John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Eye to Eye
“Camera angles” is one of those illusive terms in photography that means slightly different things to different people. Here I’ll define it in four basic ways.
1. Vertical Angles: What’s the up-or-down position that you’re taking relative to the subject? Are you above, below, or at the same level of the subject? In other words, are you taking the shot at a level, high, or low angle? Photographers usually refer to this vertical variable as “camera height.”
2. Horizontal Angles: On the plane of space circling around the subject, are you standing in front, behind, or to the side? Of course, this assumes that the subject or scene has a front and back, which would be the case with people, animals, buildings, rooms, cars, or other objects that seem to be in motion or that we tend to anthropomorphize. In other situations, like landscapes, the concepts of “front” and “back” might not apply.
3. Tilted Angles: We usually experience the world as lines and shapes organized in relationship to the ground or a surface that is horizontally level. Even if you tilt your head to one side or the other, the scene around you still tends to register in your mind as a level plane, which just goes to show you how robust human perception is. But if you tilt a camera to one side or another while taking a shot, the resulting photo portrays a scene that appears unnaturally slanted up or down. That’s a unique aspect of the photographic image.
4. Field of View: Sometimes called the angle of view or the angle of coverage, the field of view is simply the area of the scene and subject that you can see through the viewfinder and in the resulting shot. Is it a big or narrow area being portrayed? The difference in angle of view determines how far into a scene you are going, how much you are immersed into the details or individual subjects within the scene. They include the long or wide view, the medium view, and the narrow view or close-up.
In the sections that follow, I’ll talk about these different camera angles, their impact on human perception, and the psychological meanings we associate with them. The emotional impact of any particular camera angle might change significantly by how you combine it with another – for example a front shot of a subject from a low position versus a front shot from a high position. In this article, I’ll focus mostly on the psychological aspects of a particular type of camera angle without describing in detail the numerous ways camera angles could be combined for an almost limitless variety of subtle effects.
One issue that will surface for many of these camera angles is whether it’s “subjective” or “objective” – a distinction that has often been made in traditional cinematography, as discussed, for example, by Joseph Mascelli in his classic book The Five C’s of Cinematography. A subjective camera angle immerses us into the sensations and feelings of the scene and subject, as if we are part of that experience, while an objective camera angle encourages us to remain more distant and neutral, like an observer of the situation. The subjective camera angle is more likely to elicit a particular psychological and emotional reaction from the viewer, while the objective angle is more impartial.
The Level Angle
For a level camera angle with humans and animals, we’re shooting at the eye level of the subject. With people, it’s the natural way to view the person. It shows people the way we would expect to see them in real life. Psychologically, we’re seeing eye-to-eye with the person. We feel equal status and power with them, like a peer. When we kneel down to shoot subjects who are sitting, the resulting photo appears as if we’re sitting too, rather than standing above them. In fact, with the photo on the right, this was exactly the case. When I took this shot, I too was siting with my friend Bill while enjoying a cigar.
The level angle is one type of subjective camera angle because the shot encourages the viewer to identify with the subject. If the subject is a tall or short person, that aspect of their appearance is eliminated as we see eye-to-eye with them. If the subject is a child or animal, we get down to capture them at their level of experience rather than shoot from the higher adult or human point of view. In the case of objects and scenes that exist above our usual position, like a kite caught in a tree, or objects and scenes typically below us, like toys lying on the floor, the level camera angle brings us up or down to experience that scene as if we’re part of it.
Because the level camera angle typically feels natural, especially in photos of adults and most of the environments we encounter on a daily basis from our usual standing or sitting position, the viewer of the photo might not even consciously perceive it as an “angle,” unlike the other types of camera angles.
The High Angle
Portrait photographers often recommend taking a slightly high camera angle during head shots, usually just above the subject’s eye level. The eyes will seem larger and more emphasized because they are closer to the camera and appear above the center of the resulting photo. This type of angle will also cause the nose, lower face, chin, and especially the body, to appear smaller, which might be the desired effect for some subjects – for example, if you want to slim down the person’s body or make a tall person appear shorter. The person’s hair will also be emphasized, and in some cases, as in bald men, the subject might seem more “brainy” because the top of the head will appear larger.
A higher camera angle, while shooting straight downward onto the subject looking up, might result in the popular caricature portrait where the top of the head and eyes are obviously exaggerated, while the much smaller body and legs seem to jut comically out of the head. A wide angle lens amplifies the quirky and sometimes humorous effect.
Generally speaking, if you want to deemphasize something in your shot, raise the camera so that everything underneath the center of the frame will appear smaller.
