Besides creative vision and understanding what you see vs what you’re looking at, there are two other big tools that photographers need to make more compelling images. Believe it or not, part of this is technical. Anyone who says that gear doesn’t matter isn’t aware of how it can majorly affect the images that you’re making. In this case, good photography also requires the right angle and the right focal length. The two can be major difference makers — and both Dorothea Lange and James Nachtwey show us this.
Don’t believe me? It’s the difference between shooting sports with a pinhole camera or the latest Sony a9 III. It’s also the difference between photographing someone with a 35mm lens vs a 135mm lens. How you approach the subjects and how they’re going to be rendered in the frame are completely different.
The Right Angle: Dorothea Lange Shows Us
If you look at the image above, you’ll realize that it’s of the same person. Amanda looks completely different in the lead image than she does in the photo above. Of course, other facts like lighting and perspective come into play. But that has to do with the angle and the focal lengths. We’re going to talk about focal lengths later. In the meanwhile, the angles are much more telling.
In the lead image, we are above Amanda, giving us a different perspective. We can look down on her and feel nothing, feel that she’s helpless, or feel like she’s probably going through a depressive time.
This is a fascinating study point. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother shows someone who needs help in a perspective similar to how I shot Amanda in the photo above within this section of the article. Dorothea puts us in the same perspective and thinks that we could easily be that person.
“Today, Lange and her famous work remain at the forefront of photojournalism as one of the prime examples of compelling visual storytelling. In fact, documentary photography at present still follows the formula set by Lange and her contemporaries: humanizing life’s biggest tragedies, connecting with subjects to capture their best expressions and raw emotions, and making sure each shot is a story on its own.”THE GRIPPING STORY OF DOROTHEA LANGE’S “MIGRANT MOTHER”
This is a different perspective than something like James Nachtwey’s Famine in Somalia. In that image, we’re above the people, making us believe that we’re above them. From there, the viewer can choose to do nothing, feel awful for the people and use their privilege to help or feel indifferent.
Think of this as the right angle to tell a story and share your inner perspective rather than something morally right or wrong.
The Power of Focal Lengths: James Nachwey Shows Us
We can see different things from those two images from Dorothea and James. James uses a wide-angle to tell a story combined with a different perspective. Dorothea uses a more normal telephoto lens and a different perspective angle to tell a story. Had the two swapped, these would have been very different images. James’s photo is almost like environmental storytelling. On the other hand, Dorothea’s image is a portrait that shares just a bit more of the environment while keeping the person mostly in the frame.
One isn’t necessarily better than the other. But they both accomplish different things.