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Using vantage point to abstract subject and stress detail.

Less often means more in photographic expression. One way to show less and say more is to use the camera position to abstract an image, stressing detail and stimulating the imagination of the viewer in the process.

Where we stand often determines what we say. One reason why images are conventional and unexpressive is because photographers often use vantage points too far from the subject, and usually shoot from a predictable eye-level camera position.

Many photographers, and the editors they work for, prefer more distant, less abstract vantage points because they have been schooled to "show the whole thing," dutifully including the entire subject in the frame and creating a sterile, literal, cluttered image. For them, editorial photography is description--superficial illustration instead of interpretation or expression.

They may also be unwilling to abstract because they patronize viewers, fearing viewers will not recognize the depiction. They forget that viewers have imaginations and that captions and other images can always add important context for meaning.

Photographers often flail to shoot with a purpose in mind. it's simpler and quicker to stand in front of the subject, get the whole thing in the frame and push the shutter button. In fact, Bob Gilka, the former director of photography at National Geographic, once said that he looked for photographers, who, along with other skills, demonstrated a "willingness to bend."

On the other hand, photographers who do choose to vary the angle of their approach may reveal details that would go unseen from straight-on vantage points. In Montecristi, Ecuador, I found a woman so skilled at making Panama hats (see photo) that she seemed to do it without even looking at her hands. I shot down on her from a high vantage point to stress the character of her aged hands as well as the complexity of the job itself. I achieved intimacy through abstraction, emphasizing her arms and hands along with the partially made hat to tell my story.


By getting down low, moving in and shooting up to abstract this vintage locomotive (see photo at right, top) in a park in the Chilean seaport of Arica, I was able to comment on its forgotten role in the history of South American commerce. For more than 100 years, this locomotive hauled freight from landlocked Bolivia to the sea. Built in Germany in the 1920s, it represents a long-gone economic era. I moved in on it from a low angle to stress its flowing detail--streaks of seabird droppings that symbolically cover its surface.

I found another old conveyance on the streets of Lisbon, Portugal. I abstracted an old car (see photo above, lower left) by moving in on it from an oblique angle, showing only the detail on one of its lights and part of its hood and radiator. I eliminated everything else--its spindly wheels, roof and body. I had to--the more I tried to get into the picture, the more literal and cluttered it became. Conversely, the closer I moved to it, the more emphatic the details of its beauty, grace, engineering and style became.

While shooting a workshop project on a Santa Fe, N.M., ranch, I used an extremely close vantage point to stress the detail of the obscure and diverse labeling on the spools of thread (see photo above, lower right) used by the ranch's owner to make unique textile products. This, too, is a form of abstraction--my angle of view embraced a pattern created by the ends of the spools, and very little of the thread itself.

In all of these images, I moved much closer to my subject than many other photographers would, interpreting the subject and expressing its meaning, as opposed to being merely descriptive. Robert Capa, one of the 20th century's greatest photojournalists, once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're probably not close enough." He was telling us to find camera vantage points that create a more intimate, abstract expression of our subject matter, stressing the detail that best tells the story.

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, entering its 34th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers his comprehensive six-person "Communicating with Pictures" workshops every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Ariz., USA. For registration information, call +1.602.493.6709 or e-mail

Send photos for possible use in this column to The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85028 USA.

You can view Douglis' multi-gallery cyberbook on expressive digital travel photography at
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Title Annotation:photocritique
Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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