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© Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos

All photographs in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

For today’s compositional lesson I want to talk about perspective.

Google defines “perspective” as the following:

The art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point.

In street photography utilizing unique perspectives or vantage points make images have different impressions and feelings. I often find that street photographers don’t utilize interesting perspectives enough– most photos are just from eye-to-eye level.

To make more edgy and interesting photos, try embracing more unique perspectives (shooting from a really low angle, or getting on top of a roof and shooting from a high vantage point).

I wanted to show some great examples of how some master street photographers used low and high perspectives to make more interesting photographs.

Low Perspectives

To start off, ask yourself the question: how tall is Tom Cruise? Whenever we see him in Mission Impossible or any of his other famous movies, he looks at least 6 feet in height. He in reality, is only 5 foot 7 inches. Granted that is not super short (he is no Danny Devito) but he is certainly not as tall as he looks in movies.

How does he (and many other famous actors like Robert Downey Jr, Al Pacino — all 5 foot 7) look so tall in movies?

Hollywood Height Chart. Click for full-resolution
Hollywood Height Chart. Click for full-resolution

They call it the “superman effect” in which they are photographed from low angles. When you take photos (or video) from people when you are crouching down and looking up– people look much bigger, taller, and powerful than they really are. Actors also often stand on stools or boxes when filming– to further add to this “superman effect.”

So how can we apply this “superman effect” to street photography?

Well it is quite simple: by crouching down lower and photographing people with relatively wide-angle lenses (35mm, 28mm, or wider).

Let us look at some great examples from Bruce Gilden:

USA. New York City. 1989. Feast of San Gennero, Little Italy.
© Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos. USA. New York City. 1989. Feast of San Gennero, Little Italy.

In one of my favorite photos by Bruce Gilden, he takes this photograph from an extremely low angle.

In terms of the content of the photo – I find it to be quite interesting. I love the woman’s expression on the far right– and her shawl wrapped tightly around her head. I like her enlarged nostrils, horn-rimmed glasses, and slight showing of the teeth. She looks slightly frightened in the photo – which juxtaposes well against the woman on the far left who is about to light up a cigarette and is laughing and looks quite amused.

What I feel makes the shot really great is the composition. Gilden often says that he likes well-composed photographs– so let us analyze this image:

Figure 1: Note the triangular shape of the old woman
Figure 1: Note the triangular shape of the old woman

The first strong geometric shape that is shown in this shot is a triangle of the older woman. Because Gilden shot this from such a low angle and got so close to her in the frame– it accentuates the corners of the triangles– extending to the corners of the frame.

I also love how the older woman’s head is put against the sky– which gives her head great figure-to-ground (contrast) against the sky.

USA. New York City. 1989. Feast of San Gennero, Little Italy.
Figure 2: Note the strong contrast between the old woman’s head against the background (sky)

To draw our attention to the left side of the frame, I love how the younger woman’s head is sitting on top of the ledge of the building:

USA. New York City. 1989. Feast of San Gennero, Little Italy.
Figure 3: Note the strong angle of the building on the top left corner- which the younger woman’s head sits on

What is also superb is the patterns of the older woman’s shawl (the little circles) juxtaposed against the squares of the building in the top left of the frame.

But overall in terms of the perspective— you can see how low Gilden got. If Gilden shot this from a normal perspective (just standing up) — it wouldn’t make the older woman to have a stronger presence as she does in the frame. The low angle makes the shot feel more unique and interesting– a perspective we usually don’t see the world from. He also probably shot this with a 28mm (his lens of choice) – which makes the “superman effect” even more pronounced.

Also note how close Gilden got to fill the frame. There is no really empty space under-utilized in the frame — except the negative space of the sky which is necessary to make a stronger contrast against the older woman’s head.

All of these elements make for a well-balanced photograph, with lots of strong geometry in the photo (triangles, circles, and squares).

Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos. USA. New York City. 1995.
© Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos. USA. New York City. 1995.

In another example by Gilden, he shoots a vertical photograph also from a very close distance (filling the frame) and from a very low angle.

First of all, I love the effect that the flash has in the photograph. It helps light up the man’s face– which gives a strong figure-to-ground (contrast) with the rest of the background. If Gilden didn’t use a flash, the man’s face would be too dark — and would get lost in the background.

