Photography 101: Establishing a Point of View
In our last installment of the Photography 101 series, Matthew George at Photo Lord introduced us to the fundamentals of focus, including depth of field and aperture. Today, photographer Lynn Wohlers at BLUEBRIGHTLY walks us through the basics of point of view, or POV, building on some of the big ideas Ming Thein introduced in his photography overview at the beginning of this series. Lynn illustrates how you can take photographs that show your own perspective — and unique way of looking at the world.
Wanderings, observations, and visual treats — that’s the essence of what I try to provide on my blog. I’m a visual person and I’ve had a camera handy most of my life, using it to document my observations as well as experimenting with it as an artistic tool.
Investigate the world, think about what you find beautiful, and don’t allow convention to dictate an answer.
Nature is my favorite subject, and since I’m new to the Pacific Northwest, my eyes are fresh, so you may see that sense of wonder in my work. I tend to look at the world from a different perspective, and I’m happiest when my work causes someone to see the world differently, providing a moment of awe and inspiration.
Point of view in photography refers to the angle or place from which you shoot. That encompasses more than you might imagine — there may be as many photographic points of view as there are moments to capture. We can point our cameras up or down, and we can place them on the ground or from above.
But there’s more. Think about where you point and focus — when you take a photo of a building above you, for example, are you sure it’s best to always focus at the top?
Or how about obscuring your point of view — putting a scrim of leaves or smoke (or whatever you might come up with) between you and your subject? How does that change the point of view?
Getting down on the ground and looking straight ahead will change the scale of the scene, creating a new point of view. I was thrilled when I bought a camera with a swiveling LCD screen (a screen that’s not fixed and can change its position), as it got me shooting really low. You can find them on both point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs — they’re one of my favorite features.
Framing your point of view with whatever is at hand is another way to offer a fresh angle on a common subject. Seattle’s famous Space Needle looks quite different when viewed through an Alexander Liberman sculpture, doesn’t it?
Try to approach your subject from an indirect point of view. In the image below, a California poppy dropped petals onto the paper I’d placed under a vase, and sunlight cast shadows of the flower across the fallen petals. Here, I focused on the shadows instead of the flower itself.
For me, point of view isn’t just determined by our physical surroundings. It’s also the creative stance you take when you shoot. Developing your own point of view means looking at the world through different lenses — maybe literally, and certainly figuratively. Investigate the world, think about what you find beautiful, and don’t allow convention to dictate an answer.
One cold winter day in a field, I noticed weeds poking through the snow, creating calligraphic strokes. That drew me in, and being curious and keeping an open mind, I found more. A torn piece of plastic packing material had blown into the weeds. Graffiti on the back of a building next to the field completed the picture — not a conventionally pretty image, but one that interested me and that I felt was worth my careful attention.
On the same day, plastic safety fencing tied to a chain-link fence caught my eye. Shot close up, the image is boiled down to repeating shapes, turning mundane materials into a graphic study. (Editor’s note: we’ll look for shapes, lines, textures, and patterns in our images in the next post.)
To increase the possibilities for different points of view, challenge yourself to rethink your ideas about what subjects are appropriate, and then challenge yourself again to find an unusual perspective on your subject.
Challenge yourself to rethink your ideas about what subjects are appropriate…
Winter frost caught my eye one day and led me into a field where someone had abandoned a goose they shot. Usually the birds we photograph are alive, and at eye level or above us. This one, though dead, was still very beautiful. Looking down at the patterns the feathers made against the grass provided a different point of view.
What strikes you about a scene? Stop and ask yourself what drew you in, and then find a way to exaggerate that element. In the following image, the vintage truck and its friendly owner both captivated me, but focusing on the truck’s grille created a stronger image than if I gave equal weight to everything in the scene.
Another way I’ve played with point of view is by breaking the rules when using my camera. I’ve moved my lens in and out while shooting, and I’ve even walked slowly around my subject while keeping the lens open (using a longer exposure in manual mode). I wanted to capture the spiky shapes of the palm leaves below, but a steady breeze prevented me from shooting them normally. So, I just went with the movement and watched what happened.
Point of view is all about having fresh eyes and being willing to experiment. If you’d like to practice shooting with a different point of view, take one of the ideas above and apply it in your own way. Show us a point of view you’ve never tried before.
Challenges to sharpen your POV:
Take a photo with something between you and your subject: a scrim, leaves, smoke, a fence, a plastic sheet, a veil, etc. while thinking about what you’re focusing on. Draw the viewer’s attention to where you want it to be. Do you want more emphasis on what’s between you and the subject, on the subject itself, or an equal emphasis on both?
Select a particular part of a subject — preferably not the most obvious part — and figure out how to emphasize that. Think about the truck grille shot above — how did I call attention to it within the photograph?
Snap a picture of a frequently photographed subject, like a flower or a person’s face, from an unusual point of view. Consider the images above of the petals and shadows, or the blurry palm frond. How can you create a shot that’s out-of-the-ordinary?
About Lynn Wohlers
Lynn Wohlers was born in the Midwest, raised on the East Coast, and moved to the Seattle area in 2012. She is a medical social worker and editor of the Washington State Society for Clinical Social Work quarterly newsletter. Lynn attended the School of Visual Arts in NYC, where she focused on minimalist and conceptual art. In 2004, she earned a masters in social work at Fordham University.
Lynn has used cameras since childhood to record what interests her, to document ephemeral outdoor sculptures made while at SVA, and more recently, to explore and express ways of seeing that meld particular and universal responses to place and time. She enjoys the digital process but prefers not to get too distracted by the myriad technical details of the equipment, and she’s happiest wandering with camera in hand and an open mind, alert for the next visual treat that captures her imagination. She blogs at BLUEBRIGHTLY, and you can see more of her work on her fine art website.