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The seemingly mundane task of selecting a point of view is one of the most creative aspects of photography. When the camera’s position changes, the relationships of the visual elements in the viewfinder are rearranged. We can redesign the world as the camera sees it, simply by moving.
As critical as this task is, it’s easy to neglect it. I often do. The cure is to get into the habit of selecting a point of view as carefully as circumstances permit.
Once we have identified a subject for a photograph, we need to study the subject and its context carefully. How would the camera's viewfinder see the subject and its context if we moved to the left or right? If we moved up or down? Closer or farther away? We can usually get a reasonably good idea of the answer, without having to make all those movements. Once we have some tentative answers, we can refine them by viewing the subject from the points of view that seem promising.
Not long ago, I spotted an interesting piece of machinery at an old ranch. This is how it looked from eye level:
The machinery is interesting, but the photograph is a dud. One obvious problem was that the dirt background provided little tonal or color separation from the machinery. I walked all around the machinery. I knelt, squatted and lay down in the dirt, looking for a good point of view. Much of the background was unappealingly cluttered. The best solution I could find was to shoot from near the ground, using the clear sky as a background:
By getting slightly lower, I found this point of view:
When we are close to a subject, moving only a few inches can significantly change the composition.
As we explore possible points of view, it helps to consider several specific factors.
- One is obvious: From which angle does the subject look most interesting or appealing?
- How can a shot be framed so as to exclude unwanted visual elements? Subjects are all too often found near things we don't want in a photograph, such as power lines and garbage cans. There may be only a few points of view available from which we can keep those items out of the picture.
- What lighting is best? If the subject is front-lighted from where we're standing, for example, we might get more depth if we move to where the subject is lighted from the side. Because the spines on these cholla cacti were translucent, moving to where the spines were backlighted produced an interesting effect.
- When a composition involves the juxtaposition of two or more elements, from what point of view are the elements in the best relationship to each other? This was a factor in photographing the old ranch machinery.
- What point of view provides the best background? I usually prefer uncluttered backgrounds that are sufficiently distinct from the subject to provide good tonal and/or color separation.
One common way to get a distinct, uncluttered background is to frame a sunlit subject against a background in shadow. One afternoon I was trying to photograph some early spring wildflowers in the desert. The light was harsh and I wasn’t finding any compositions I liked. Finally I spotted some flowers against a background of shade—one of the few spots of shade in sight. By using the shade as the background, I got tonal separation I couldn’t get anywhere else. The bluish light of the shade also provided a pleasing contrast to the warm tones of the flowers.
I had to lie on my stomach for that shot. I often find myself shooting from a point of view that is fairly close to the ground. Sometimes the only way to get an uncluttered background is to lie on the ground and shoot the subject with the sky in the background, as I did with the photographs of the machinery above. Another consideration is that, because we ordinarily see the world from eye level, an image taken from near the ground will frequently offer a fresh perspective. A drawback to shooting from close to the ground is that it's often dirty and uncomfortable. If we want the shot, we put up with the discomfort.
Although the process of selecting a point of view may sound very time consuming, it usually isn’t. It takes more time to describe the thoughts involved in making a selection than it does to think them. Even when there are an almost-unlimited number of points of view from which a subject could be photographed, most of them will have obvious disadvantages. We rule those out in short order.
We can seldom maximize all of the relevant considerations from a single point of view. We have to make compromises. When I took the following photograph, there were highly undesirable visual elements just out of the frame to the left and right. Those virtually dictated the point of view that I used:
Even when it seems that we have few choices regarding points of view, small changes can make a major difference. Montezuma Castle is a Sinagua ruin in Central Arizona. The ruin can be seen from only one direction and only from a distance. There is no practical way to include any foreground interest. The ruin must be viewed from a section of the walkway to which visitors are restricted. But where on that walkway the camera is placed can matter quite a bit. Here’s one shot of the ruin from a little to the left and another from a little to the right:
The first image is very unattractive. I wouldn’t have taken it if I hadn’t been considering writing about this subject. I like the second image. It was taken from the only place on the walkway where the composition satisfied me.
When I’m selecting a point of view, I often think about other aspects of composition as well. The next step in composition for me, after selecting a point of view, is to decide how to frame the shot so as to include what’s essential, and exclude all else. As a practical matter, such thoughts are inextricably linked to choosing a point of view, and my mind is often bouncing back and forth from one consideration to the other. The compositional process doesn’t consist of neatly compartmentalized thoughts.
The thought process involved in choosing a point of view needs to become a habit. We don’t need the camera when we’re evaluating points of view. If we get in the habit of putting the camera aside while we do it, that will remind us to think the shot through carefully. I’ve also found that it helps to practice. If I have nothing better to do, I’ll go to a familiar place and practice finding the optimum point of view and composition for whatever interesting subjects I can find. This isn’t done with the goal of getting keepers, but sometimes it has that result.
If you have any other thoughts on choosing a point of view, I’d like to hear them.
Don Peters’ photographs can be seen at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/