Secondly, I love how he fills the frame so well in this photograph. The strong diagonal line comes from the top left corner, the bottom left corner (the man’s tie), and also the man’s hat that fills the top right of the frame:

Figure 1: Note how all these elements fill the frame beautifully
Figure 1: Note how all these elements fill the frame beautifully

What I feel is also the “cherry on top” (the special ingredient in the photo that makes it special) is the skyscraper in the background that almost looks like it will pierce the man’s throat:

USA. New York City. 1995.
Figure 2: The building about to pierce the man’s throat

In terms of the feeling of the photograph– it makes you feel very uneasy. I feel that this uneasiness comes from the extremely low angle unusual angle, as well as the expression in the man’s face (his enlarged eyes– and the surrealistic effect of the flash).

I will also show some examples of photos I have taken from a very low perspective to make for a more interesting image:

Downtown LA, 2011
Downtown LA, 2011

In this photo from my “The City of Angels” project– I saw this really cool looking guy riding a low-rider bicycle– just chilling. I forgot what I said exactly, but I commented that I liked his ride and started to snap a few photos. He looks a bit upset in the shot — but in actuality he was quite cool.

A "behind-the-scenes" shot of me taking this guy's photograph. Photo credit: Rinzi Ruiz
A “behind-the-scenes” shot of me taking this guy’s photograph. Thanks to Rinzi Ruiz for taking it!

At the time I shot this with a 35mm lens, and you can see how low I got. I liked the low angle, because it gave the man the “superman effect” — and also accentuated the triangle of his handlebars:

Figure 1: Note the triangle that his handlebars make in the frame.
Figure 1: Note the triangle that his handlebars make in the frame.

I also like the small gesture that he is adjusting the earphone in his left ear– which shows the tattoo in his left arm.

If I took this from a normal angle just standing up– the man wouldn’t seem so big and powerful. The image wouldn’t have the same effect.

Hollywood, 2011
Hollywood, 2011

In another photo I took in Hollywood, I saw this great older-woman with sunglasses and a hat, and I crouched down with my Canon 5D and 24mm lens (with flash), and was about to take the photo. The second she saw me, she posed with her hands (jazz hands) and I snapped the photo.

First of all, I also shot this at an extremely low angle- and got close enough to fill her in the frame. You can see by shooting this with a wide lens (24mm) at a low angle, she looks larger-than-life. It makes her seem much more energized, exciting, and fun.

In the photograph, I am lucky that she also did an interesting hand-gesture (jazz hands) — which completed a nice triangle composition in the frame:

eric4

Another great example of a low-angle shot is from dirty harrry, one of the most innovative contemporary street photographers I know:

harrry0
© Dirty Harrry

I first of all love the colors in the shot: the crimson-red of the man’s cone hat, the blue of the sky, and the soft yellow pastel of the building to the left. You can also see all the strong geometric shapes in the shot. This includes the triangle of the man’s hat, the edges of the buildings, and the small wire on top of the frame:

Figure 1: Note all the strong geometric shapes in the photograph
Figure 1: Note all the strong geometric shapes in the photograph

Also the great details of the shot is the man’s eyes looking to the top right of the frame– which fills out the space well too:

Figure 2: Note the direction of the eyes-- filling up the top right of the frame
Figure 2: Note the direction of the eyes– filling up the top right of the frame

The spacing between all of these geometric shapes (with the blue sky evenly spaced) makes for a well-balanced frame as well.

To see how you can create very unique photos with embracing a very low angle — is this photo from Charlie Kirk from his “Japanese (people are strange)” series:

Charlie Kirk. From his "Japanese (people are strange)" series
© Charlie Kirk. From his “Japanese (people are strange)” series

Charlie told me how he took the photo. Essentially he was standing next to the guy, went down from a very low angle (pretending to tie his shoes) and then shot upwards a few times with a flash. This is a perspective that is so unique– a perspective we never see. It is very unusual to see– which makes it all the more fascinating.

In terms of the geometry, I love the triangular shape the man’s head and jaw makes– as well as the triangles in the man’s umbrella:

Figure 1: Note all the triangles that balance out the frame evenly
Figure 1: Note all the triangles that balance out the frame evenly

To see more great low-angle shots, see “the lowdown” — an amazing Flickr gallery edited by Brian Sparks of some of the best low-angle street photos online.

