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Portrait Tips: Get your camera lower

Your camera’s height has a strong effect on the impact your portraits make. I’m a fairly tall individual, and if I don’t pay attention, my camera comes right up to my eye and I point it toward my subjects, who are usually shorter than me. That means I’m looking down at them, and everyone looking at the picture is also looking down on them, and that’s not usually the relationship I want my viewer to have with my subject.

Put the camera in the middle

You should always shoot with your camera in the middle of the subject. For a headshot, put your camera at the same height as the lips or nose. If you’ve got more body in the picture, put the camera at the height of the chest or belly button. For full-length shots, you should be down at the waist (see the tip below). Of course, you can mix it up and have pictures higher and lower, but there’s a good reason to get your camera in the middle.

Foreshortening

Foreshortening is the effect that happens when things that are closer to the camera appear larger than things that are farther away. If a kid holds up a frog close to the camera, the frog may appear larger than the kid’s face, even though it’s not really that big.

The trouble with foreshortening is that it makes everything that’s closer to the camera appear larger. When you look down toward your subject, their foreheads are enlarged, their shoulders appear bigger, their bellies can appear bigger and their feet are diminished. Again, this can be a fun effect, but you need to know it’s happening so that 2/3 of your photograph isn’t dominated by forehead.

Use a tripod

Whenever possible, use a tripod to get your camera at the right height. It’s hard to keep shooting higher or lower than your natural stance, so let the tripod do the work. I use this one.

Get on your knees for kids

When you make all your photos of kids looking down on them, you make them look small and you limit the background options — it’s always the floor. Instead, get down on their level, just as you should for a headshot. You’ll make the child look like a person and the background will be farther away and more out of focus.

Get on your belly for full-length shots

When you get low for full-length shots, you make a more fashion-looking photo, especially if you zoom in. If you use a wider lens, you create a more heroic perspective (as in the header image).

Go try it!

This is a thing you need to experiment with in order to see the results. Get a friend and go make pictures from all different heights and with various focal lengths. Getting your camera at the right height (and it’s usually lower) makes a huge impact in your pictures.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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