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Seeing with a Camera


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BY Robert Hirsch September 10, 2014 · Published by Focal Press

Robert Hirsch discusses how framing, focus, and angles of view affect image elements—and provides exercises to help you develop your own working method of evaluating and composing a scene.

This excerpt from Light and Lens is provided courtesy of Focal Press. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Focal Press website.




The Framing Effect: Viewpoint

One of the fundamental tasks of any image maker is to define what the exact subject of the picture is going to be. The capacity to compose succinctly is what gives clarity and cohesion to a maker’s experience. The decisions we make are sensitive to how choices are presented or framed. Being aware that this “framing effect” can influence decision making, one should be attentive to the viewpoint, or vantage point, for it is a crucial basic compositional device that determines how an image is presented and in turn received by viewers. It is such an elementary ingredient that it is often taken for granted and ignored. The angle of view lets an image maker control balance, content, light, perspective, and scale within the composition. It also determines the color saturation and whether or not the hues form color contrast or harmony. This chapter is designed to encourage one to eliminate some of the self-imposed limits on the windows by which we visualize the world and to break away from the standardized conventions of representation and through experimentation discover additional ways of presenting your visual voice.

The monitor on your digital camera offers a useful tool for composing and/or reviewing an image (dependent on camera capabilities). Be sure to utilize it to its fullest extent.

As part of his project, American Power, which examines America’s cultural investment in energy, Epstein made this picture about six weeks after Hurricane Katrina had hit. This straight-on image is one of contradictions. The warm soft light stands in stark juxtaposition with the remnants of personal human items hanging from a bare tree in place of its leaves. © Mitch Epstein. Biloxi, Mississippi, 2005. Variable dimensions. Inkjet print. Courtesy of Black River Productions Ltd. and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Seeing Dynamically

Sunday snap shooters raise their camera to eye level and push the button. An image maker explores the visual possibilities of the scene and attempts to find a way to present the subject in accordance with a desired outcome.

How the world is framed is as important as what is in the frame. In De pictura (1435), Leon Battista Alberti codified the basic geometry of the linear perspective and instructed painters to consider the frame of a painting as an open window. With the exception of avant-garde work, this notion of the single frame has remained the staple of most image makers. Now, however, as an increasing number of digital image makers are working with a multitude of windows that can coexist and overlap, this classic concept of perspective is being challenged.

Varying the camera position, the window by which the scene is presented does not require any additional expense or equipment, yet it is the initial first step that can transform a subject and allow it to be seen from an innovative standpoint. It can give viewers more information, let a subject be seen in a way that was not possible before, and/or introduce an alternate point of view. Photo educator Fred Scruton of Edinboro University tells his students that such experiments can help them to break away from their customary sight angles and take them for a visual ride into unfamiliar territory, a ride that can increase their receptiveness to a distinctly photographic visual vocabulary.

Often we go heavy-eyed through the routines of life. We walk down a street without seeing because we have done it countless times before. We act like somnambulists, who know what to expect; everything is in place, with no chance for surprise. To actively see, you must be awake, aware, and open to wonderment and its companion astonishment. In Art Matters (2001), Peter de Bolla writes: “Wonder requires us to acknowledge what we do not know or may never know, to acknowledge the limits of knowledge. It is, then, a different species of knowledge, a way of knowing that does not lead to certainties or truths about the world or the way things are. It is a state of mind that, like being in love, colors all that we know we know.” Wonderment can be experienced in the ordinary or extraordinary situations and brings with it a sense of amazement, astonishment, awe, and surprise. Being able to visually communicate these powerful feelings is a sure-fire way of engaging viewers.

When seeing dynamically, you are letting things happen and not relying on past expectations and clichés to get you through a situation. Seeing dynamically involves being conscious of color and space and learning to organize these elements in a persuasive manner. The more you look, the more you can penetrate a subject; in turn, the more you are able to see even more clearly, concisely, and deeply. Put into practice Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s exhortation to his sometime artist collaborator Jean Cocteau: “Astonish me!”

Working Methods

Select a subject that inspires personal wonderment and that could produce an astonishing reaction from your viewers. Then proceed to use a combination of viewpoint and light to generate your visual statement. All sorts of questions should be running through your mind at this stage as part of the decision-making process. Answering them requires independent visual thinking and experimentation. Try not to compete with what you have seen others doing. Competition tends to lead to copying of ideas and style. Direct copying means no longer discovering things on your own. Watch out for envy too, as it can also take away from your own direction and inclinations. The most rewarding pictures tend to be those that are made from your heart as well as your mind. "Viewpoint Working Methods," below, presents some methods to consider. Use your monitor to review and adjust your exposures as you work.

