Photographer Jim Zuckerman talks about using high and low angles to create engaging images in the twelfth article of his sixteen-part series on composition.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
Compelling compositions can come in many forms, and they can come from distinctive points of view. For example, aerial perspectives offer views that are completely different than those available when you are standing on the ground. They could be from a mountain looking straight down into a valley, or from an airplane, a hot air balloon, or an ultralight plane. In addition, aerial perspectives from the tops of buildings, observation decks, lighthouses, and medieval clock towers (after you’ve climbed hundreds of steps) can often provide great compositions.
Image 12.1 of pre-9/11 lower Manhattan and photo 12.2 of Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil illustrate the visual drama that you can get from a small plane. The graphic design of the New York City skyline along with the spectacular architecture looks incredible from the air, and the city of Rio is similarly impressive. Since all the elements in the scene are far from the camera, depth of field is not a consideration (everything in the distance will be sharp at any f-stop). Therefore, I use aperture-priority and select a large lens aperture. That forces my shutter speed to be fast, eliminating any possibility that the vibration of the plane will cause the photos to be blurred.
When I rent a plane, I always make sure that it’s a high-wing. This means that the wing is above the passenger window, giving me a clear view below. Only the strut that supports the wing is a problem, but I shoot behind it. When possible, I open the window so my images are as sharp as possible. Photographing through plastic windows degrades the image quality.
Any height offers great perspectives as long as strong photographic subjects are within reach. The graphic elements in 12.3 were taken from a clock tower in the old town in Brugge, Belgium. Whenever I travel to Europe, I climb every clock tower I see in search of compelling images like this one.
Shooting autumn colors in Vermont, I found a wonderful rocky promontory at Owl’s Head in the northern part of the state. From there, I could look straight down on the incredible multicolored forest and the nearby Groton reservoir. Image 12.4 was taken with an unobstructed view. In the early morning light, I was able to capture rich texture and golden colors on the trees. From this height, I used my telephoto lens to isolate sections of the vista below that had strong graphic design. With a similar aim in mind, when I was in Germany last summer I climbed a mountain above the Rhine River to get a twilight shot of the beautiful castle shown in 12.5. Everybody shoots it from a trail at eye level, but the aerial perspective is much more exciting.
Colorful processions and dancing also make dramatic images from a lofty point of view. Look at the wonderful pattern I was able to capture in 12.6 during carnival in Rio. It was taken from the top of the bleachers.
The opposite approach to composition can also yield excellent results. For example, in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, Georgia, I shot up into the remarkable scene of image 12.7. I used a 16mm wide-angle lens on a full-frame sensor to exaggerate the graphic lines of the structure, but it was the upward perspective that produced such a distinctive image. I used the same treatment in photographing autumn foliage in New Hampshire (12.8). I constantly move my eyes over a scene when I’m hunting for strong compositions. In the forest, the orange and red canopy caught my eye because of the way it spread out above me, and with my wide-angle lens I was able to dramatize the graphic design of the branches.
Using a fisheye lens is a different kind of experience when looking up. This is especially true when the subject is round. Fisheyes bend straight lines to produce very stylized images. When the subject is already round, like the beautiful restored ceiling in the Church of Our Lady in Dresden, Germany (12.9), there is no apparent distortion. You can’t make something that is round more round.
Another intriguing perspective involves subjects that are very tiny. Normally, people don’t look at insects, for example, face to face. We are usually looking down at them or at their back. Photo 12.10 offers another approach. This eye-to-eye perspective on a luna moth is something completely unexpected. It holds the attention of a viewer. When I photographed a forest dragon during one of my frog/reptile workshops (12.11), I got down low and shot up at this very small creature. Looking up at a reptile is not something people expect to see, and it makes a compelling shot.
Go to the next article in this series: Symmetry
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules