This month’s creativity challenge is all about changing your perspective. Approaching a subject from all sides, far, near, overhead, and beneath is a wonderful way to explore light, angles, composition, and qualities of your subject you might otherwise have missed. This month, however, we are going to focus strictly on overhead shooting, from the extreme birds-eye view to a simple standing position with the camera pointed downward.
Here are ten technical and creative tips to strengthen and diversify your overhead shooting:
1. Get up high
Think about ways to get up over top your subject or scene. Aerial and drone photography represent extreme approaches, and filmmakers often achieve powerful overhead shots with a crane, but anything you have around the house or in your yard that can give you some additional height is a good candidate for changing up your perspective and helping you to achieve a birds-eye view. That could mean climbing to the top of the stairs, setting up a ladder, standing on your table or countertop, shooting from a balcony, or even climbing a tree (shooting through the branches adds wonderful depth and context!).
2. Attach a wide angle lens
A wide angle lens has the benefit of both a wider field of view and (generally speaking) a shorter focusing distance. That means that even if you can’t shoot from far above your subject of choice (and are simply shooting from tiptoe!), you can probably still obtain focus from overhead and include some surrounding environment. And even if you can shoot from a considerable height? A wide angle view of the scene below can be especially sweeping and dramatic.
3. Focus on the topmost feature
Conventional wisdom often advises focusing on the element nearest the lens, and in an overhead photo of a person, that element is usually the top of the head. If you’re shooting with a wide angle lens, that close element will also typically be more exaggerated in size, so focusing on the topmost feature will help to avoid a large, blurry mass competing with a lower point of focus.
4. Close down your aperture
Shooting from overhead often works best with more significant detail extending from top to bottom, which can feel a bit unusual for photographers accustomed to shooting wide open to isolate a figure from the background. Experiment with closing down to retain detail and dimension as the eye progresses downward into the scene. This tip can come in especially handy in overhead food or product photography wherein having detail from table surface to top edge of the subject is indeed very desirable.
5. Take a Parental Perspective
The overhead perspective also represents the view by which we are naturally positioned relative to a child; shooting down on the child (with or without allowing your own body, especially legs and feet, to extend into the scene) emphasizes your own height and size compared to the smaller/shorter position of a little one. Shooting from this perspective thereby can be used to suggest a view of the scene through a parent’s eyes. Asking a child to look up at you from this perspective is, of course, also a conventionally effective way to bring beautiful catchlights to the child’s eyes when your light source is located overhead or otherwise higher than his or her eye level.
6. Tilt Up
Tilt your own view up – not with your camera, but simply with your eyes. Look above your own eye level to consider subjects that you might never have looked down on before. What does the scene look like from overtop your shower head? Where would you need to stand to look down upon the top of your refrigerator? Can you get high enough to shoot down on a swing set? From the top of a door frame? What other surfaces or elements exist around 7 feet or higher that you may never have considered viewing from over top?
7. Square Off
Subjects and scenes take on a remarkably geometric view – often reduced to circles, squares, and lines – when you shoot directly from overhead. Think, for example, of how the land below looks from an airplane, or even how a living room layout looks in a design diagram or floor plan. It can be a challenge to photograph from an overhead perspective with precision, though; try shooting a simple coffee cup or cereal bowl from directly overhead and see if you can position your camera to be both centered and perfectly parallel to the surface in order to shoot the mouth of mug/bowl as a perfect circle.
8. Simplify a Busy Environment
Because (as just mentioned) the overhead perspective tends to reduce objects to simple geometric shapes, this position can be a wonderful way to create striking, design-inspired compositions in busy or cluttered settings. Shoot from overhead to convert a busy room into an unexpected, contemporary graphic array.
9. Establish Your Scene
The birds-eye view is a classic opening shot for scenes in film. Cinematographers use this establishing shot to provide a powerful sense of the story’s setting, conveying atmosphere and setting the stage for the story or scene that is about to unfold. If you are a storytelling or documentary photographer, you can use your shot for the same purpose: to illustrate your story’s scene or character’s environment as part of a photo essay or other visual narrative.
10. Emphasize Immensity or Isolation
Whereas getting closer and shooting at eye level often increases intimacy, the high overhead shot can minimizes the subject relative to the immensity of the environment, and if a scene is otherwise empty, the effect of loneliness and isolation can also be quite powerful. In the most memorable shot of the classic film High Noon, for example, “The use of a crane shot allows us to end on a high angle extreme wide shot, making our hero look small and helpless. It also reveals his total isolation as he wanders through the deserted streets.” (source: Critical Commons)
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted “4 Exercises to Help You Find the Light.” We’d love to see your work!