Camera Work: What’s Your Angle

Of the seven deadly camera sins that I denounce so sternly from this pulpit, “upstanding” may be one of the harder to eliminate.

Upstanding is the act of videotaping everything from standing eye-level, and it’s a tough habit to break because standing is what you’re usually doing as you shoot. It’s simply where you start from.

But if you remain there permanently, you risk blighting your video with a bland and boring sameness. To perk things up, you need to find different–sometimes even unusual–shooting angles. So that’s the topic of this month’s harangue. We’ll show why you should seek new camera angles, how to use them effectively and what to watch out for as you do so.

But before we launch the discussion, note that we also use the phrase “camera angle” to label image size (long shot, close-up, etc.) as well as camera position. Here, though, we’re not referring to how close you are to your subject, but where you place your camcorder to capture that subject on tape.

Why Change Angles?

There are several compelling reasons for varying camera angles. First and simplest, you’ll add variety and novelty to your video program, and that will increase its overall interest.

Using different angles will also make your video more dynamic and dramatic. That’s because standing eye level is the bland white bread of camera angles. The more you deviate from it, the more energetic the visual effect.

Shooting from varying angles also enhances the illusion of depth in your visuals. Remember that a video is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world. By placing your camcorder at different vantage points in three-dimensional space, you help convince the viewer that a third dimension still exists in the flat pictures they’re watching.

Perhaps the most important reason for using different angles is to help ensure that each and every shot on screen is precisely the right shot. Good professional directors reliably show you exactly what you want (or need) to see at any given moment in a program. To do that, they have to control both the subject matters included in each shot and the perspective from which you see it. That means carefully selecting the framing and the camera angle.

Sometimes, of course, you choose a particular angle for a more modest reason: because that’s the only way to get the shot. For example, you may have to tape a passing parade from a high angle simply to clear the heads of spectators in front of you. (In standard movie terminology, a “high” angle occurs when the camera is higher than its subject and shooting down on it. With a low angle, the opposite is the case.)

The Vertical Challenge

But high camera angles are useful for more than just seeing over things. They’re great for looking down on things as well.

In some situations, high angles sort of choose themselves for you–as when you shoot a child, a pet, or perhaps a flower. But at other times, you need to get yourself upstairs in order to gaze down on the scene.

Why? For two reasons: orientation and drama. A very high angle can produce an image resembling a map, to help viewers place people and things in a complicated scene. When my niece got married recently in a garden ceremony, the wedding videomaker perched a camera on a second-story porch to capture a bird’s-eye angle of the event. This showed the principals in a context that no garden-level shot could match. You can achieve the same effect, in any church that has gallery or balcony seating.

A high angle can also be very dramatic. Imagine that your camcorder is on an overpass, pointing almost straight down at the highway below it as a pair of cars races past. In an ordinary shot, the cars would appear at one side of the frame and disappear off the other. But from a bird’s eye angle, they unexpectedly start at the top (or bottom) of the frame instead.

Whether you’re holding your camcorder aloft to clear spectators in front or extending it over an overpass railing, it helps if the viewfinder will swivel downward as well as up. That way, you can watch what you’re taping. Most full-size VHS camcorders have such viewfinders, but only a few compact models retain this feature–a point you should definitely remember when you choose your next camera.

In the case of the overpass shooting, a down-swiveling finder also lets you operate safely, without leaning out over the speeding traffic below. Remember that high angles require high places, and high places demand safety precautions.

Get Down!

While we’re considering novel camera heights, let’s look at low angles too. Low and very low (“worm’s-eye”) camera positions can be extremely dramatic, especially when recording vigorous action.

One reason is that a low angle is a psychologically powerless perspective that reflects the world we recall from childhood and infancy. From the Munchkin point of view, everyone is large and overbearing and everything that moves toward us threatens to bowl us over. If you check out Hollywood action films like Speed, you’ll see how directors use low angles to convey a sense of jeopardy.

Low angles are also good for enhancing the illusion of depth. Chartres Cathedral, for instance, is surrounded by wide stone steps that cascade perhaps eight or ten feet down to street level. While everyone else was shooting plain vanilla views of its famous west porch and mismatched towers, I strolled around to the side and dropped my camera to within inches of the ground. In the resulting shot, the ranks of steps zoom away diagonally, diminishing dramatically into the distance.

Low angles are very easy and comfortable to shoot because almost all camcorder viewfinders do rotate upward. That means you can frame your shot from above the camera instead of lying prone on the ground.

If your camcorder has a remote control (and nowadays many do), you can obtain an extreme worm’s eye angle by placing your camcorder in a shallow pit. (Line the pit with plastic sheeting to keep dirt away from your expensive equipment. Use a beanbag or tabletop tripod to position your camera precisely.) Then stage the action to roll right over the camcorder. Obviously, this trick is safe only when the cast knows where the camera is hiding and rehearses avoiding it.

If you don’t mind reversing the image you can also shoot an extreme worm’s eye simply by placing a mirror on the ground and shooting down at it from normal camera height. (Some special effects generators like the Videonics MX1 will let you correct the image by flopping it right-way-around again in post production.)

The Surprising Perspective

Earlier, we pointed out that it’s common to shoot a child or pet from a high angle. Why? Often because they’re simply down there, while you’re, well, up here. Also, they look natural that way because a high angle is your usual perspective on them.

However, there’s no law that says you have to tape them from that angle. On the contrary, finding new and revealing perspectives on subjects is a good way inject freshness and novelty into your program. So drop down and tape Junior or Rover at the level where they themselves operate. The on-screen results may surprise you.

