There’s a line in Return of the Jedi that has always struck me as particularly insightful, especially considering its inclusion in a movie filled with a two-ton slug-shaped bounty hunter and a planet full of fighting teddy bears. In a conversation with his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, newly-minted Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker asks his sensei if Darth Vader is indeed his father. When Obi-Wan confirms the awful truth, Luke asks why his teacher had formerly lied to him, telling him instead that Darth Vader “betrayed and murdered your father.”
“What I told you was true,” Kenobi calmly replies, “from a certain point of view.” Incredulous, Luke balks at this assertion and wonders aloud how his mentor can claim such a relativistic stance on what is, in his mind, clearly a black-and-white issue. With a dose of characteristic zen Kenobi explains to his pupil, “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Perspective and Photography
Without wading too deep into philosophical waters I just want to point out that this concept, also known as perspective, is critically important in photography, as well as cinematic space operas. Learning to shoot photos from different perspectives is a way of not only shaking up the status quo, but injecting new life into what might otherwise be dull, boring, or entirely pedestrian pictures. To illustrate how perspective changes can radically alter a picture, here are three examples that will hopefully give you an idea of some things to try if you want to breathe new life into your own photography.
Perspective in Nature
This is a fairly common scene you might find in any city: a fire plug with some tufts of grass sprouting clumps of purple seeds. It may not seem all that special, and indeed it’s the kind of scene I would probably pass by in pursuit of a more interesting picture. Look what happens with just a bit of perspective change, though:
By getting up close with one of the stalks of grass and focusing on its purple seeds dripping, and slightly bent with fresh rain, I now have an entirely new picture of the same exact scene. This little perspective change results in a photograph that is much more intimate and reveals details that were invisible in the initial photo. Background elements such as the out-of-focus grass still give the impression that this stalk is part of a much larger scene though we also lose a few things too: the bicycles and other buildings are gone, which means the picture is much more isolated than the first one and lacking a larger context. Neither picture is inherently better, but both are quite different, even though they contain the same subject. One final perspective shift results in an entirely different picture yet again.
Now the same stalk of grass as the previous version (literally the exact same one and not a different piece of grass on the same plant) is given an entirely new context and the picture here is quite different. It has a much more urban feel with brick buildings instead of green grass in the background, and it feels more majestic and powerful overall. To get this picture I had to get out of my comfort zone a little by kneeling down and contorting my body, but the extra effort resulted in a photo that I like quite a lot. Perspective changes like this can add entirely new dimensions to a picture, and even change its whole meaning, and all it takes is a few seconds of extra work before you click the shutter.
Perspective in Architecture
For another example of how perspective can alter a picture here’s a shot I took of the Edmon Low Library on the campus of Oklahoma State University in the midwest United States:
It’s an interesting shot but virtually identical to hundreds if not thousands of other pictures you might find on a simple Google Images search. Watch what happens when I change perspective just a bit by walking closer:
To get this picture I walked about a hundred yards down the lawn which isolated the building from its environment, and now the picture is much more constrained: it’s about the building itself, not the building in relation to the surrounding campus features. The picture is similar but subtly different, and its overall meaning has been changed by taking a very short walk (and as a bonus, getting a bit of exercise in the process). Watch what happens with one final change in perspective:
It’s still the same library, but the picture has changed dramatically from the first shot. Instead of a static image of a building surrounded by green spaces, this now shows the library in a whole new context. The imposing bell tower looms large over the veranda, and the student walking past adds a new dynamic element, to what was formerly a rather boring picture. Showing the building from this angle as it recedes into the background, illustrates how it is part of a much larger campus, and overall I find this a much more interesting image.
Working with People
Looking at buildings and nature is one thing, but changing perspective when taking pictures of people can blow the doors wide open when it comes to creating pictures that are new, interesting, and much more impactful. To illustrate this, here are a few photos of my nephew skipping rocks at the beach on a recent family vacation.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this photo but there’s nothing especially interesting about it either. To get this picture I stood on the beach with my camera while he skipped rocks, and did put in much effort to take perspective into account. It’s a decent snapshot that more or less captures the scene, but watch what happened when I changed my perspective:
The scene has been drastically improved simply by walking 20 feet down to the beach, and crouching down to my nephew’s eye level. There’s now a sense of action and movement, and you can also see the intense concentration on the boy’s face as he winds up to skip a rock. In addition to these alterations you now have a sense of context; you see where the subject is in relation to his surroundings. By changing perspective I am able to show the rest of the beach, which includes some of his cousins and my brother having fun in the background. Here’s one final perspective change that alters the picture even more:
This one is all about my nephew with nothing else except the beach to provide a sense of context and is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. You see him alone, along with the same intense expression as in the previous photograph but without any distracting background elements. To get this picture I waded into the water and crouched down until my camera was just a few inches above the surface. It was more difficult to get this shot, and certainly would have been easier if my camera had an articulating LCD screen, but the payoff was well worth it. Compare this to the initial shot, and you will see a massive difference just from a little work on my part to change perspective.
Hopefully these examples give you a few things to ponder the next time you are out with your camera. It takes a little more work to shoot things from different perspectives, but you may find yourself with new creative possibilities and new ways of looking at your subjects and the world around you.
What are your favorite tips and tricks for finding and exploring new photographic perspectives? Share your thoughts in the comments below.