High camera angles can make the subject appear to be in an inferior position relative to your dominant and more powerful point of view. The subject is smaller, less significant, and diminished, while you are the giant. You are literally and figuratively “looking down on them.” High camera angles work well to enhance the idea that the subject is submissive, humiliated, vulnerable, powerless, fallen, being beaten down, or injured - as in the shot of the young woman lying down on the couch.
Taken from significantly high camera angles, like at the top of stairs or upper floors of a building, a photo can create sensations of freedom, transcendence, and " above it all.” You feel omniscient by being able to see the Big Picture and all the action within it. As a more objective rather than immersive point of view, you become the unseen observer, uninvolved, distant. The subject or object being photographed might appear swallowed up by the setting; they become a small part of the larger picture.
The “bird’s-eye-view” shows a scene from directly overhead at a very high position, as from a high building or airplane. Once familiar scenes might at first be unrecognizable from this strange and unnatural point of view, as in this shot of fields, plateaus, and clouds from a jet flight. You see large, expansive areas compacted into a small field of view. Everything looks small, flattened, and squat, even things that your conscious mind knows are massive, like mountains, trees and buildings. People seem insignificant, as if they are ants. This angle can truly create that transcendent, god-like point of view. If you’re afraid of heights, it might even feel unnatural, disorienting, and anxiety-provoking. At extremely high heights, as when shooting from an airplane, the scene below might become so unrecognizable that the resulting image transposes into abstract lines, textures, colors, and patterns.
The Low Angle
If you shoot a full length portrait of a standing person from your standing position, then the subject will tend to look a bit unnaturally squat, assuming you’re about the same height of that person. For this reason, when taking full length portraits of a standing subject, the basic rule of thumb for making people look natural in their height and perspective is to place the camera at the center of the framed shot, which means shooting at a slightly low angle. So, if you were shooting a full-length portrait of a person, place the camera at about the subject’s waist level, which is the center of the frame that you see in the viewfinder. When you take the shot from a slightly lower angle, below the waist level, the person will appear taller, which comes in handy for short movie actors who want to enhance their stature and politicians who desire the appearance of power. Be aware, however, of the possible negative effect of looking up someone’s nose. For a magnified effect, which would be emphasized even more by a wide angle lens, shoot from a level even lower to the ground. The subject will appear dramatically and maybe even unnaturally tall.
Whatever it is you’re photographing – be it human on not - low shots, as a type of subjective camera angle, create the feeling that the subject is big, high, powerful, dominant, imposing, authoritative, or menacing. In the shot of the girls on the monkey bars, there is a sense of empowerment, freedom, and flight. By contrast, the viewer of the photo might feel weak, powerless, insecure, helpless, or overwhelmed in relation to the subject. You are in the position of the child, or standing in the land of the giants. You are, literally, “looking up” to the subject, perhaps out of respect.
Low camera angles of a person or object above us tends to isolate the subject from the surroundings. The sky or a ceiling forms the backdrop, against which the subject stands. That can be a convenient camera angle for eliminating an otherwise distracting or irrelevant environment. The minimalist background might take the subject out of context or accentuate the importance, distinctiveness, and power of the subject. In some cases the low angle might be disorienting, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on the intent of the shot.
In cities or landscapes, the very low camera angle can create feelings of awe, wonder, excitement, or being overwhelmed by the grandeur of one’s surroundings. In a garden or room, a very low camera angle will help the viewer appreciate the scene from the perspective of a cat, dog, or insect. Flowers and chairs look huge. Ordinary aspects of the environment not noticed or appreciated from a standing position, especially the underside of things, now take on intensified importance.
When shooting from a low camera angle with a wide angle lens, including a nearby subject and a background extending into the distance – e.g., a foreground flower with a desert landscape reaching towards distant mountains - the resulting image acquires a theatrical story-telling quality. Here, right in front of us, is the subject, but we see it within an expansive scene that provides us the background context of where this subject fits in, where it might have come from, where it is going, and why it might be here.
The Front Angle
Generally speaking, when you shoot from the front of a subject, you’re assuming a straight-on, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense approach. It might even seem like an honest, non-deceptive point of view.
If the subject is looking into the camera, you and the subject are head-on and face-to-face. You’re aware of the subject and the subject is aware of you – assuming, of course, the subject is a sentient being. Even if it’s not, the front angle is more likely than any other camera angle to give the impression that a non-sentient subject IS aware of you. When you shoot a car straight on, it’s hard to resist the idea that its headlights are looking right back at you. Shoot it from the side and you’re unlikely to perceive it as sensing your presence via peripheral awareness, as you might with a human subject.
