Through the Camera Lens

last updated: 11 May 2019 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 963 words)

By using different techniques (and sometimes different equipment) a photographer is able to capture different facets of an image and so tell a different story with the picture they take.

Thinking about the choices available and the decisions photographers make when taking a photo can help an author focus more tightly on the aspect of the story that they want the reader to see. And by equal measure, by highlighting one aspect to the reader, then another aspect can be understated or hidden.

Let’s look at some of the techniques employed by photographers.

Wide Angle

With a camera, there will often be a choice of lenses—this choice is usually implemented through interchangeable lenses or through a zoom lens.

A wide angle lens gives a broad sweep of a scene, encompassing the subject but also capturing much of the context around the subject and the background (since the lens is looking over a wide area).

With a wide angle lens it’s possible—indeed, necessary—to get closer to see more detail.

But one side effect of a close up with a wide angle lens is the perspective distortion. You can see an example of this if you look at faces shot with a wide angle lens held close to the subject. What tends to happen is the nose (or other feature in the center of the shot) will look disproportionately larger.

Telephoto

In contrast to a wide angle lens, a telephoto lens takes a narrow view and in so doing brings objects from the far distance into view.

In another contrast to the wide angle lens, to bring the full subject into view, it is often necessary for the photographer to stand further away—if they stand closer, then literally, they will only see part of the picture. By standing at a distance, the photographer can more easily see without being seen and this gives a certain level of anonymity and dissociation between subject and viewer. Also, with distance, it is more likely that objects (people, trees, pollution, buildings, and so on) will obscure the view between the subject and the viewer.

Again, in another contrast to the wide angle lens, with the telephoto lens, there’s a tendency for objects in view to be compressed (from front to back).

Distance

There are, of course, lenses between wide angle and telephoto, but the extremes make the contrast and comparison more obvious.

The wide angle lens and the telephoto lens give different results. Neither is better and neither is worse—they are simply different, and those differences have consequences.

As an author, sometimes I want to take a broad view, and at other times, I want to take a microscopic view. Again, neither is better and both are valid. However, not having a clear intent—not knowing whether the scene is up close or if it is distant—is where the telling of the story becomes confusing and disconcerting for the reader.

Aperture

There are other aspects of photography that provide interesting parallels for how we think about writing. Once the angle of the lens has been considered, maybe the next consideration is the aperture.

Bluntly, the aperture is a hole that lets in light. The size of that hole can be varied to change the amount of light coming in. Changing the size of the hole affects two aspects of photography.

Depth of Focus

With any photograph, there will likely be areas in focus (hopefully the subject will be in focus) and there may be areas out of focus (or less in focus, such as the background). The amount of the image that is in focus—the front-to-back depth of the image that is in focus—can be controlled by the aperture. And yes, for the technically minded, the physical size of the sensor matters too as does the subject that is being photographed.

There are two main reasons to want to control the depth of the focus.

  • First, by having a shallow depth of focus, the subject can be brought into sharp focus. Everything, apart from the subject, can then be defocused which allows the subject to be differentiated from its background.
  • Second, by having a deep depth of focus, then the entire image can be kept in focus.

Again, there is no right and no wrong, a shallow or a deep depth of focus is a matter of the image that the photographer is trying to capture and convey.

Exposure Time

The second effect of changing the aperture is the shutter speed—the time that the shutter is open. A shorter exposure freezes any motion more effectively, and by contrast, a longer exposure gives a motion blur, an artistic effect that many seek (for instance, often a photographer will use this effect to show the movement of a waterfall).

Camera Position

In addition to the technical camera aspects, we should not forget basic positioning, in other words, where the camera is held in relation to the subject.

So for instance, a camera can be held above or below a subject, in addition to being held directly in front. There are no hard and fast rules, but often:

  • a photograph taken where the camera is below the subject will give an impression of the subject being on stage—the subject will be above the fray, whereas
  • a photograph taken from above can lead to the subject looking smaller and any height advantage of an individual will be mitigated.

There are many other angles that the author could consider—for instance, to the side or with the lens angled.

Looking Through a Dirty Window

There are many choices an author can make when writing a scene. Thinking about how, and from where, a camera lens will see a scene offers an author a good place to start thinking about what story they’re actually trying to tell.

Filed under

Category: writing
Tags: point of view