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Perspective and Purpose: Learning to see the world in a whole new light

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them
— Elliott Erwitt

I don't understand.  This didn't happen anyway like I pictured it going!  Why doesn't my image look the way I remember it?  It's actually quite simple.  Your eyes are the lens that aren't attached to the camera, but they are the most important in the process.  The key is connecting your eyes, mind and creative thoughts into a single image.  And guess what?  It takes time and purpose.  Photographic perspective is a creative tool that takes years and plenty of shooting to acquire.  You see, each tool in your bag serves a purpose, and it takes time to understand their capabilities and strengths.  That is why, when people first begin photography and ask me what gear to buy, I usually recommend only buying one body, one lens and one flash.  The reason, like anything else, you need to build a sturdy foundation before you move forward.  The less variables you have, the better the likelihood of growth and success.  There are less moving parts and as you start to understand the characteristics of each, you can leverage their abilities to create strong images that capture special moments in time.  You will find greater success learning with acute focus on less tools than general focus on multiple tools.

So, what exactly is Photographic perspective?  Well, before we dive into Photographic perspective, let's think about what perspective alone is.  Webster's Dictionary defines perspective as "a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view."  In every image there is the subject and the photographer.  We photograph the subject for what they are and what they aren't.  So much of our very own thoughts, feelings and to a certain degree, biases bleed into our images.  We photograph our subjects for the way we want to see them.  And believe it or not, once you get full control of your camera you will have remarkable control over how your viewers see your subjects as well.  

So how can you influence how a subject is viewed.  The environment you place them in.  The angle for which you take the image.  A lower angle facing up, shows a subject in a place of power.  The use of negative space around a subject can show them as being small or potentially insignificant or isolated.  The facial expressions you choose to post and print can convey happiness, sadness, angst and many other feelings.  The colors you choose to accentuate the scene or portrait can also convey different feelings.  

The one specific aspect of perspective I would like to discuss today is "subject isolation."  How can we make our subject stand out in an image and what must we know about our cameras that will help us do so?  There are so many different ways to isolate a subject.  Aperture control, lighting control and compositional techniques are the three that we are going to dive into today.

The first, and unfortunately where many photographers begin and end is Aperture control.  Limited depth of field (area that is in focus) is a powerful tool for isolating a subject.  You open your lens up as wide or almost as wide as it can go, set your exposure and fire away.  Most kit lenses open up to an F-Stop around F4 or F5.6.  Many professional zooms open to 2.8.  Most professional primes open up to around 1.4 or 1.8 (If you don't understand this portion, please reach out to me via email and I will explain them to you in more detail).  The easiest way to understand how to use Aperture is to place your camera in Aperture Priority mode which is usually A on your command dial.  Then choose the lowest number possible, and start shooting your subject.  Notice how shallow the area of focus is beyond the focus point you have chosen.  Then raise your aperture one click at a time from the same distance and see how it affects your image.  The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field becomes.  The further from your background you place them, the shallower your depth of field appears.  As you get more familiar with depth of field, the better you will understand how to manipulate depth of field to get the look you are going for.  Here are a few images taken using a wider open aperture:

Notice how the lack of depth of field immediately draws your eye to the subject.  The sharpness of the area of focus is magnified by the softness of the out of focus areas.  It can be a powerful tool.  It can also be grossly abused and overused.  For most photographers it becomes almost an addiction.  They shoot wide open, all the time.  And while your images have a certain look people like, your images can also become repetitive and boring.  Remember, it's all about choosing the right tool for the job.  

Another way to isolate your subject is through the use of selective and creative lighting.  This takes more technique and knowledge, however when done correctly, it can be the most powerful of all.  After all, photography is painting with light.  Take these images for example:

By using varying intensity of light and directional light, you can create a mood with your subject that helps convey emotion.  In the first image a light was placed above my daughter.  The strobe was set to a low setting and placed a few feet away.  The light softly landed across her face as she prayed.  In the second image, my friend Robbie was preparing for his next fight and we were putting together his promotional images.  We wanted to convey an image of strength and toughness.  The light was placed to the side, the intensity was raised a little higher and the light was pulled further away; the further the light and the smaller the light, the harsher the light.  As you can see here, we were able to isolate our subject from the background through lighting, and not aperture.  Mission accomplished.  The third image is a photo of my daughter again.  I wanted a picture of her side profile, but wanted it to really showcase the kindness of her eyes and her cheeks.  By placing the light above and slightly behind her, and reducing the intensity I was able to accomplish my goal.  I have included a few more images using light isolation techniques as well.  Of the three isolation techniques we are discussing today, creative lighting takes the most time and practice.  Do not shy away from it though, no matter how frustrating it can be.  The rewards are far more gratifying than the frustrations you will experience.  And once you have it, you have it forever.  Start as soon as you can.

Lastly, we will address compositional techniques to isolate our subjects.  This one may take some time, but can be the most fun when you are learning how to manipulate the scene to convey the emotion and style you desire.  Personally, shooting close up and filling the frame with the subject is the most natural for me.  I tend to believe a portrait is strongest when the eyes are in the forefront of the image.  That said, over the past couple years, I have had to change it up and teach myself to shoot in ways that aren't as natural to me.  I picked up a tool that has really helped me in this department; Tight, middle, wide.  I shoot up close first, step back and shoot at a mid-range then move to the wide shots.  As I became more comfortable using this tool, I really started to enjoy shooting wide.  The use of negative space, leading lines and textures in an image really started to kickstart my creative mind.  It was like a whole new world of possibilities and I was ready to embark on a new journey.  These images use negative space, leading lines and the environment to convey their moments in time.

When using composition techniques it's always best to slow down before you speed up.  Look around, walk around, change levels (low and high) and ask yourself what are the most interesting pieces of your environment and how can you use them in the image to create the style of image you are going for?  And don't be afraid to get uncomfortable or dirty to get the shot.  Usually the best shot comes from the photographer who wasn't afraid to do what it took to get the shot they wanted.  Notice that in the images where the subject is small, that the environment plays a major role in the overall feel of the image.  I like to call it the "great big world" look.  Walking through the forest, if I took a tight shot would it have had the same feel as the image taken here?  No chance.  My daughter standing in the center of the gymnastics studio is such a small part of the overall image.  This conveys how early in the process she is and how far she has to go.  It also shows her smiling face and how excited she is to get started.  We can learn a lot from children, can't we?  I know I have.  In the images where the photo was taken from up above or down below, ask yourself if they would have had the same feel if they were taken from straight on.  Unlikely.  

You see, when you pick up your camera you really have control of your images and the message you are trying to convey.  Your ability to utilize the tools of the camera and instill your creative touch to each image really does ensure that you the photographer are also in each and every one of your images.  Your interactions with your images are very much like your interactions with other people on this pale blue dot we call earth.  You can have an impact on others, one interaction and one click at a time.

Be well and happy shooting!

M