Taking portraits involves so many variables that it can feel overwhelming for a new photographer. What lenses do you use—zoom, prime, or a mix of both? Do you shoot full-frame or cropped sensor? Will you shoot indoors or outdoors. Even the subject matter can be tricky, with some portrait photographers working exclusively with families, others who only shoot high school seniors or newborn babies, and still more who do a mix of everything.
While you are pondering all these variables it can be easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees and forget about a few key basics such as posing and lighting, and no matter what style of portraits you choose to pursue there is one thing that always comes into play which may not seem obvious: the camera angle from which you shoot. This can make all the difference between happy clients and complaining customers. Understanding how you can use camera angles and points of view can greatly enhance any portrait session.
Point of view – up high or down low
Understanding how your camera angle, or point of view, can affect your shots will go a long way towards improving not just your portraits, but your photography in general. How you position yourself in relation to your subjects can have a dramatic effect on the resulting pictures. As an illustration of how this works, here are two pictures of a family from a recent home-based session I did. Both show a very similar scene, and yet the different angles from which I shot them results in two vastly different images.
As I shot the image above I was very low to the ground. Crouching down on my hands and knees, I got very close physically to the family while the mother and father watched the boys play with their sister. It feels like the viewer is part of the scene, right there with them as they all share a fun moment together. This is entirely due to the low angle from which the picture was shot. Now take a look at virtually the exact same scene but shot from high above.
To get this picture I grabbed a dining room chair and stood on it to get a shot from a much higher angle. The result is a picture that feels quite different from the first one. It doesn’t seem like you are a part of the scene, but an outside observer looking at the family as they gather together.
While I like both images, each one creates a very different emotional response on the part of the viewer. Even though both were shot with the same camera and lens, at the same location, with the same subjects, the result is two pictures that are vastly different from one another all because of the angle from which they were taken.
Even subtle changes make a difference
You can see a similar, but more subtle, effect in this pair of portraits I took of a young girl near her birthday.
The angle here isn’t as low as the first one of the family, but it’s low enough to be on the girl’s eye level. To get this I had to kneel down and stand a few meters back as her mother talked with her from my right-hand side. It gives a similar sense of intimacy as the first picture of the family and feels as though the viewer is near the girl and part of the scene.
This changes a bit when the girl is shot from an adult’s eye level looking down (below).
While the effect here is not as dramatic as the example with the family, you will still note a similar result in terms of emotion and tone. Instead of getting down on eye level I shot this while standing up about the same distance away. It doesn’t feel like you, the viewer, are a part of the scene and instead it seems like you are merely an observer. Notice how the sidewalks in the background cut across the frame at odd angles whereas in the first one the sidewalks neatly cross in horizontal lines, adding a subtle touch without being too obvious or gaudy.
Once again I don’t think either picture is necessarily better or worse, but both are quite different as a result of the camera angle.
Kids – break the rules
This is, incidentally, one of the most common issues I see with people who are taking casual snapshots of their kids, whether with a fancy DSLR or just their mobile phone. Taking a few seconds to crouch down and get on eye level with the children can make all the difference in the world between an intimate moment frozen in time, and a boring snapshot.
However, I don’t want to give the mistaken impression that shooting from a high angle is necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very good thing indeed, and quite effective when used intentionally, such as this image of a girl with her two-week-old baby brother (below).
This picture was a bit tricky, but the results were well worth it. I was doing this on location in the family’s home so I didn’t have a lot to work with, but I wanted to get something a bit unique. I put the two kids on a blanket on the floor, got a chair to stand on, and positioned myself directly above them while bouncing my flash off the ceiling.
It resulted in an image that feels more fun and playful as if the viewer is peeking in on a fun moment between the two siblings. The equipment here was nothing all that special (I could have just as easily used my old D7100 and 35mm lens to get the same shot) but paying attention to the angle made for a picture that stood out quite a bit from the rest of the image I shot that day.
Other camera angles to consider
Sometimes finding the right angle involves something as simple as choosing where to put yourself in relation to your subject, not necessarily whether to shoot from high above or down low. You can see this in the example below. After an hour of taking a variety of traditional portrait-style
After an hour of taking a variety of traditional portrait-style shots, I stood back while the family walked back to their car and took some pictures with the sunset casting a warm glow through the trees above.
There are some elements that I could do without, such as the tree branches coming from the left-hand side. But overall the picture feels warm, cozy, and conveys a sense of comfortable intimacy as if I have captured the family in a quiet and sincere moment. It puts you, the viewer, as an outside observer to the scene and almost feels like you are watching from afar as the family shares a special time together.
This is in stark contrast to the next picture, which despite being at a different location is composed in almost exactly the same manner except for one variable: the angle.
This picture feels like it’s full of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm as the family holds hands and walks towards me. I like both pictures quite well, but changing the angle resulted in two images that are vastly different from one another.
Hopefully, these examples give you an idea of how your camera angle and point of view can dramatically affect the types of portraits you take. If you are looking to try something new and kick your photography up a notch without spending any money on more gear, try doing something as simple as changing your angle and see what happens.
In fact, this now makes me wonder about your favorite tips and tricks for shooting portraits at different angles. Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and feel free to share pictures as well!