One way you can make photos stand out is to compose them from an unusually low viewpoint. But why is low-angle photography so effective?
Good photography is hard to define, not least because there is always an element of subjectivity in judging it. Even when you have firm ideas about what great photos look like, there is no guarantee you’ll create them frequently. In fact, the more honed your tastes become, the less easily your own photos are likely to satisfy you.
Is there any secret to taking eye-catching pictures? If so, I wish I could harness it. There’s one idea I try to bear in mind: show people things in your pictures they don’t see in their day-to-day lives. That means looking closely and seeing details, noticing the unusual, emphasizing the point of interest, keeping things simple, and knowing what to exclude. What is it you have seen and want to convey?
Used creatively, low-angle photography meets the criteria of being unusual and will often make viewers look twice. However, it needs a bit more thought than just pointing the camera upwards.
Getting low, aiming high
Of course, low-angle photography isn’t a radical idea in the context of photographing architecture or statues, because they will often rise above you anyway. Unless you photograph these subjects from distance, you’ll always be pointing the lens upwards. But even with these subjects, you need to get the angle of the shot right and consider what qualities you’re aiming to accentuate.
If you’re photographing less lofty subjects such as people, animals or plants, you’ll have to get very low to make the perspective unusual. This, of course, could draw attention to you as a photographer, so you might have to shake off any inhibitions. Concentrate on the shot and you’ll soon forget about what other people think.
Architecture & statues
In the case of architecture, more ornate buildings (e.g. Gothic) aren’t always best shot from directly beneath, because all their detail becomes obscured or lost. You could photograph them that way and pick out a detail such as a gargoyle using shallow depth of field. The same can be done with statues on occasion, whereby you focus on an interesting part of the statue from below and isolate it.
Modern buildings like office skyscrapers often have the benefit of windows and lines, which narrow and converge if you photograph them from immediately below. This is an effective way of directing the eye towards the top of the building. Use of diagonals is an old trick for leading the eye into the picture, but you might need something else to make the shot a great one: perhaps a dramatic sky or cloud above the building.
There is no obligation when standing under a building or any other subject to keep it central or horizontal in the frame. By rotating the camera, often you’ll find an angle that increases the slightly giddy impression of towering height. This effect should not be underestimated. It’s a useful trick in low-angle shooting to make the viewer feel slightly disorientated.
When pointing a camera upwards inside a church or cathedral, I avoid including small sections of detail at the edge of the frame. Instead, I rotate the camera until everything in the picture looks intentional and not something I didn’t notice.
Photographing people from a low angle produces some interesting effects. If you look at old “film noir” movie stills, you’ll see a lot of shots where the camera is pointing upwards. This gives portraits a moody feel and empowers the subject because he/she towers above the photographer and, ultimately, the viewer. The downside of shooting from below is that it can be unflattering, often making subjects look broader in the body and fatter in the face.
You can shoot from low angles in street photography, too, whether from the hip or the ground. Be careful when shooting from the ground that you’re not invading anyone’s privacy by pointing the camera upwards—stay aware of your surroundings and watch who is entering the frame and how they are dressed.
The mere act of taking street photos from a low level may not, in itself, create a successful photo (if only it were that easy). You still need to have seen something interesting or out of the ordinary and the composition must be right. You might notice a detail at ground level and juxtapose it with the people above it.
Animals & pets
Many people photograph their pets from above, but if you get down to their level you can almost humanize them. That is to say, you’ll often capture their character better than from above. Like human subjects, photographing a pet from floor level gives it more power. An example of this might be if you photograph a cat preparing to pounce—you’ll put yourself in the position of the cat’s prey.
Sometimes you’ll get good results when shooting flowers from a low angle. One benefit in good weather is that you might get a plain blue sky as a background. Blue goes well with red and yellow – the three together form a triadic color scheme. It also blends well with orange (e.g. California Poppies), since blue and orange are complementary colors.
Of course, it may not be color that inspires you to photograph flowers from below. You might want to emphasize a long stem or capture the translucent qualities of a flower’s petals against a bright sky. You might go for the dramatic effect of many flowers looming over the lens—a bit like a miniaturized forest.
Trees are a prime candidate for low-angle shooting, either individually or collectively. Like buildings, you need to stand immediately below them to make the shot even slightly unconventional and maximize the effect. Such photos aren’t always striking unless there is an interesting branch formation or pattern above, so you should take care in picking a subject. Colorful foliage is an obvious thing to look out for, too, especially during fall.
You don’t need any special equipment to shoot from low angles, but obviously a flip-out LCD screen is a useful thing to have. If you don’t have that, at least digital photography costs nothing to experiment with, so you can shoot blind until you get what you want. This was how I first took low-angle photos—with repeated unsighted exposures. A wide-angle lens might help you accentuate height sometimes with its sweeping view of the world, but this is not a necessity.
I hope this article inspires you to shoot some great low-angle photos, whatever the subject. Good luck, and please share with us in the comments below!