In the study of human and animal behavior, especially in primates and canines, psychologists talk about the “full face threat.” The straight-on approach to the subject - body facing body, eyeball to eyeball - might feel challenging or confrontational. The front angle can be used to create that effect in a photo, mostly if the subject appears uncertain, submissive, or anxious. Vice versa, if the subject in the photo appears assertive, confrontational, or aggressive, you the viewer might feel the anxiety of the full face threat.
When subject is not looking into the camera, the front angle can still convey that no-nonsense feeling that “I’m right here before you, looking at you.” The photographer and viewer of the photo are making their presence known. The subject, even though looking away, might seem aware of our presence, or, at the very least, can easily become aware of our standing right there in front of them. We might attribute psychological meaning to the fact that the subject is not making eye contact – for example, being timid, self-conscious, distracted, uninterested, or absorbed in something more captivating than our presence.
The Point-of-View Angle
In this type of horizontal plane shot, the photo appears to have been taken slightly to the left or right of a nearby subject. If the subject is looking directly at you, or at someone or something far to the left or right, the resulting image will most likely produce the same psychological effect as a front camera angle. However, if the subject is looking at or interacting with another unseen person (or thing) who seems to be standing right next to you, it’s one type of “point-of-view” shot, according to Mascelli in his book The Five C’s of Cinematography.
This type of photo is an interesting blend of both a subjective and objective camera angle. On the one hand, you are standing alongside, almost cheek-to-cheek with that unseen person with whom the subject is interacting, as if you are identifying with that person’s point-of-view in this situation. However, even though the photo gives the impression that you’re standing right there, you tend to feel like an unnoticed player in the situation, because the subject is not making eye contact with you. You feel like the objective, unseen, and maybe even invisible observer not directly involved in the action at that moment.
This point-of-view camera angle often appears in event photography, such as weddings. When done well, it reflects the photographer’s skill at juggling the subjective/objective dynamic. If you can quickly immerse yourself into an interaction among people, take a quick “pov” shot without drawing too much attention, and then withdraw quietly from the situation, the resulting photo will give viewers the feeling that they too were “right there” while also experiencing the situation from a slightly unnoticed, objective point of view.
The Side Angle
In this type of shot you are standing to the side of the subject whose body is turned away from you. As with the point-of-view shot, if the subject is looking directly at the camera, the effect might be similar to the front camera angle, except in those situations where the psychological impression is that the subject has just noticed your presence, is being coy, has been caught off guard, has deliberately turned away from you, or, for some reason other reason, wants to avoid a full-face encounter. In terms of the science of body language, the subject presents a mixed message: I’m both looking at you and turned away from you. There might be many other subtle meanings to that intriguing contradiction.
If the subject is not looking at the camera, the psychological impression changes quite dramatically. The photographer, as well as the person viewing the photo, now feels more like the objective, unnoticed, and even invisible observer of the subject. Unless subjects appear self-consciously aware of a photo being taken (which is a subtle and fascinating aspect of facial expression in photography), they do not seem aware of our presence. The resulting photo might feel a bit voyeuristic, or like we have some advantage, power, or control over the subject. After all, we see them, but they do not see us. The further you are from the subject, the more these sensations might be enhanced. Being up close tends to create the impression that you’re with the person, that your presence might or could easily be sensed.
The Rear Angle
Shooting from behind subjects will most likely create the impression that they are not aware of our presence – unless they are looking over their shoulder at us, as if they have caught us in the act of sneeking up on them. The rear angle tends to be a discrete, secretive approach to the subject. In some cases, it might suggest that we are being left behind, following the subject’s lead, tagging along, protecting their back, or looking over their shoulder, waiting to experience the scene they see before them or are moving into – an effect sometimes used in classic painting. Curiously, the shot taken from behind will be an objective camera angle when we feel physically and emotionally distant from the subject; but if we appear physically close to the subject, seeing and moving with them into the scene ahead, the effect can be a very subjective identification with their experience.
As I mentioned earlier, we usually experience the world as lines and shapes organized in relationship to the ground or a surface that is horizontally level. If you tilt a camera to one side or another while taking a shot, the resulting photo portrays a scene that appears unnaturally slanted up or down. In cinematography, such effects have been called “dutch” angles because they originated in German (“Deutsch”) cinema during the 1930s and 1940s. The technique quickly spread throughout the world of cinematography as well as photography, becoming particularly popular during the 1960s as an avante-garde rebuffing of conventional horizontal orientations.
