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Look Up To Portrait Subjects

Look Up to Portrait Subjects
I’ve been studying the work of master portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz lately and something finally caught my eye. Not about her pictures, which are consistently great for going on five decades now, but about her process. No, it’s not about how she typically uses a single light source balanced with the ambient light. And no, it’s not about how her crew works in chorus to coordinate key light and fill with flags and generally freeing the master to worry solely about connecting with her subjects. In fact, the simple little thing that struck me—that motivated me to write this very piece—was something surprisingly small. In several behind-the-scenes videos and photos of Leibovitz at work, I’ve noticed that the photographer is often sitting on an apple box.

Look Up to Portrait Subjects

An apple box, for the uninitiated, is a little wooden box that measures about 20 inches long, 12 inches wide, and about 8 inches high. They’re ubiquitous in photo studios around the world, and they’re used for everything from a step for photographer or subject to a table to a footrest to, well, a place for one of the greatest photographers in the world to sit while she shoots.

No, my point is not that Leibovitz is sitting and relaxing during her shoots. Quite the contrary, actually. In fact, what struck me was that the photographer frequently chooses a low camera position in order to ensure she’s looking up at her subjects. This is the hero angle, and it’s a great way to literally make portrait subjects appear larger than life.

Look Up to Portrait Subjects

A low camera angle is also a great way to simplify backgrounds too, by turning the sky into the backdrop and to make what amounts to a more interesting perspective on a picture. We walk around all day, every day viewing the world from somewhere between 5 and 7 feet off the ground, so getting a viewpoint that’s much lower, or much higher, has always been one of the best ways to make interesting pictures. Frankly, it’s the kind of stuff that’s mentioned in Photo 101 courses, but it’s also the kind of thing that can be forgotten in the rush to ensure great lighting and great compositions, to choose the right lens and the right camera settings. Sometimes we choose an eye-level composition simply by default.

But one of the masters of the medium doesn’t do that. She takes this Photo 101 advice seriously and puts it to good use—not all the time, of course, but whenever it’s necessary. It’s simple stuff, but it’s the kind of thing that helps, along with countless other bits of photographic know-how, to turn an otherwise plain portrait into something special.

So I say if it’s good enough for Annie it’s good enough for us. The next time you’re shooting a portrait—or, frankly, any number of other subjects—try sitting down while you do it. You might find that this different viewpoint produces exactly the look—that special hero angle—you and your subject are after. And it doesn’t require anything more than a little box to sit on.

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