High Perspectives

In street photography, low angles aren’t the only photos to be embraced. Rather, we should also take a higher vantage point as well:

Rene Burri / Magnum Photos. BRAZIL. Sao Paulo. 1960.
© Rene Burri / Magnum Photos. BRAZIL. Sao Paulo. 1960.

This is hands-down my favorite photograph by Rene Burri. He shot this in Sao Paulo — and you can see the epicness of the city. The great scale between the metropolis of the bustling streets below, the smoke arising from the bottom-middle of the frame, and the 4 mysterious guys wearing suits on top of the building on the far right. The shot almost looks like a cinematic still from a movie– with the 4 guys about to pull some bank heist or something.

Visually what I love about the photo is of course the high vantage point and perspective that Rene Burri took this from. It looks like Rene Burrri was on an even higher building than the man on the far right– and shot this with a telephoto lens– compressing the scene.

The high vantage point gives me that wonderful sense of scale. The cars on the bottom are tiny– but visually they don’t feel that far away. And the men in the far right of the frame– also are small silhouettes– but look like giants compared to the tiny cars below.

Another great example of Burri utilizing a high vantage point is (also from Brazil) — this time from Rio:

BUR1960024W00001/19AC
© Rene Burri / Magnum Photos. BRAZIL. 1960. Rio de Janeiro. Ministry of Health.

So in this shot, you can see how Burri is from a high vantage point–looking down. Burrri stakes out this location, until he waits for the right moment to arise. Let us take a look at his contact sheet from Magnum Contact Sheets:

1x1.trans 10 Things Street Photographers Can Learn From Magnum Contact Sheets
Rene Burri Contact Sheet Detail #1
1x1.trans 10 Things Street Photographers Can Learn From Magnum Contact Sheets
Rene Burri Contact Sheet Detail #2

 

So you can see that Burri took several photos from his vantage point. But it wasn’t until the moment that the women walked by and the men looked straight at them– did the photo become magical.

Note on the first frame Burri took of the three men, the women were about to enter the scene. The on the second frame, the women are walking by– and he grabs the image:

1x1.trans 10 Things Street Photographers Can Learn From Magnum Contact Sheets
First frame of the scene on the left, then the second on the right page

 

So often when you are shooting from a high vantage point– stake out the area, be patient, and let all of the elements to come together to capture that one magical shot. In my composition lesson on diagonals, you can also see all the great diagonals Burri utilized:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #3: Diagonals
Note all the diagonal lines in the shot

Another great street photographer who utilizes high perspectives is Rinzi Ruiz, one of my good friends from LA:

Rinzi Ruiz
© Rinzi Ruiz

In this photograph, he saw the scene and waited for the right elements to come together. In this scene, it was the man with the white hat which has a strong figure-to-ground against the grey of the top-left of the frame.

rinzi2
© Rinzi Ruiz

Another great shot by Rinzi is this photo he tok from a high perspective– with strong diagonals and geometric forms in the image– looking down at this small man wedged in-between all of these elements:

Figure 1: Note all the great geometric elements in the shot
Figure 1: Note all the great geometric elements in the shot

Another shot from Rinzi– this time from a Downtown LA riot– shows a policeman standing alone in the top-right of the frame, with all of these strong diagonal lines running across the frame. You can also see great graffiti of chalk all around him:

rinzi4
© Rinzi Ruiz

I have highlighted the diagonal lines in the shot below:

Figure 1: Note all the strong diagonals running through Rinzi's frame
Figure 1: Note all the strong diagonals running through Rinzi’s frame

Conclusion

To create more interesting street photographs, try to utilize more unique perspectives.

For low-angle shots, try to crouch down lower and utilize a wider-angle lens (35mm, 28mm, or wider). Get close to your subject, fill the frame, and give them the “superman effect.”

For high-perspective shots, try to incorporate strong geometric shapes and diagonal lines, and experiment using a telephoto lens to compress the scene– and play with the sense of scale.

So perhaps as an assignment this week- try to experiment with these different perspectives in mind– and upload your favorite photos to my Facebook page and share them with the rest of the community!