Viewpoint Working Methods

  1. Begin with a conventional horizontal shot at eye level, metering from the subject. Walk around the subject. Crouch down, lie down, stand on tiptoes, and find a point that raises the angle of view above the subject. Notice how the direction of light either hides or reveals aspects of the subject. Move in closer to the subject and then get farther back than the original position. Now make exposures at a lower angle than the original eye-level view. Try positioning the camera right on the ground. Look through the camera’s viewing system; move and twist around and see what happens to the subject. When it looks good, make another exposure. Repeat making vertical exposures.

  2. Change the exposure. See what happens when you expose for highlights? What about depth of field? Will a small, medium, or large f-stop help to create more intense visual impact? How does altering the exposure affect the mood of the scene?

  3. Decide whether to emphasize the foreground or background. How will this decision affect the viewers’ relationship with the subject? Try both horizontal and vertical viewpoints.

  4. Get behind the subject and make a picture from that point of view. How is this different from the front view? What is gained and what is lost by presenting this viewpoint?

  5. Photograph the subject from the left and right sides. How is this different from the front and back views? What is gained and what is lost by presenting this point of view?

  6. Make pictures from above the subject. How does this change the sense of space within the composition and one’s sense of the subject?

  7. Experiment with different focal length settings. See what changes occur in the points of emphasis and spatial relationships due to depth of field as you shift from wide-angle to telephoto focal lengths.

  8. Get close. It is like walking by a pizzeria and seeing the pizzas through the window and thinking they may look really good. But if you go inside the shop and get a pizza right under your nose, then you’re in business because you are experiencing it first hand. Look for details that reveal the essence of the entire subject and strive to capture them. This method of visceral simplification can speak directly and plainly to viewers.

  9. Back away. Make images that make known the subject’s relationship to its environment.

  10. Introduce the unexpected into your visual thinking. Employ your instincts to make images of the subject without using the camera’s viewing system. Go with what feels “right.” This can be very liberating and can bring to the surface composition arrangements that your conscious mind may not have been able to contemplate.

  11. Work to convey your sense of wonderment, as it is a conduit for eliciting viewer astonishment. The camera can give one a societal license to come close to the unapproachable in ways that may otherwise be regarded as unacceptable in daily social situations. Use this visual license to make the strongest possible statement without being irresponsible or infringing on the rights of others (see the section on the photographer’s special license in Chapter 12).

Effectively Using Angles of View

When deliberating compositional possibilities, consider these five basic angles of view and some of their general qualities.

  • Eye-level angle of views are more neutral, dispassionate, and less directorial than high- or low-angle ones. Eye-level shots tend to encourage viewers to make their own reading of a scene. It presents a more normal, everyday view of how we see the world. It is a favorite of visual/realistic photographers (see Chapter 5) because it puts a subject on a more equal footing with the observer. A normal focal-length lens setting is commonly used when working in this manner.
  • A low-angle viewpoint increases the height of the subject and conveys a sense of verticality. It tends to present a certain sense of motion. The general environment is diminished in importance; the upper portion of the composition, such as the sky, takes on a greater prominence. The importance or visual weight of the subject is amplified. An individual figure becomes more heroic and larger than life. A subject can also appear more looming, dominating the visual space, bringing forth a sense of insecurity. Photographing a person from below can inspire anxiety, trepidation, or reverence. In a landscape, a low angle can generate a more intense sense of spatial depth by bringing added visual importance to the foreground.
  • High angles have the opposite effect of low ones. High-angle shots can provide a general overview of the subject. The importance of the surrounding environment takes on added importance. As the height of the angle increases, the importance of the subject is diminished, and care must be taken that the setting does not overwhelm a subject. High angles may indicate vulnerability, weakness, or the harmlessness and/or openness of a subject. A high angle can deliver a condescending view of a subject by making it appear powerless, enmeshed, or out of control. It reduces the height of objects, and the sense of movement within the frame is reduced, making it unsuitable for conveying a sensation of motion or speed. It can be effective for portraying a situation that is wearying or repressive.
  • Oblique angles come about when the camera is tilted, making for an unstable horizon line. It throws a scene out of balance because the natural horizontal and vertical lines are converted into unstable, diagonal lines. An individual photographed at an oblique angle appears to be tilting to one side. Oblique angles are disorientating to the viewer. They may suggest angst, imbalance, impending movement, tension, or transition, indicating a precarious situation on the verge of change.
  • A bird’s-eye view results from composing high above a subject and can appear perplexing and disorientating to viewers. Ordinarily, we do not see life from this perspective; thus, a scene may initially appear abstract, obscure, or unidentifiable. A bird’s-eye view enables viewers to hover over the subject from a Divine perspective. A subject appears inconsequential, reinforcing the idea of fate or destiny—that something beyond the subject’s control is going to happen. Bauhaus master Lázsló Moholy-Nagy favored all-encompassing overhead views to represent “new, previously unknown relationships . . . between the known and as yet unknown optical.” Haptic/expressionistic image makers favor compositions made from extreme angles as they confine an audience to an idiosyncratic point of view.

