Photography / Tips and Solutions

A Matter of Perspective


If you've ever flown over the Grand Canyon or Rocky mountains at 35,000 feet, you already know how humbling and enlightening this experience can be. Tall mountains appear small, almost flush to the plains leading up to them. 

The grandiosity of the Grand Canyon is equally diminished when viewed from high above.  The Rockies and Grand Canyon viewed from ground level appear immense and unconquerable, yet from high above, these same geological wonders simply blend into the textures and patterns of the overall landscape. As with most things in life, how we see them is often a matter of perspective. 

A couple of years back I was toying with the macro settings common to almost all point-and-shoot (P&S) digital cameras. Because of the optical qualities of shorter focal length lenses (a typical “normal” lens on a P&S digital camera is usually in the neighborhood of 7-8mm), P&S cameras can focus closer than the normal lenses found on larger-format cameras. Shorter focal lengths also afford you greater depth of field, even at wider apertures. In my book, this translates into new ways of photographing the same old, same old. 

I first caught on to this perspective of photographing while writing the “Splash-cams” article in the old B&H Photo Newsletter. I thought it was amazing how easy it was to capture dramatic close-up images of what we usually look upon as mundane subjects, especially when they're half submerged in water. Clover growing on a neighbor's lawn is ho-hum until you get down on your hands and knees and view it from the perspective of a chipmunk; ditto for dandelions.

It wasn't long before I began taking pictures of ground-level subjects where sky meets earth, which once you get past the grass stains on your knees and elbows, can be quite fascinating from a photographic point of view.

The macro abilities of digital cameras are most dramatic when taken with a wider-angle lens. The photographs that illustrate this article were taken with a Canon G10, an Olympus Tough 8000 and a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, all of which zoom out to the equivalent of a 28mm lens (about 78° AOV). I mention these specific cameras because their zooms back out wider than the more typical 35-38mm equivalent (62-ish° AOV) focal ranges found in most point-and-shoot digital cameras. And while you can capture (somewhat) similar images using optics in the 35-38mm range, the pictures they produce often lack that extra bit of drama afforded by wider-angle lenses.

Semi-submerged with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1 Semi-submerged with an Olympus Tough-8000

Roadside with a Canon G10

Groundhog buffet: Clover at ground level with a Canon G10

If you're not into grass-stained knees or crawling through the brush in search of interesting pictures, be assured it's possible to add touches of creativity to your photographs without soiling your garments or taxing your back and knees. The act of removing the camera from your eyes is the first step.

By zooming the camera to its widest focal length and clicking on the camera's macro settings, it's possible to take portraits of the flowers in their surroundings that have a far different feel than the garden variety (pun intended) eye-level pictures of flowers we tend to take. (If your camera has an articulated or swiveling LCD, you will now be putting it to good use.)

This is an interesting approach to photographing many subjects, and with a bit of practice, it's easy to figure out what the camera lens is seeing even when you're holding the camera in a position where the LCD isn't viewable. This is called shooting by feel—or as journalists refer to it—shooting from the hip. Regardless of what you call it, once you can palm your camera and intuitively know what the camera lens is seeing, you can start taking truly creative imagery. And since you're shooting digitally, it costs you nothing but your time to play around and learn a few new tricks.

The pictures below were taken by feel; that is, they were captured by setting the camera to its widest position and hovering the camera around the flowers similar to the way a bee approaches and hovers around the same flowers when gathering nectar. Rather than being bit players in the overall landscape, the flowers take on personalities of their own.

Macro flower portraits taken by hovering a Canon G10 (with a Polarizing filter)

The point of all of the above is that if you approach picture taking from angles other than the easy-to-fall-into, eye-level, camera-to-the-eye, or arm’s-distance shooting, it doesn't take that much extra effort to elevate your imagery to a higher creative plane.

Photos © Allan Weitz, 2011. May not be reproduced without written permission.