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Up and Down, Forward and Back, Left and Right

Sunburst through driftwood on the coast of the Olympic PeninsulaThe best photographs are rarely taken from where you first see what might be an interesting subject. It would be an amazing stroke of luck to be in the right place at the right time on your first try, after all. One of the surest ways to improve your photography is to explore your subject from all angles.

Most photographs are taken at the photographer's eye level. That only makes sense since this is the vantage point from which we generally look at life. But as you raise or lower your camera, what you see through the viewfinder will change. Many subjects look much better from their level not yours. Animals will look much more natural from their eye level. Landscape images with dramatic foregrounds are much easier to find when your camera is lower. Many macro subjects can't even be seen until you get down near the ground since that's where they are in nature.

There are no solutions that will work for every image though. Sometimes a high camera position can provide a unique vantage point by showing your subject in its surroundings. Sometimes it can be the only way to see a subject by getting you up above what would otherwise block your view of something interesting. Only by moving up and down to see what you can see will you discover what works best for any particular subject.

Getting close to foreground wildflowers high in the mountainsYou can also move forward and backward of course. I've written before about how the distance to your subject relative to the distance to other objects in the frame determine what we call perspective. If you get closer to something, it will appear larger. Get further away and it will appear smaller. These changes happen proportionally to our change in distance. Get twice as close to an object and it will double in size. Get three times closer and it will appear to triple in size. But as you move closer to one object in front of you, your relative distance to objects even further away doesn't change at the same rate. Suppose you start ten feet from something and second object is another ten feet behind that. Now suppose you move five feet closer to both objects. The first object will appear to double in size since you halved your distance from it, going from ten feet down to only five feet away. But at the same time your distance to the second object will have gone from a total of twenty feet away to now only fifteen feet away, making you only one third closer than you were to start with. Since your distance to this second object changed by a much smaller ratio, its apparent change in size will also be much smaller proportionally.

Because of perspective, you can make your primary subject appear bigger or smaller relative to other objects in the frame by moving closer to it or further way. This means walking with your feet (or driving with your car in extreme cases), not simply zooming in and out with your camera from a stationary vantage point. Merely changing focal length will cause everything in the frame to get bigger or smaller in unison and will have no effect on perspective. You have to move to do this. Relative subject distance can have a huge effect on how well an image conveys your vision of something.

Shore logs lead you to the sunrise in Rocky Mountain National ParkThe other direction of movement available to us is left and right. As we move side to side, objects may appear to shift sideways relative to one another one way or the other as well due to a phenomenon known as motion parallax. Any given shift left or right relative to a nearby object will be have a greater effect than on an object further away. If two objects at different distances were lined up in your viewfinder, a shift sideways will cause them to separate as you will have effectively changed directions to the nearer by a greater angle than the further. This allows you to control subject isolation and prevent subjects from merging with background objects of similar tonality.

But moving side to side can also allow you to create stronger compositions by causing objects to line up with each other that would otherwise be haphazardly arranged in the frame. It's up to you where you place things in your images. Without actually moving objects around there are limits of course, but a simple shift to one side can frequently improve an image more than you might expect.

We live in a three-dimensional world. And as we move around in this world, the appearance of objects and their relationship to other objects alters with our perspective. I encourage you to size up a potential subject from every angle and from varying distances and heights to really explore its potential. You may well be surprised at the images you can find with a little movement and some thought as to what might be possible.

Date posted: April 13, 2008


Copyright © 2008 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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The Most Underutilized Photo Accessory
Composition: Putting Things in Perspective

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