When the Camera Is Near the Ground

When it comes to vantage-points, there’s the bird’s-eye view, normal eye-level, chest height, knee height and subterranean. For the last of these categories you need to be emerging from somewhere underground, like a tube station or a pedestrian subway.

Maybe subterranean is a bit extreme. It can yield good results, but I usually wait until I’ve nearly reached the top of the stairs before taking a shot. I usually get a reasonably good image because I’ve had time to think about it on the way up.

The Featured Image
I’d like to dedicate my featured image (above) to a Chinese gentleman who was talking on his mobile phone in our local park. Without his unintended help this picture would not exist.

There are two paths in our local park which run more or less parallel, one being a couple of metres lower than the other. I was walking along the lower path when the man with the phone starting shouting in Cantonese at the top of his voice. I hastened my step in an attempt to get out of earshot — and as I did so I found myself drawing alongside a woman pushing a pram.

It’s possible “the busy young mum” of my photo was herself trying to escape the bellowing voice behind us. She was moving rapidly and would have disappeared had I not been walking at the same speed.

Our paths began to converge and as soon as I could get a clear shot I grabbed the picture you see. It looks like it was taken from “ankle height,” but that’s the effect of the low elevation of my position. It’s made a huge difference to the quality of the image.

The Analysis
What can I say about it? I think it speaks for itself: a young woman in charge of a baby, hurrying across town, talking on the phone, shopping tied to the handle of the pram — but can she really be a “young mum,” or, with such a trim figure, is she perhaps the “au pair”? It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the low angle which places her head and shoulders against the sky. What matters is the way the early summer sun “makes” rather than breaks the image. The woman’s naturally pale skin looks perfectly congruous in this situation, as she walks towards the light. The white gables of the house on the right and the white penthouse on the left provide blocks of whiteness on either side to keep her company.

I think the image has an iconic quality that would be missing if I’d taken it at eye level while standing alongside the subject. Was I thinking of William Egglestone and his famous photo of the child’s tricycle? Not when I took the shot. The viewpoint may be the same, but I’ve included dynamic action which is deliberately absent in Egglestone’s picture. Yet somehow the iconic quality remains. I think it must have something to do with the angle!

The Inside Illusion
I was approaching the top of a flight of stairs when I took the image you see below. You could almost classify this one as “subterranean,” but I think it’s from around “knee height,” slightly above the viewpoint of the featured image at the top.

Again, the angle makes the image — because the girls’ heads and shoulders are seen against the beautiful curved roof of the building behind them. But there’s another factor at work here, too: an optical illusion.

The low angle combined with foreshortening of the image (courtesy of the 40mm lens) have given the impression that this is an interior shot. It’s not. The building is forty yards away and there’s a huge open space and clear sky in between.

Because it’s an exterior shot, taken on a bright day, the subjects are brightly illuminated in a way that would be impossible indoors. Adding to the illusion, the iron railings to the left and right are suggestive of an open doorway, possibly part of the same building. In fact, they’re across the street and completely separate from the enclosed area you can see.

If the picture has any quality, it exists because of the illusion I’ve described. You could look at it for a minute or two without realising its secret. But, of course, the secret is given away — ultimately — by the windswept hair of the girl in the leather jacket. Of course, it has to be outside! I’ve put a clue in the title by calling the photo “Windswept.”

Keep Looking Up
I greatly prefer the shots I get by looking up at the subject from below to those I get from looking down. That’s not to say looking down doesn’t give you an interesting perspective — it does — but it’s much less flattering to the subject.

For every shot I take looking down I’ll take ten looking up. I think I’ll keep it that way. If pessimists look down and optimists look up I guess this makes me an optimist. And you really need to be an optimist as a street photographer.

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