Keeping It On The Level

Now that we have nice big LCDs to look through to show us when our fingers or the wrist strap is in the way of the lens, rather than those dinky little viewfinders of yesteryear, we don't get endless finger shots anymore. We can see what our camera sees, for the most part. If you've noticed that sometimes your pictures just don't look 'right', one problem may be that you're tipping your camera to get the whole subject into the picture, instead of changing the position of the camera but still keeping it level. This can really mess up your image's perspective, distorting your subject. If you're doing it intentionally as an effect that's one thing, but if you find that Aunt Sadie suddenly has a very big head and tiny feet (and we're just not going to talk about that mole on her nose), you probably would like to figure out why.
a wide angle shot with the camera tipped
Mmmm Macaroni & Cheeeese
The answer is that it's a combination of the lens length and how you hold your camera and position your subject. Most new digital cameras have the ability to zoom in and out. The distortion is the worst when the lens is on the wide angle setting. In this picture I tipped the camera and used the widest focal length I had, 18mm. It's a fun effect, when you're doing it on purpose. Anything closer to the camera looks larger, while whatever is farther away looks smaller, distorting the subject. If you can, step back a little and zoom in on your subject, and they'll look more natural. For this next shot I stepped back a step, changed my setting to 55mm on my dSLR and took a picture that made my son look a little more normal, although impatient to actually eat the Mac 'n Cheese.
Here I've leveled the camera, stepped back, and changed my focal length
Level camera, less distortion, though a little less fun
If you are in a situation in which you have to use a wider-angle setting, try to keep everything at the same distance from the camera. Take a picture of a horse from the side, for instance, rather than with his head facing you. (Those of you with horses will laugh now, as you know that if you walk outside and hold up a camera they're immediately going to want to see what's on your face and whether it's edible...) And do try to keep your camera level to lessen that vertical distortion that comes from tipping the lens down. You may need to change your body position to do this, perhaps crouching down, or kneeling to get the best and most natural perspective. Remember, practice seeing when it doesn't matter, and you'll be ready when it does!