Epic Photography Techniques
In my writings on photography, I’m often focused on what constitutes effective image-making — but sometimes I know you want to break out of the usual beautiful shot and do something totally epic.
The high-impact shot has the ability to define us as photographers and artists. Because the basics of photography are the things that most anyone can pick up, so the shots we take that look special and different from all the rest are often the ones that people will remember us most by.
But, as you’d expect, to get different results, you have to shoot differently. Which is why I’m concentrating here on techniques that veer into the extreme.
Extremeness appeals to us because it takes us to the edge and this is where we come to understand the limits of our humanity. This is why we are thrilled by extreme sports. Entertained by extreme emotion. And drawn to extreme imagery. So, for today, let’s go full speed ahead into photography that pushes the edges. Namely, through the use of extreme angles and extreme light.
One of the simpler ways of establishing a sense of the extreme is to position your camera in a way that takes an extreme view of something — often, either from very low looking up or high looking down. Though, as we’ll get into, it goes far beyond that.
To grasp the fundamental principle of the extreme upward angle, let’s look at a building that is, in real life, a pretty normal box shape. It’s the John Ferraro building in Los Angeles.
Now, let’s get closer — to the corner of it — and look practically straight up.
What you notice is a forced angle, or perspective, that shape-shifts the building into a modern day pyramid that reaches up into the sky.
This building experiment is a simple way of showing how shooting from a low angle changes the dynamic of the image. And this works in many many different kinds of shots.
I like these extreme angles because they force the viewer to step out of his/her own shoes and leave the usual human mindset behind.
When you’re really low, looking up, you’re taking on the perspective of something much smaller — so it instills an immediate sense of exaggerated scale and awe into the image. Something otherwise normal now feels bigger, more important, perhaps even ominous or scary. This instills emotion into your composition before we even talk about subject.
Here’s an image using the same technique — the camera is sitting on the ground, angled way up. See how the lines head up to the heavens? See how our figure extends and takes on a kind of ominous presence? This is the power of an extreme angle. And it’s not reserved only for people and architecture, either.
Many kinds of photography use low angles to create a sense of majesty or importance, from portrait work to landscape.
Car photography, in particular, often entails images shot from only a few inches off the ground to make a vehicle feel more powerful or aggressive.
An equal amount of emotion can be had looking down as looking up, but with the change in angle, so too do we experience a change in emotion. A view from the sky can make us feel powerful, free, or even anxious.
And, with drones, the options from above are only growing, so it’s no surprise to see a growing number of contemporary image-makers offering never-before-seen shots with aerial photography.
But low and high are not the only extreme ways to position your camera — one oft-overlooked one is getting up close.
Portrait photographers will often establish a look to their portfolios through extreme close-ups. Important to note that the effect of putting your camera up close to a person is much different (and more epic) than using a longer lens or cropping in post. There is just some way the mind understands — probably through a hundred small ways — that you are actually right up next to the person. It’s powerful because it breaks through the normal barrier we have between us and others, offering a form of extreme intimacy.
A famous photographer, named Robert Capa, once said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” And certainly a lot of photographers have taken that in-your-face approach to photographing people, to great (and epic) effect. Probably none more famous than Bruce Gilden.
That’s pretty epic.
Yet another way to think about extreme angles is in the angle of your lens. A wide angle lens, used properly, is an extreme view on the world as it incorporates more of it than your eyes normally see, or take in. It can be a tricky way to add epic-ness to your image as the viewer isn’t always aware that you’re doing it. The added visual information and range of view allows for more relationships and sense of the whole.
This image of a lifeguard tower in Santa Monica was taken with a super-wide lens (15mm). And while it’s not immediately apparent that this is a super wide angle shot, something in your experience of it feels epic, simply due to how much you’re seeing. If for no other reason than the space around the lifeguard tower which adds to the amount of attention that seems to be being put on it.
Finally, I want to talk a bit about perspective. Perspective, as you likely already know, is the sense of distance or depth in an image. We know it by the way things recede into the distance, most iconically through the lines of a road heading off toward a horizon. But things start to get really epic when you push that perspective even harder, to truly foreshorten your lines in drastic ways. The most common method is to find parallel lines and then, by getting very close to them, create an extreme sense of going from very wide to very narrow in short order.
These wide-to-narrow lines are dramatic ways to tell the viewer where to look. It quickly throws your eyes toward a subject, creating an immediacy that feels purposeful and filled with intention.
So, that’s a bit about angle. But equally important as your angle in creating powerful images is your light.
Nice light is nice. But EPIC light can do things that you don’t see in your usual well-lit composition. When incorporated in extreme ways, light adds emotion. There’s many ways to use extreme lighting to bring great impact to your photo. Here’s some of my favorites.
Rays of Light
Because it comes from the heavens, light can have an other-worldly affect on a photo, creating a whole lot of wow.
There’s a reason that some of the most renowned religious art features light streaming down from the sky. It is, as they say, biblical. But even aside from the religious connotations, the sun holds the power of life. It’s no wonder that when we see light pouring into an image, we attribute an emotional value to it. It is the essence of life.
As in the image here of Paul’s Conversion, with its shaft of light from the heavens, the cover image at the very top of this article also uses light in a similarly epic way. The trick in capturing rays of light is in making sure there’s atmosphere in the sky to see it with — fog, smoke, clouds, dust and haze are all conditions that lends themselves to epic rays of light.
But it doesn’t always have to highlight a figure. Sometimes the light itself just creates a sense of otherworldly epic-ness.
Having a light behind your subject can also be a very effective way of creating high, epic drama.
The back light tends to create a silhouette of your figure, but also causes the viewer to wonder about the thing that shines the light. A mysterious light coming toward us in the night can be powerful, scary, even extraterrestrial.
A back light often feels more purposeful than your usual fare and does unique things to a figure or object. Notice the rim lights in all the examples here.
A rim light draws a literal line around a person, accentuating the human form and causing it to stand off a background in a more distinct way than normal.
In this image of a man walking under a freeway, we’re seeing multiple techniques that we’ve discussed working together: perspective, wide angle, angling up and back lighting.
In fact, if you start to observe images that seem to come across as epic, you’ll probably see multiple things discussed here working together in those shots.
If you follow my work at all, you know that I’m a big fan of long exposure light trails. For an advanced understanding of techniques in long exposure, you can read more here. For me, there is just a huge satisfaction in using light in this way to guide the eye or create epic, sweeping curves and lines that have incredible impact and drama. And I’ll employ this technique on any trip I’m on to create unique views of things that people shoot all the time, yielding images that standout.
This image is also using a super-wide angle lens and the camera is placed on the ground. Again, we’re looking at multiple extreme shooting techniques that we’ve gone over here in combination to create an epic image.
There are other techniques, of course, that create epic-ness. Especially things photographers do in post. If it seems like a popular subject, I can follow up with more. In the meantime, hopefully this inspired a few new shots for you to try in your own photography. Happy holidays and happy shooting!