10.1 “My working process is one of image configuration, placing multiple images in relationships to each other to create a new spatiality. I use digital and physical methods, finding that using both gives me the most fertile ground—the huge ‘vertical’ stacks of imagery that are possible to store on digital media are vast, but locked into the ‘window’ of the computer screen. The physical tabletop, large and filled with small prints, is a vast array capable of being scanned by our built-in peripheral vision, but is limited by being composed of discrete physical objects. But by using both realms, the physical and the digital, I can make compositions that tap both. This piece was preconceived in its basic structure and content, the vast and subtle detail within a social substructure (the world of joggers). The images resulted from shooting sessions in which I stood on an elevated stadium-style bench structure and looked straight down at a well-used jogging path at the same time of day so that individual images from different sessions could be used together seamlessly.” © Paul Berger. WalkRun, 2004. 35 × 47 inches. Inkjet print.

Wide-angle focal lengths are often employed to further exaggerate the sense of space and direct the viewer’s observation and attention in a specific direction. However, wide-angle compositions, such as those pioneered by cinematographer Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane (1941), can also be democratic in nature for they bring into focus all aspects of a scene, thus encouraging viewers to discover what in a scene is visually intriguing to them.

Selective Focus

Since its inception, photography has acted as a surrogate witness that captured and preserved people, places, things, and events. To meet this expectation, the majority of photographers have strived to make sharp pictures so that the subject details can be studied at leisure. The issue of focus played a critical role in defining serious 19thcentury artistic practice. During the 1860s, Julia Margaret Cameron’s images helped to establish the issue of selective focus as a criterion of peerless practice. The making of “out-of-focus” images was considered an expressive remedy that shifted the artificial, machine-focus of a camera toward a more natural vision. Cameron considered focusing to be a fluid process during which she would stop when something looked beautiful to her eye “instead of screwing the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.” Pictorialists, such as Robert Demachy and Gertrude Käsebier, placed importance on how a subject was handled rather than on the subject itself, and they utilized a soft focus to evoke mystery and deemphasize photography’s connection with reality, which helped their work fit into that era’s definition of what constituted art. Recently, photographers have again been actively experimenting with how focus can be altered to control photographic meaning.

10.2 “Families come in all sizes, colors, lifestyles, beliefs, and mixes thereof. By photographing each family member separately and then collaging the results together, I am calling attention to the built environment and making it impossible for the viewer to accept this portrait as anything but a constructed image. Different perspectives, scales, and vanishing points clash as the laws of nature no longer hold. Here the background was blurred and various objects were removed and flipped in Photoshop to call attention to the subjects and make a more seamless composite. The modular aspect of the compositions allows for myriad opportunities to mix and match family members and create relationships and hierarchies that may or may not exist.” © Stafford Smith. The Royce-Roll-Lafayettes, from the series The Family Portrait Project, 2005. 5-1/2 × 10 inches. Inkjet prints.


When making color images, the intensity and the relationship of one color to another within the scene plays a vital role in creating contrast. If you decide to make black-and-white images, then contrast is created by the difference between the darkest and lightest areas of the composition.

Excercise: Selective Focus

Make images that utilize selective focus to generate significant viewer interest by taking into account the following suggestions:

  • Determine: What is the most important element of the scene? What do you want to emphasize or deemphasize? What do you want viewers to look at first and concentrate on?
  • Manually focus on the key subject to be emphasized. Later experiment with different automatic-focus-area settings such as closest or single subject.
  • Set the lens to its widest aperture to minimize depth of field.
  • Use a normal or telephoto focal length as wide-angle focal lengths have more depth of field at any given aperture.
  • Get in close to the principal subject. The nearer you are to the subject, the more critical focus becomes.
  • Practice focusing back and forth as though tuning a string instrument. Go past the point you think works and then come back and decide the focal point.
  • Try tilting the camera to see how oblique angles can affect the focus.
  • Experiment with slower than normal shutter speeds while hand-holding the camera.
  • Working in a dimly lit situation, make a series of exposures with the shutter positioned on the B (bulb) setting while using a flash. Holding the shutter down for a few seconds creates a single image with two exposures. The exposure from the flash will be sharp and still, whereas the ambient light exposure resulting from holding the shutter open will be soft and fluid.
  • Review images on your camera’s monitor and make corrections as you work.
  • Utilize imaging software to manipulate the captured images’ focus.



Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Mitch Epstein, Paul Berger, Stafford Smith

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