The hairs on the back of your neck rise to attention; the crashing of waves pierce the air; the cacophony rises to a mind blowing crescendo, and you brace for the weight of the water coming directly at you. The moment expires, you are merely sitting on your couch, a magazine open in your hands. For a brief moment, you were transported. You were affected. Your senses jumped and your blood raced faster. Why? Because you were looking at a full frame photograph of a wave at eye level—its enormity practically piercing your soul.
It is a subtle tool, but with major effect; one that should be in the front pocket of every photographer’s toolbox: Angles. Angles in photography, intentionally used, define voice, presence and visual purpose. The angle chosen to capture a scene defines the commentary of the artist. How you choose to photograph your subject, your choice of lens, and where you choose to put yourself in relation to the scene, are factors that can change everything about an image. These factors “make” the image and tell the story. “It’s incredible, [when] you’re shooting surfers in these big waves, they’re having the best moments of their life, but when you capture them in those best moments, it’s almost like you’re riding the wave with them,” has said Mike Coots, a photographer and shark conservationist, who is no stranger to using angles in his photography. To help him in the field, Mike uses a Canon EOS 70D, of which he says he “loves the touchscreen. [He] can zoom in, zoom out, reframe, start shooting again, literally in seconds. You really need that to capture the action.”
An often-observed trait of photographers is to set up a tripod at standing level, affix the camera, and snap away. I’ve seen it many times: a row of photographers standing side by side with tripods five feet off the ground. The created image will feel like a “snapshot,” putting the viewer in a disconnected spectator position looking down onto the subject—an image that is emotionally ineffective. But, the smallest change can make the biggest difference. Lower the tripod, sit on the ground, and the change is immediate. Being directly eye-level instantly changes the voice, the feeling, and the intention of the shot. The change in angle alters the intimacy; we force our audience into a face to face with our subject. It is intimate, intimidating and affective. This is the image that causes the heart to skip. It is a small change, and perhaps a momentarily dirty, uncomfortable one, but one that will have a much greater visual voice.
Perhaps instead, you want to create a large sense of scale; for example, with a group of cliff jumpers. One choice might be to use a wide-angle lens, get low to the ground, shoot up, filling the frame with cliffs and sky over the now small-in-scale human subject. Mike Coots gets beautiful imagery using the EOS 70D with the 70-300mm lens. “I’m able to get a little longer focal length, so I can get a little more creative, and shoot somebody further down,” said Coots, on creating scale in his photographs. The subject is immersed, and the viewer is handed an experience—a vast endless wilderness, possibility, and adventure. We can attain this differently with an alternate angle scenario. Using a long lens, shooting from far back, again filling the frame with ground to sky, and positioning the humans in a lower left or right hand side of the frame. Again, a different angle, but just as effective.
Angles are no accident. Explore them, use them, and your images will without fail be stronger, and have the ability transport lives off of couches and into the world. Photographer Mike Coots uses angles in his everyday work, whether he is shooting a model in the forest or a surfer far off the coast. “Shoot what inspires you, shoot what you love. Get out of your comfort zone, and put yourself in those elements, and things will just happen.” A lifetime surfer who picked up photography after losing his leg to a shark attack, Mike spends most of his time capturing the spectacular angles of professional surfing as well as the beautiful natural lifestyle that comes with it. In the images above, Mike shows us
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