Low-angle shots are one of the most innovative tools to add to your filmmaking arsenal. But like every shot at your disposal, from high-angles to close-ups, the reasons for using low shots vary. Let’s dig into the technicalities of the low shot, the purposes, and a few examples from well-known films.
“See How They Run” Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
A low-angle shot is when the camera is positioned below eye level and shooting upward, capturing the subject from a lower perspective. Naturally, a low camera angle makes the subject appear bigger, more imposing, and closer to the frame. The name is essentially self-explanatory, but there is more to this angle than putting the camera on the ground. Asking yourself what you’re trying to convey—and the desired effect on the audience—is paramount.
“Low angles tend to make your character stand out in [either] a position of power or a very vulnerable position, as we’re focused on the character’s reaction,” says award-winning writer-director Jonathan Salemi (“The Last Deal”). Low angles can also put the viewer in the POV of a character, “such as a child or person on the ground.”
The position of the camera aside, what does a low-angle shot convey? Many times, it’s to make a subject appear more imposing or intimidating, like this shot from “Creed II.”
“Creed II” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
At the same time, low-angle shots can put the audience in the shoes of a more vulnerable character, making them feel the same sense of powerlessness or danger. This is a technique often deployed in the horror genre, such as this low shot from “Halloween Kills.”
“Halloween Kills” Courtesy Universal Studios
Besides the thematic aspects, practical functions for low-angle camera shots include establishing a setting, highlighting facial expressions, or increasing the perceived height of a character.
“As with any shot, always consider the story,” says BAFTA-winning director Clive Arnold (“EastEnders,” “Coronation Street,” “Hollyoaks”). “Why use a low angle? Why not use a high angle? What will the shot convey to the viewer? It might simply be the passage of time over the inhabitants of a building, and therefore the shot might require plenty of skies to see clouds passing. A low angle will work perfectly. Compose and frame the shot to convey whatever it is you wish the shot to interpret.”
“The Harder They Fall” Courtesy Netflix
When shooting a low-angle shot, it’s essential to consider the camera’s distance from the subject and overall goal you’re aiming for. Dominance versus powerlessness is frequently the objective. Action and crime films employ this technique often—the bad guy pointing a gun at his target is one of the oldest tricks in the business. Also, lighting affects the overall shot, especially when shooting landscapes, so avoiding overexposure or underexposure with the right balance is critical in creating an engaging image.
Beyond what you’re doing behind the camera, it’s important to remember: “Shooting a low-angle shot is not the most flattering on an actor or actress,” says director Peter Paul Basler (“Ice: The Movie,” “Big Bad Bugs”). “Be aware: Few actors I know would like a shot right up the nostrils. But if the scene calls for the villain to show his stripes, looking your best is not what the scene calls for emotionally and physically.”
Basler’s advice is to keep it subtle. “What I like to do with low-angle shots is present them in the slightest way so that it is not readily apparent,” he says. “It throws the viewer off just a bit, adding to the emotional impact of an argument or a fight scene, to name a few [examples].”
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
For directors and cinematographers, it’s critical to consider all the factors included in a low angle. Here are some tips:
- Choose the right lens. A wide-angle lens would be appropriate to capture the environment or provide depth, especially when capturing an establishing or master shot. A telephoto lens compresses the foreground and background, creating a more dramatic effect with the subject centered in the frame.
- Mount your camera. To ensure stability, consider a tripod or monopod. Unless the story calls for handheld camera movements similar in style to “The Bourne Supremacy” director Paul Greengrass, a steady shot emphasizes the dramatic flair.
- Lighting. With the mood in mind, casting a scene with the proper lighting sets the tone. This is true for any shot, but low or high-contrast lighting can add even more depth for a low angle.
- Camera movement. Cranes, dollies, tilts, and pans deepen a shot’s dynamic. Along with the lens and exact height of the camera on the vertical axis, experimenting with the camera movement can make a low shot more powerful.
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
“The Dark Knight” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
In this moment from “The Dark Knight,” the camera starts low. But after Batman crashes, it continues to drop even lower as the Joker walks closer, further placing him in a position of power and dominance.
“Bad Boys” (1995)
Michael Bay’s signature 360 shot is an example of a low angle coupled with camera movement. In “Bad Boys,” Bay applies this “hero” shot to stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence; the camera tracks around them in a circle as they look upwards, placing them on a pedestal in the viewer’s eyes.
“Psycho” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
This low-angle shot from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” turns the Bates Motel into a character, keeping the audience at a distance while giving the building an air of mystery and menace.