Unusual viewpoints are great for drama, too. As the baddie menaces the apparently helpless heroine, she reaches behind her for a pair of scissors on the table. At this point, the conventional cut would be to a high-angle insert of the scissors. But suppose instead that you had the camcorder lens right down at table level–the shears lie huge in the foreground, the woman’s hand fumbles blindly into the shot, pats desperately around in search of the scissors, and finally grasps this means of self-defense.

Or suppose the fleeing heroine has taken refuge under the bed in her bedroom. By placing the camera under the bed, we see the scene from her point of view as the bottom of the door opens. Slowly, feet and legs advance into the room, turn as the baddie looks around, recede again. The door swings

Highly dramatic and suspenseful stuff, as Alfred Hitchcock proved time and again.

The person-under-the-bed angle is a good example of a subjective point of view (“P.O.V.” in movie jargon) because the camera–and hence the viewer–is seeing the scene as if looking through their eyes. It’s easy to create subjective camera angles for people or animals.

To retread our child example, why not make a program that sees the world through the eyes of a toddler. After an establishing shot of the child to identify the viewpoint, you might make a shot through the bars of a playpen, then let the camera “climb out” and explore the surrounding area from about a foot above the floor.

Some of my students made a funny video about a small dog that is extremely picky about choosing a tree or fire hydrant. Using an old wheelchair as a camera dolly, the camera person shot most of the program with the camcorder just inches off the ground.

Inanimate objects can have subjective viewpoints too, as I’ve often suggested before in this space. For the birthday party, place the camcorder in the position of a present, cover the lens with a box lid, then let the birthday person “open” the box from the present’s point of view.

For the climactic and humorous moment of the Thanksgiving dinner, take a worm’s eye (or rather, turkey’s eye) shot of the carving tools descending to begin surgery on the doomed bird.

One of my students’ best subjective shots featured the viewpoint of a Frito. They emptied a bag of corn chips, cut a slit across its bottom, then slipped the bag carefully over the front of the lens and replaced a handful of Fritos in the bottom. (In bright sunshine and at the widest wide-angle lens setting the foreground corn chips were in acceptably sharp focus.)

In the resulting shot, the fingers of two hands open the top of the bag, a greedy student face peers down, and then a hand reaches in, grabs a chip, and withdraws. We hear a cartoonish voice (dubbed in later) wail, “Noooo! I’m too young to die; take him instead!”

We could multiply examples, but the idea is clear: you can shoot through the “eyes” of almost anyone or anything, for dramatic or comic effect.

Improving the View

So far, we’ve talked about freshening up camera angles by shifting the camera’s position. You can also achieve varied effects by changing other aspects of the shot, such as the lens focal length (or zoom position).

Many videomakers change focal length only to adjust the image, zooming in to telephoto in order to magnify the subject or zooming out to wide angle to include more of the scene in the frame.

But as you probably know, zooming changes the apparent perspective of a scene, as well as its size. Telephoto (tight) focal lengths squeeze the depth out of a shot, giving it a pronounced two-dimensional look on the screen. Wide angle focal lengths do just the opposite: they exaggerate depth so that things and people moving toward or away from the camera seem to cover enormous distances. You can use these characteristics of different lens focal lengths to add a fresh look to your shots.

For instance, suppose you want a medium long shot of your spouse riding a bike along a winding country lane. Normally, you would zoom out to at least a moderate wide angle setting to set up the shot. Instead, try moving back–way, way back–setting your lens at full telephoto. Set up your shot where you have him or her filling about half the viewfinder. In the resulting image your spouse will weave back and forth down the vertical axis of the screen, instead of whizzing toward you on the bike.

Or try using an extreme wide angle for the opposite effect. By combining this lens setting with a low camera angle, you can change your sedately pedaling spouse into a Tour de France racer, whizzing toward the viewer at impressive speed.

Another way to change the image is by designing a composition that’s purposely off-level. Depending on the context of the shot, this can create an effect that’s dynamic or even unsettling.

Why? Because in graphic compositions, horizontal and vertical lines convey a sense of stasis, of rest, while diagonals signal instability, as if they were in the process of falling over. By creating an off-level composition, you increase its graphic energy by turning all horizontal and vertical lines into diagonals. These canted or “Dutch” angles (from the obsolete English word for “German”) can help you achieve a wild, expressionistic look.

Don’t Overdo It

Though experiencing a bit of a comeback, Dutch angles have long been out of fashion for a simple reason: a little goes a very long way.

And we could say the same of most other unusual angles: employ them sparingly and at just the right point, like the scissors example above, and they can be very effective. But hit the audience with one unexpected angle after another and you’ll quickly risk overkill. Very soon, the viewer will start to think, “Enough with the artsy-craftsy stuff, already; just get on with your story.”

How much variety is the right amount? There’s no valid way to determine that. Instead, keep always in mind what professional directors know: for every shot there is one certain angle, one particular perspective that is the right one–the one that communicates best.

And very often, that optimal viewpoint is not from standing eye-level.

Good shooting!

Footnote: A Hiker’s Monopod

In a piece on vacations that I wrote a while back, I suggested that hiking videomakers could make a camcorder monopod double as a walking staff, though most brands were not sturdy enough for serious back-country trekking.

Since then I’ve come across a product designed as a staff that also works well as a monopod. Four models of Tracks brand walking staffs from Cascade Designs, Inc. feature removable walnut palm knobs attached to their tops by tripod-threaded bolts. Spin off the knob, screw on your camcorder, and you’re in business. For more info, call (800) 531-9531.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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