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When to Shoot Down on Your Subject


Leica R8 Camera and Leica 90mm f2 APO-Summicron R series Lens and Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

Leica R8 Camera and Leica 90mm f2 APO-Summicron R series Lens and Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

There is an often-uttered phrase in photo circles that says, “you should never shoot down on your subject”. The phrase relates, primarily, to portrait photography and the implication is that, by pointing the camera downwards you are effectively looking down on your subject, both literally and metaphorically. As a result you can demean your subject be portraying them as inferior, vulnerable or powerless.  

We all have memories from when we were small children. There’s no doubt that big adults could look imposing, particularly when we had to look up at them. As a consequence we felt less powerful and, at times, somewhat vulnerability. 

My own approach is to work in a collaborative manner to produce positive, life affirming images. It is important to me that the subject experiences both joy and a sense of empowerment through the process. 

The concept of not shooting down on children is, for the most part, appropriate. But, as is often the case, there are both technical and emotive exceptions to the rule.

Making portraits under clear, bright skies presents numerous difficulties. Light hitting the subject from above doesn’t reach the eyes, recessed into the skull like caves. As a consequence the eyes will photograph black as light fails to reach them. There are several ways to get light into the eyes, thereby reducing contrast and bringing the eyes back to life. One way is to use fill flash, another is to employ a diffuser to decrease the light’s intensity and produce a softer quality of light. You might then ask the subject to sit or bob down and lift their head up towards the camera and, thereby, the overhead light. By lifting their head towards the light the eyes will be illuminated, and by employing a diffuser the intensity of the sun will often be reduced enough to prevent them from squinting.

Some of us who have had the privilege to travel have photographed what, by the economic model adhered to in western societies, are poor and underprivileged people. Of course the lives of these folks may be far closer to nature and richer in culture and spirituality than our own. These facts require respect, as does our subject. Before photographing such folk it’s important to consider the following:

·      What motivates you to photograph them?

·      What message or truth are you trying to communicate?

·      What is the outcome you’re looking to achieve? 

Let’s imagine you’ve been commission to photograph the plight of those adversely affected by the ravages of war, hunger or severe drought and that the outcome is to raise money to alleviate their situation. In this case there’s probably nothing wrong with shooting down as a way to emphasise the vulnerability of the subject and, by implication, a people. While your approach will vary with each situation the trick is to find a balance between projecting despair while maintaining the dignity of your subject. Therein lies the duty of the compassionate photographer

The power of photography is not only in what is portrayed, but what is suggested. Meaning and metaphor are essential elements by which the photographic artist can explore truth. Steve McCurry’s photo of the Afghan Girl is one of the most powerful and recognised photographs ever made. It is an iconic image that speaks to us of the resilience of a people, despite seemingly overwhelming oppression. It is one of the great photographs.

The above image was made with a Leica R8 camera and Leica 90mm f2 Summicron R series lens with Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

While not a people based image, it’s a good example of when it’s appropriate to shoot down on your subject. The image features a baby, orphaned possum that I photographed at an animal rescue shelter. The little baby was quite helpless without the care, attention and safety provided by its carer. As a way of trying to illustrate the need for such people, more often than not volunteers, I chose to photograph the possum on the ground from a relatively high vantage point. The whole process probably only took a minute, yet the resulting image allowed me to communicate exactly what I’d intended without causing any harm to the possum.

Vulnerability, despair, helplessness and loneliness are all emotions that painters, writers and musicians consider worthy of attention. Why not photographers? To more fully explore the Human Condition it’s important that we concentrate on all aspects of life. As always it is the intent and context behind the image that is important. And as long as joy and compassion remain central to the process, then your outcome is pure and should be pursued with energy and due diligence. 

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography 


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