Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Few Observations on Camera Height

Today I'll address a recent request for my take on the effects of camera height relative to a subject's face. What I'll note here is nothing new, and I fully expect many readers to have already come to similar conclusions. I'm going to try to keep this short and to the point, but that's not easy for me.

First, it would be a mistake to address height of the camera relative to the subject without also considering the relationship of the camera's film plane to that of the subject's facial plane. Ideally, one should consider the pros and cons of height (low, level, high) in combination with relative inclination (tilted up, parallel, tilted down). Maybe I'll get to such a matrix in a later post. Today I'll just touch on the most salient points.

Bringing the camera above the subject's eye level has several advantages. An elevated camera position can be particularly helpful when photographing subjects with heavy or multiple chins. Raising the camera and having the subject tilt their head upward will cause stretching of the skin around the jaw, resulting in a more defined chin line and a lighter-looking neck. With the camera moved up considerably, the view of neck can be mostly or entirely obscured. Done skillfully, the photographer can hide a heavy or wrinkled neck and, with a more aggressive head tilt, further stretch loose, inelastic skin for a quickie face lift. Done poorly, the result can look contrived, or just plain awful. A higher camera position may also be appropriate for subjects with a turned-up nose. If the nares are clearly visible, a higher camera position and a slight facial declination may improve the rendition. Subjects with short foreheads, small eyes, short noses, or long, prominent chins may also benefit from an higher camera position. Shooting your subject from a higher camera position can also be helpful when creating tilted perspectives, as when placing your subject along the frame's diagonal. Temper your zest for a high camera position when your subject has a high or broad forehead, a balding or thinning pate, or a small chin. Be careful when shooting full-body views from a higher camera position, as your subject may look shorter.

Using a lower camera position can be tricky. It is rarely flattering for heavier subjects, and often provides a less than flattering view of the nose. Nevertheless, it can be helpful. Consider lowering the camera if your subject has: a long nose (especially, a long hooked nose), a noticeably small chin, or a long or wide forehead. When doing full-body and 3/4 body shots, a lower camera angle can add a sense of height, drama or elegance.

Most head-and-shoulders portraits are photographed at or from slightly above subject eye level. From these moderate positions most subjects render well, but slight changes in camera height and facial inclination can make a big difference. In my experience, the difference of a degree or a centimeter can be the difference between just good and great.

Please feel free to add your perspective (pun intended) on this subject in the comments.

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