When it comes to constructing a visual image — whether in photography or in film — the placement of the camera is of vital importance. The choice of angle has subtle psychological implications: it affects how we view the person, the environment or the situation. If we consider the mood, the feel or the purpose of an image — whether capturing a real or a fictional depiction — then where the camera is placed becomes essential in conveying those elements to the viewer.
Composition is one of the central elements of photography. Not only does it make the image visually appealing, it conveys expressive and interpretative information. Whether a photograph or film shot, how the elements of the image are composed do a great deal in highlighting the perspective, the mood and the meanings within the image. Thought must go into whether to choose a low, mid or high angle, whether or not to frame up close or far away; whether to frame off-centre or centred, how much background and contextualising detail should be incorporated, how the light should fall on a face.
In film the drama of a scene often heavily influences the cinematographical choices that the director might make. How far and how close one chooses to place the camera can establish a sense of empathy: for example, in one moment, do we want to be intimate with the characters as they experience their emotions or further removed from them.That, of course, is something of a simplification, intended only to give a basic idea of the process that can occur in developing an image: well-considered visual language offers significantly more complex readings. But it does highlight the ways that the choice of space and distance might be used to elucidate emotional states.
Take, for example, this shot from Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express.
This film explores the loneliness of people’s lives in a bustling Hong-Kong city. The shot here makes several uses of visual language that can be read to suggest the emotional states of the people within it from the narrative context in which it appears. One, the police officer, has recently broken up. The other, the woman, is in love with him. The camera is a medium long shot, taken outside the takeaway. The moment here is in slow motion. The actors are placed across the room from one another. They are both in the same environment, yet distant. They want to express themselves, yet cannot. They are in a prolonged moment of isolation. Outside, a crowd full of people moves apart, vague and undefined figures. They add emphasis to how alone these people are: in a city full of movement, people, light; they are trapped in their own isolated lives. By choosing an angle that centres the two figures, yet allows the busyness of the world beyond them, it emphasises how trapped they are in their own situations.
Another good example of how to use space and composition to explore loneliness is in photographer Lara Wilde’s ‘Exposed Landscapes’ series. The images make keen use of setting: taken at night, they capture a vulnerability of the subjects in their most private moments. The wide framing allows us to see them as figures, lonely figures in their environments. They seem small, sad and contemplative. Alone with nothing but things surrounding them. The moodiness of these shots makes the environments feel almost oppressive. Close ups and closer angles often allow us to read deeply into the faces of people, but it is important to see how the environments they inhabit can also say much about them, especially when carefully composed and lit.
Portraiture offers interesting questions on camera placement: does one want to focus primarily on an enticing feature of the face, or the whole expressive canvas? Does the image simply want the face or something in the background? Does it want to capture a scene around the person — part of a workspace — for example? A lot of the feel of an image comes from the initial choice of camera placement, even on the most basic levels, such as whether or not the image gives a good perspective of the subject, and developing into the more expressive contexts of image making.
A key element of the images is that their interpretative quality can be influenced by numerous factors, including the viewer’s own perception. An image maker may plan certain elements carefully — the decor, the angle or composition, the lighting- and it may be read in several varying ways by several different people. This is part of the communicative process of visual art: the artist provides the image, designs it, and lets it speak to people from their own vantage points. As Langford notes in the 7th edition of his ‘Advanced Photography’ book:
None of us is wholly objective in interpreting photographs — everyone is influenced by their own background. Experience so far of life (and pictures) may make you approach every photograph as a work of art … or some form of political statement … or a factual record for measurement and research
What I aim to examine is how images — how shots in a film, for example — might be read, might connect to the surrounding material. How a photography exhibit may attempt to capture an overarching theme. Advertisements tend to be fairly direct in making a product look appealing or necessary. Abstract images are more difficult, more open to interpretation, more free to be designed by each eye that looks on them. Some images, such as the Chungking Express shot above, can be somewhat informed and find consistent meanings in the narrative in which it is placed and the characters the viewer has been following; we can connect, more directly, some ways in which it responds to their emotional lives or their situations. A stand-alone image may have more widespread interpretations, but when it is part of an overall presentation, such views may become more narrowed and in agreement.
For many there is an optimal position to place the camera that finds the ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’ of a scene, a moment, a location. This is often why patience is so important in a photographer — it can take a lot of time and examining to figure out where is best to shoot from. Cinema shots, ideally, should express the drama and the underlying feeling of the scene whether its playful or sorrowful or full of threat. Defining the moment, capturing a sense of world at that point, is one of the real challenges of photographic arts.
Low angles often evoke senses of dominance or feeling powerful depending on the composition they depict. High angles can evoke a sense of anxiety or feeling overwhelmed. Landscapes often benefit from long shots, giving the viewer as great a sense of the location as possible. Much of image making is communicating, effectively, a sense of something.
As landscape photographer Glenn Randall states:
Clearly, creating an evocative landscape photograph is not as easy as it first appears. As we’ve all experienced, capturing what you see is easy — just put the camera to your eye and press the shutter release. Capturing what you feel, however, is harder. Hardest of all is capturing what you feel in such a clear and compelling manner that your image causes the viewer to experience the same emotion you felt when you took the photograph. That’s when photography can become an art.
He draws a distinction between merely shooting and snapping whatever one sees — how most of us really begin when we pick up a camera — and the careful process of discovery for the feel or story within the frame. This underlies why it’s important to choose angles that best capture the ‘feel’ of the subject; whether in still images or moving ones. When should something be a wide, cavernous angle, or a close and intimate one? These are the questions that a visual artist should consider when working: what needs to be in the frame or out to tell this particular story?
In good images the various components of photographic art should come together to make it work: angle, composition, lighting, subject. The most basic premise — where to position the camera — can often define how impactful an image becomes, establishing whether or not the subject is given its identity properly, if it is captured a way that moves the viewer: does it, fundamentally, capture the story of the subject?
There are, of course, no definite rules to how to approach these things, and much of art in general is experimenting to find your own voice within the language of the medium chosen. What angles are best is often a matter of exploring the subject properly and thinking more deeply about what one wants to express or emphasise with the image. In film, it becomes about exploring the scene and how best to underline the performances or how to communicate the story in a visual non-verbal way.
The visual language is a powerful form. The choice of angle is an indispensable factor in communicating the meanings that can be read within an image. Choosing the wrong angle might undermine the psychological impressions the image hopes to make: too tight an angle in a celebratory scene — such as a wedding or a party — may make it seem cramped, forlorn or lonely; or too wide an angle of an embracing couple may make the image feel too distant or even voyeuristic. Naturally, some of these choices come down to personal preferences. The choice of lens combined with the distance of the photographer influences the way a subject appears; it exaggerates it, it reshapes it. Some imagists favour longer lenses, others wider, many prefer to utilise varying types — especially when using zoom lenses. And some, of course, prefer one: Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu famously came to only use a 50mm lens, arguing it was the closest to the way the human eye sees, and arguably gave his films a relatable every day quality.
Ultimately, the choice of angle can determine many of the subtle psychological implications of an image. It can change how the observer of the work feels about the subject depicted. It’s the most basic and initial part of image-making, yet it has a profound implication upon the effect of the art.