When Composing a Photo, Think About Where the Camera Is

photographer with camera and lens

As a photographer, you might be out on the street or at a vantage point in the landscape. You raise the viewfinder to your eye, compose the framing that you envisioned, then click the shutter. You have a picture that was acquired using the technical elements at your creative disposal: focal length, shutter speed, and aperture. But where was the camera?

If love is in the eye of the beholder, then the picture is in the eye of the photographer. The camera is an extension of our physical visual perception — our eyesight — and something that we can create and externalize in order to present what we see to others. In fact, it is more than showing what we see, it is creating what we believe. The image envisions our deepest emotions: what we feel, think, understand, and know. By presenting an image you are saying “this is me.”

This creates a problem that is perhaps best exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator. The Terminator is an autonomous, self-aware, cyborg assassin and has a range of onboard sensors that allow it to interact with its environment. According to the Terminator Wiki, these include optical sensors for its eyes, which can record both visible and thermal infrared light, tracking targets independently. System software performs motion tracking, object searching, and facial recognition, with all information displayed on a 40,000-bit digital display.

But here’s the problem: who’s looking at the display? We are only ever presented with what the Terminator “sees”, but it doesn’t need a heads-up display because, well, it’s a cyborg and this suggests there’s a display in its head.

In this sense, it’s obvious we’re in a movie and the camera is looking at the heads-up display as a way of mediating what the Terminator is cognizant of and so communicating potential intent. It’s a visual presentation as a means to telling a story. This is an important point because the same is true whenever you view an image; you are seeing what the photographer intends you to see, no more, no less.

Photographic Intent

From your perspective as a photographer, whenever you pick up the camera you need to decide how the image is going to be presented: what is the intent? Once you know where you want to end up, you can decide what message you will try to communicate and then how you will achieve this.

It’s the how that determines the perspective that is presented to the viewer and, from this, I think there are three different points of view that can be adopted. The first of these — and returning to the example of the landscape photographer — is to present the subject from the perspective of the photographer themselves. This is a “me” shot, showing you what I see. In the example below, we have a classic truck which is — obviously — the focus of the image and shot as the photographer viewed it. We are, in essence, seeing it with their eyes.

Classic truck

The second point-of-view is what we call the “you” shot, where it is presented from the perspective as if you were the viewer. In the example below, we have a bar scene with three people engaged in conversation. While it is clear that the camera is positioned alongside the protagonists, the presentation is as if we are sat there, participating in the conversation. We can almost sense the jovial atmosphere, the cold beer, and the conversations that we all have on a Friday after work has finished. The image opens up questions and engages you in providing your own imagination to fill those gaps in what we understand about the scene.

Drinks among friends

There are two interesting aspects about the “you” and “me” perspective.

Firstly, the “you” shot is often intended to be immersive, making you feel that you are really “in” the scene. It’s visceral, to the point that you almost want to reach out and touch it. By necessity, the camera needs to be close-in which means short focal lengths often 24mm or less. This gives a wide field of view (which begins to approach that of our binocular vision) while also being very close to the subject.

It’s a technique that street photographers have known about for a long time and perhaps best epitomized by Robert Capa’s quote: “If your photographs aren’t good enough you’re not close enough.”

In essence, you need to be a part of the action. Conversely, “me” shots can often — but not necessarily — be shot with longer lenses. The intent is to isolate a subject to present to the viewer, often exclusively from surrounding visual clutter.

Secondly, it also worth noting that these viewpoints are very much alive in video and, perhaps, even more important. There feels like there has been a shift to much more visceral, close-quarters filming. The Revenant sticks in my mind, but there are many examples. However the direction for the “you” and “me” shot is important for the storytelling, so the next time you are watching a movie, note when the Director of Photography switches the visual storytelling narrative.

It’s also worth noting that there is one more type of shot, far more common in video, particularly with the advent of drone footage: the “God” shot. This can be a perspective that neither you, nor I, can achieve, and is intended to provide an omnipresent view of the action. In fact, any kind of shot can be the impartial, unseeable, third-party, in the scene, but it’s most obvious from a drone.

All of which is a timely reminder that the camera is very rarely a passive observer in a scene, unless it is a hidden camera. Everything in a scene will interact with the presence of both the photographer and camera, as the image below so ably demonstrates. As photographers, we know how people can “play up” to the camera, either loving or hating a lens pointed in their general direction.

Looking at the camera

The next time you are composing your image, remind yourself of the intent, your message, how people will interact with the camera, and the viewpoint you are presenting. It can make or break a photo.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.