Because the tilted angle creates diagonal lines, the composition creates a dynamic feeling of energy and movement. Even subjects that are clearly stationery appear to be rising or falling, or somehow resisting the pull of gravity. Eye movement feels more smooth and natural going from left to right rather than right to left (in cultures where people read left to right), so tilting the camera up on the right side results in an image where the subject and the scene seem to be rising upwards to the right. When you tilt the camera frame down on right, everything seems to be falling to that side. Those sensations can be over-ridden or counterbalanced by the orientation of the subject. So, for example, if a subject is facing left, but the camera frame is tilted up on the right, the subject might seem to be descending to the left even though the tilt creates a pull upward to the right. Those contradictory lines of movement might create an interesting kind of balance or tension.
Photographers also use tilted angles as a way to control how negative space interacts with the subject. For example, imagine a shot upwards into a group of trees or buildings. Slanting the viewfinder different degrees to one side or the other will alter how the edges of the frame shape the negative space and the way it flows around the organic form of the trees or the geometric lines of the buildings.
Because we don’t normally perceive the horizontal plane of our environment as slanted even when we pitch our heads sideways, a tilted camera angle tends to create unique sensations of energy, disorientation, imbalance, transition, danger, unsettledness, instability, tension, nervousness, alienation, confusion, drunkenness, madness, or violence. For this reason it’s a highly subjective type of camera angle that encourages us to experience these sensations along with the subjects in the photo, especially if the subjects present other visual cues that confirm these states of mind. If not, then we, the viewer, might be the container for these emotions rather than the subject. So, for example, if the image is slanted heavily and the subject appears disheveled, then both we and the subject experience that state of disarray. But if the subject looks perfectly calm, then we, the viewer, feel confused while looking out onto a seemingly tranquil scene and subject.
I’m intrigued, or sometimes find myself scratching my head, when I see a wedding shot of the bride and groom walking arm in arm down the isle, in a photo that was obviously tilted. What was the photographer’s intention? Are we and the couple feeling the topsy-turvy excitement of the blissful event? Have the couple undergone a perhaps hazardous plunge into marriage? Were we, the viewers, taking early advantage of the open bar and are now way more disoriented than the newly wedded man and wife? Or did the photographer just use the dutch angle as cool looking gimmick, without giving much thought to its emotional effect?
The dutch angle has been used and overused so much that some experienced photographers will groan when they see it. If you use a tilted angle just for the sake of doing it, the resulting photo could very well look contrived. Give some serious thought to how the slanted effect serves the composition and intended effect of the image.
Also consider the degree of tilt. An extreme one might look overly manufactured, absurd, or just plain silly. Here I emphasize “might” because a contrived, ridiculous, inane, or some other extreme feeling might be the purpose of the shot, whether viewers like it or not. Subtle tilts are similarly problematic or intriguing. When most people see a slightly tilted image, they will think “that’s crooked.” Photographers might even scoff at what appears to be an obvious mistake in holding the camera level. Once again, however, the slightly uneasy and off-balance sensation of a faintly slanted shot could very well serve the composition and intended impact of the image, as in the quirky and uneasy feeling in the shot of the goose by the portable toilets.. The effect might even register on a subconscious level.
As a term often used in cinematography, the angle-plus-angle shot involves a low or high camera position while also shooting along a diagonally angled line that recedes into the background. For example, imagine looking down along the long barrel of a rifle that a tall subject is pointing downward at you. The angle-plus-angle shot combines the energy of the diagonal line, the emotional qualities of being above or below the subject, along with the sensation of depth and dimension. As a type of subjective camera angle, it can be quite immersive and dramatic. It’s often used in action-adventure movies, and when used in photography can similarly create that feeling of action and adventure. Even though the man is motionless in the street scene shot on this page, the high plus diagonal angle nevertheless creates a sensation of movement and energy.
Long or Wide View Angles
In a wide angle view, we see a bigger picture of the scene before us. It tends to be (but not necessarily in all cases) a more objective type of camera angle. We feel a bit further away from the setting, on the sidelines, not as intimately involved, like an unseen observer or part of an audience.
Cinematographers usually categorize these wide view angles into three types. In the extreme long shot, we see a scene as a very wide vista, like a vast plain with mountain ranges in the distance, or a city skyline from far away. In movies it is often used as an opening shot to convey the idea that this is the big picture of where the story is about to unfold. Although this objective camera angle can create the impression that we are far away, distant observers, it can also create feelings of awe as we witness the scope and grandeur of the scene before us. In some cases, an extreme long shot photo might trigger what psychologists call the “oceanic experience” – the sensation that we are joyfully, even spiritually losing our small selves in the magnificent size and complexity of the vista before us. Good landscape, and, of course, ocean shots, can create this oceanic experience.
