Shooting Portraits on the (Right) Level
Full-length shots give dramatically different impressions depending on your height. When you’re photographing someone from up high, they can end up distorted in your picture—for example with shortened legs. Let’s take an illustrated look together at the effects that height and distance can have on portraits.
My inspiration for this article was one of the many photos I’ve seen on Facebook. It was a completely ordinary amateur phone photo—an anonymous photographer’s full-length shot of a young woman. The photo seemed fairly ordinary, but at second glance there was something strange here: it was clear that the photographer was standing far above the model.
It’s good to keep in mind the danger in this kind of “extreme” shot. That’s the danger of a striking perspective that shrinks the parts of the body that are farther from the lens. Put simply: the model’s legs in the picture will be shortened.
For illustration I took a series of pictures from a distance of roughly two meters, from varying heights. I’m just under two meters tall myself—that is, about six feet. So the first photo might feel a bit exaggerated. However, a shot taken this close at eye-level will always feel just about this way. (We didn’t bother with shoes, but at least you can see what’s happening with her feet.)
For a quick comparison, see the photo at the top. The lower the shot, the more the legs are stretched out.
On the other hand, watch out for the potentially troublesome chin shadow this creates. It grows stronger as your camera goes lower. So shooting from around the knees is an extreme, something to use when you want to stretch legs out dramatically (maybe to emphasize extravagant pants).
From a Greater Distance
I only took the pictures above to show off this effect. In reality I’d never stand that close, because distance matters too, and that distance is unflattering.
Here’s the same series of pictures, but taken from twice as far away, that is, about four meters away.
This time the differences are subtler, but if you know of them, you’ll see them. And actually, their subtleness can be a problem—an inexperienced observer (or even photographer) will suspect there’s a problem in the photo, but won’t know exactly what.
What Height Is Right
Personally I usually choose the middle option and hold the camera somewhere around the model’s stomach level.
As a side note: for children or animals, it’s once again ideal to hold the camera around their height—here around eye level is fine.
Being so tall, I have to make peace with the fact that I’m often stooping when I’m taking studio portraits. If you’re in the same situation, you might want knee pads.
And if these photos have piqued your interest and you want to keep learning about photographing people, then you won’t want to miss our article about the best way to take portraits.