Robert Capa famously said that if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. To that, I’d like to add that you also might not be low enough. A low camera angle, in my opinion, is one of the easiest ways to make a dull photo more interesting and to simplify a photo by eliminating some of the layers of depth between subject and background.
I’m a tall guy, so it’s even trickier for me to get low. But it’s even more important, too, because by default I view from eye level or higher. Bending at the waist to get to actual eye level of a person shorter than me is an important consideration all the time, and frankly, it’s why my back is often sore after a day of portraits or candid photographs.
But what if a little bend isn’t enough? Don’t be afraid to kneel, sit or even lay down in order to capture an ultra-low angle that offers lots of benefits. You will often simplify the background this way, by shooting up at a standing subject you’ll more than likely put open sky behind them when you approach them from a low angle. Where eye level may reveal trees and signs and junk behind them, a ground-level shot will isolate them against the sky.
A low camera angle is also a way to make someone appear heroic. Along with the simplified background, your subject will tend to look like Superman when photographed from below. They will appear taller and more powerful, and even more so if you pose them accordingly. Interestingly the reverse is also true. If you photograph someone from above, you’ll make them look smaller and less powerful, even if that’s not your intention. These are reasons why low camera angles are popular with fashion photographers who want their models to look taller and more powerful.
With a subject like a car, a literal ground-level angle can be the difference between ho-hum and greatness. Separating the car from the tarmac makes it look dynamic, and this occurs when you get low and shoot below the frame of the car. From above, the automobile tends to look stuck to the ground. It’s a simple adjustment—moving the camera just a little bit lower—but it can make all the difference in the world. And it applies to much more than cars, too.
When traveling, a low camera angle can help you get a whole building or monument in your frame. Or it can set that structure apart from the clutter of the city surrounding it. Or maybe it’s simply going to make the subject look a little more dramatic and abstract. A shot of the Space Needle, for instance, looks fairly normal from a distance, but from below looking up it becomes a dramatic shape soaring in the sky.
When you’re not sure what to do compositionally, whether you’re making a portrait or a landscape, you can put your camera low to the ground and you’re bound to make a more interesting picture than anything from eye level.