Go full tilt with your camera
By Dean Askin
26 Dec 2010
If you're shooting photos only with your camera steady and level on the horizon, you're missing out on a creative opportunity that can add a lot of dynamic impact to your shots.
Diagonal lines add visual tension to an image. This is because our eyes concentrate on vertical and horizontal lines. If the scene you're photographing doesn't have natural diagonal lines or shapes in it, tilting the camera is a powerful way to add dynamism.
Making the creative decision
Take for example, the photo of the truck in the New York State vineyard. This was shot on a mini vacation to the Finger Lakes wine region of southern New York. The scene alone was a photographic moment — an old, rusting truck parked at the edge of a vineyard.
The question becomes, how do you make the most of that scene and moment? For this shot, I made the creative decision to go down low to the ground, go wide angle (opening up to 16 mm) and tilt the camera in two directions at the same time. By shooting slightly upwards at the truck with a wide-angle lens, and tilting the camera down horizontally right, the truck is enlarged and perspective depth is added to the photo. Your eye's drawn into the scene. I applied this same technique to the shot of the financial skyscrapers with the CIBC cube in the foreground, except it required tilting the camera horizontally in the opposite direction from the vineyard shot. They're both powerful images.
Whether, and how much, to tilt
Tilting the camera can help make a photo stand out, lifting an ordinary subject to new visual heights and help people see it from a different perspective. Try different angles. Tilt the camera left, then right — or up or down and left or right in combination — and see which works the best for the scene you're photographing. You can also shoot a few frames tilting to varying degrees, and a few frames straight and level as well, to see the differences. The great thing about digital photography is that if the shot doesn't work, you can check it instantly, and try it again if you didn't get the result you wanted. Sometimes a steep angle works, sometimes only a slight horizontal or vertical tilt is best. Sometimes either one — or both — work depending on your creative choice and what you're trying to accomplish.
Of course you shouldn't just tilt willy-nilly for the sake of tilting the camera. While I'm a great fan of tilting for visual impact sometimes, it's easy to go overboard with it. You've got to think about the shot. The key is "pre-visualization," the technique developed and the term coined by Ansel Adams. See the shot in your mind before you press the shutter release.
Bringing the elements together
Composition is also important — perhaps even more so than when you're shooting straight and level. Creating a powerful image by tilting the camera involves applying a combination of things all at the same time:
• The principles of strong composition — following the rule of thirds
• The three guidelines for any photo — What's my subject? How do I focus on it? How do I simplify?
• Tilting the camera
You'll notice that I've deliberately listed tilting the camera as the last point. That's because if you're not applying everything else first and simultaneously, tilting the camera won't add much to the image.
Tilting the camera can be especially powerful when you're shooting detail shots of buildings and building reflections. It also works well with landscapes, to a certain degree. The right amount of tilt can add a new dimension to a landscape shot; tilt the camera too much, and your scene looks unnatural.
Beware of converging verticals
Generally, you'll want to only tilt the camera horizontally for creative effect. Remember that tilting up creates converging vertical lines — you'll get this unnatural looking effect, for example, if you tilt the camera up when you're photographing buildings. If you're just tilting to get the whole building in, the shot can look bad — there's no other word for it. If, however, you deliberately, consciously tilt up, or both up and left or right, a dynamic image can result.
Think, then tilt
Tilting the camera, and deciding how much to tilt and in which direction is a creative choice — think first, then go full tilt to give your images more impact.