When Composing a Photo, Think About Where the Camera Is

photographer with camera and lens

As a photographer you may be on the streets or from a high vantage point. You raise the viewfinder to your eye, compose the framing that you envisioned, then click the shutter. You have a picture that was acquired using the technical elements at your creative disposal: focal length, shutter speed, and aperture. The camera was missing.

If love is in one’s eye, the photograph is also in that person’s eye. Cameras are extensions of our visual perception, our eyesight. We can use them to create or externalize what we see in order to share it with others. In fact, it is more than showing what we see, it is creating what we believe. It depicts what our deepest emotions are: how we think, feel, understand and know. By presenting an image you are saying “this is me.”

This creates a problem that is perhaps best exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator. Terminator, an autonomous, self-aware, and cyborg assassin, has several onboard sensors which allow it to interact its environment. According to the Terminator Wiki, these include optical sensors for its eyes, which can record both visible and thermal infrared light, tracking targets independently. System software performs motion tracking, object searching, and facial recognition, with all information displayed on a 40,000-bit digital display.

But here’s the problem: who’s looking at the display? We are only ever presented with what the Terminator “sees”, but it doesn’t need a heads-up display because, well, it’s a cyborg and this suggests there’s a display in its head.

In this sense, it’s obvious we’re in a movie and the camera is looking at the heads-up display as a way of mediating what the Terminator is cognizant of and so communicating potential intent. This is a visual presentation that tells a story. This is an important point because the same is true whenever you view an image; you are seeing what the photographer intends you to see, no more, no less.

Photographic Intent

From your perspective as a photographer, whenever you pick up the camera you need to decide how the image is going to be presented: what is the intent? Once you know where you want to end up, you can decide what message you will try to communicate and then how you will achieve this.

It’s the how that determines the perspective that is presented to the viewer and, from this, I think there are three different points of view that can be adopted. This is the first, and I’m returning to the case of the landscape photographer. It presents the subject through the lens of the photographer. It is the “me” shot. I show you what it looks like. In the example below, we have a classic truck which is — obviously — the focus of the image and shot as the photographer viewed it. In essence, we are seeing the truck through their eyes.

Classic truck

The second point-of-view is what we call the “you” shot, where it is presented from the perspective as if you were the viewer. In the example below, we have a bar scene with three people engaged in conversation. While it is clear that the camera is positioned alongside the protagonists, the presentation is as if we are sat there, participating in the conversation. We can almost sense the jovial atmosphere, the cold beer, and the conversations that we all have on a Friday after work has finished. This image invites questions from you and encourages your imagination to create new understandings.

Drinks among friends

There are two interesting aspects about the “you” and “me” perspective.

Firstly, the “you” shot is often intended to be immersive, making you feel that you are really “in” the scene. It’s visceral, to the point that you almost want to reach out and touch it. By necessity, the camera needs to be close-in which means short focal lengths often 24mm or less. The camera can have a large field of view, which is comparable to our binocular vision. However, it will also be very close to the subject.

This technique has been used by street photographers for many years. Perhaps Robert Capa’s famous quote, “If your photos aren’t great enough they’re not good enough”

In essence, you must be part of the action. Conversely, “me” shots can often — but not necessarily — be shot with longer lenses. It is important to focus on a single subject and present it to the viewer. This can often be done by removing all visual clutter.

Secondly, it also worth noting that these viewpoints are very much alive in video and, perhaps, even more important. There feels like there has been a shift to much more visceral, close-quarters filming. The Revenant sticks in my mind, but there are many examples. The direction of the shot for “you” or “me is crucial for storytelling. So next time you watch a movie, pay attention to when the Director Of Photography changes the narrative visual.

It’s also worth noting that there is one more type of shot, far more common in video, particularly with the advent of drone footage: the “God” shot. It can provide a unique perspective, one that you and I cannot achieve. In fact, any kind of shot can be the impartial, unseeable, third-party, in the scene, but it’s most obvious from a drone.

All of this is to remind us that the camera rarely acts as a passive observer within a scene. Everything in a scene will interact with the presence of both the photographer and camera, as the image below so ably demonstrates. We photographers know that people “play up” towards the camera. They can either love or hate a lens pointed in their direction.

Looking at the camera

The next time you are composing your image, remind yourself of the intent, your message, how people will interact with the camera, and the viewpoint you are presenting. This can be the difference between a good and bad photo.


Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.

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