Lesson from the Shot: Seeing Eye to Eye Isn't Always Best

 by Stanley Leary

In Psychology 101 we learn the value of relating to others at eye level. Many books on photography discuss unusual angles such as a worm’s eye or a bird’s eye view. Such perspectives can create interesting photos, but there is much more to the choice of the angle of view than just making a nice picture. Indeed, the angle from which you photograph a person sends a message to the viewer about that person. Do you know what message you’re sending?
The three letters in the illustrations below stand for Parent, Adult and Child. If you photograph another adult at their eye level the camera (audience) is, of course, on the same level with your subject. This adds dignity to the subject.
On the other hand, if you shoot down at the subject you place the audience above or over the subject much the same way a parent is above or over a child. This makes the audience feel responsible for the subject.  We often see photos of starving children in Africa photographed this way.
Lower the camera angle and you reverse the camera (audience) to the subject relationship. This “shot from below” adds prominence to the subject.  It increases the stature of the subject and makes them more authoritative. (Don’t use flash from below a face unless you want to create the look of a monster.)

To carry the audience back to their childhood, place the camera on the floor and crawl around photographing a child at the child’s eye level.

When photographing an expert, like a research scientist, keep the camera at eye level, not below. The eyeball-to-eyeball angle helps to humanize or “warm up” the expert (Fig 5).
Photographing people using this simple PAC principle allows you to make statements about who they are, not just what they look like.  Like everything else in photography, knowing more than ƒ-stops and shutter speeds will make you a better photographer. And remember, seeing eye-to-eye isn’t always best.