almost invariably say the same thing to me—you move around a lot! Yes I do. I think the biggest shortcoming for photographic newbies is the tendency to settle for the first shot they see. Part of that “settling” is the propensity to shoot every scene at eye level. Much of the time, this inclination leads to ho-hum imagery, and it’s a habit I think every photographer should break, immediately.
I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but years ago I attended a John Shaw photo seminar, and one of the things that stuck with me was his description of how, as a workshop leader, he noticed that the vast majority of his participants would approach a scene and immediately set up their tripods at full height. I made a point of keeping an informal tally of my own observations in succeeding years and determined that he was absolutely right. With relatively few exceptions, unless some impediment requires people to do otherwise, people typically set up at full height, and they stand in the first place they find.
The one positive thing I can unequivocally say about shooting at eye level is that it’s the most convenient, comfortable way to shoot. But the most convenient spot doesn’t necessarily yield the most interesting or vital perspective.
When I arrive at a scene for the first time, I set my tripod aside. Yes, you read that correctly; while I always have my camera mounted on a tripod when I trip the shutter, I don’t make use of it at all immediately. With my camera in hand, I carefully examine the scene with the naked eye, attempting to take in all of the potential elements of a possible photograph. When I spot something I like, I examine the scene through the camera’s viewfinder (unless I have the wrong lens mounted on the camera, in which case I switch lenses and then proceed). I continue this process until I find what I feel is the best option. That almost invariably means moving—up and back, left and right and, yes—up and down. I’ll squat, I’ll kneel, I’ll lay down…I do what it takes to put myself in what I believe is the best position for the shot.
Only when I find that spot—after making a mental note of the approximate ideal height—do I get the tripod and set it up at the noted position. With the camera mounted, I fine tune the composition and then go about the process of formally capturing the image. The tripod is an impediment when trying to find the best photographic position, so I keep it at arm’s length until I need it.
Zooming: Reality and Fallacy
Note that this isn’t merely limited to finding the best height at which to position the camera—it’s important to spend some time moving around: up and back, left and right, as I mentioned above—as well. The forward and back aspect is often neglected, as a function (in part) of zoom lenses. I often see people standing in one spot, zooming endlessly in and out. Adjusting the focal length of the lens in this way has isn’t without value at times, but many people are under the false impression that changing the focal length changes perspective.
Focal length changes have implications for depth of field, of course, but from a compositional standpoint, zooming a lens only changes the field of view of the would-be image. If you want to change perspective, you must move; pick yourself up (bring your camera along for company) and physically change your position. Now you’re changing perspective.
What’s the benefit of adjusting perspective? In short, more dynamic imagery. Shots hastily taken from eye-level have a tendency to appear static, flat and stale to viewers, precisely because it produces the same perspective that they’re so used to seeing themselves. But change that significantly—for instance, try getting very close and low in relation to a prominent foreground object—and you’ll be displaying something fresh, partly because it’s out of the ordinary and partly because this kind of perspective can produce the sense of adding a third dimension to what is, after all, a two-dimensional medium.
Give it a try. Spend a bit more time thinking about and exploring your surroundings. Most importantly, remember to move and examine different shooting perspectives. See if it doesn’t make a difference in your image output.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.