In the cinematography long shot we see a smaller, more specific scene where some action has or will take place – as in a shot of a street, house, or room. Again, it tends to be an objective camera angle because it usually conveys the idea that we have not yet fully entered this space. In wedding photography, for example, it might be a shot of the entire dining area where the party is taking place. Or it might be a photo of people on the dance floor, but taken from a distance where we feel that we are observers of the dancing rather than part of it.
The staging camera angle is a special type of long shot borrowed from the experience of stage plays. For example, it might be a shot of an entire room, where subjects are visible in different areas of the room – on the left and right, in the foreground and background, on a staircase, up on a balcony - each perhaps engaged in different activities. The staging camera angle serves as a kind of collage of subjects, who are unified by their presence in the same location, somehow psychologically and emotionally connected to each other simply by the fact that they are in the same place, even though they might not appear to be interacting directly with each other.
Medium View Angles
For a medium camera angle, you’re moving closer towards the scene than in the long or wide view, while still remaining in a somewhat distant or objective viewpoint, as if observing the action or scene but still not quite a part of it. In cinematography and photography as well, a shot of a group of people would be considered a medium view. It’s the capture of human interaction. You see what they’re doing, but you’re not part of the group activity, as in the shot on this page of the people in a restaurant, taken from the street outside.
In cinematography a shot of a small group of people and the “two shot” of two people are considered types of medium shots. The two shot is also sometimes called the “American shot” because it was often used in early American movie making, where romance almost always dominated the story. In photography the two shot captures the smallest and usually most intimate type of group: two people with each other. Although there are many psychological variations of the two shot – just as there are a limitless variety of ways two people relate to each other – one important factor to consider is on which of the two subjects the viewer will tend to focus. The person who draws more of our attention will probably be the one who is better or more interestingly lit, more in focus, higher in the frame, facing the camera, closer to the camera, showing more interesting body language, talking, or apparently in motion.
Narrow View Angles (close-ups)
The narrow view or close-up shot is almost always a subjective type of camera angle. You’re getting right in there, up close and personal, noticing all the subtle details, colors, and textures. You’re identifying and even feeling one with the subject, whether it’s a person, plant, animal, or any kind of object.
In cinematography of human subjects, it’s called the “reaction shot” because the close-up helps the viewer intimately experience the emotions and state of mind of the person in reaction to the situation at hand. The close-up works well in revealing the personality of subjects, or the essence of some aspect of who they are as a person. Variations of the close-up include the head-and-shoulders shot, the head only shot, and the “choker” that zooms in to an area starting below the lips extending up just above the eyes. Photographers also use other types of close-ups that cut in to different areas of the face, although a fully effective reaction shot usually requires the inclusion of the eyes and mouth, which are the most powerful facial features of human emotional communication.
The close-up works so well in bringing a subject to life that it can animate even inanimate objects by allowing us to closely experience it’s features and sensations. Imagine, for example, a close-up shot of water gushing from a faucet, or a piston pumping in an engine.
Extreme close-ups enter the territory of macro-photography, where we might feel that we are merging with, losing ourselves in, or becoming engulfed by the subject, sometimes in a spiritual or mystical manner, as in the close up shot of the plant. We might become so deeply immersed into it that we even lose sight of what the subject is, as in some forms of abstract photography. The identity of the subject itself is no longer the objective of the photograph, but rather the intricate colors, patterns, tones, and textures that comprise the subject.
Combining Camera Angles
For any single shot, you need to decide what particular camera angle works best to express the intended concept and feeling of the photo. However, in the case of diptychs, triptychs, collages, composites, and sequences of images, the decisions get considerably more complex about what combinations of camera angles best capture your vision of the subject. What are the different qualities of the subject you want to convey? Which camera angles will accomplish that goal?
In the case of a series of images, as in a slide show, you will need to determine how the sequence of different camera angles will affect the unfolding of the story being told. For example, are we approaching someone from behind, then moving towards a side and front angle to reflect the process of making ourselves known to the subject? In a slide show of a landscape scene, do you want to start with a very wide angle shot to give people the opening “big picture,” and then proceed to closer and closer views of the various fauna, flora, and terrain within the landscape? Or would you rather start the show with a close-up shot of a beautiful flower, and then use subsequent shots to slowly open up and “reveal” the landscape in which this flower lives? These questions are the essence of story-boarding and editing in cinematography.
Generally speaking, creatively combining different types of camera angles will make collages and slide shows more intriguing. Alternating the subjective and objective impressions in the collection of images contributes to the creative interest value of the presentation.
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