Quick, before you scroll down – grab a piece of paper and sketch a cup of tea.
It’s OK if you’re not “good” at drawing, no one will see this. It only takes a few lines.
Go on, try it. I’ll wait.
Got it? OK, scroll down to read the rest:
When researchers had people all over the world do this, most folks drew something like this:
That is, in terms of perspective, they drew the teacup from the side and slightly above the object. (How does yours compare?)
Interestingly, no one drew the teacup looking straight down:
But why not? After all, that’s similar to the view you see when looking down at it on your kitchen counter while you rifle through the mail.
Similarly, very few people drew the teacup from a straight-on side view:
Most people, worldwide, drew it from the side with (roughly) a 30-45 degree tilt so you could see a bit of the top.
This “to the side and slightly above” view is known as canonical perspective.
We tend to recognize all sorts of objects better when they are presented to us in canonical perspective.
Even small animals like dogs and cats, who we often see from much higher above than 30-45 degrees, or animals like horses, who we don’t usually encounter from a slightly higher angle. We still “like” seeing them in canonical perspective. There’s also some evidence that when we imagine objects, we imagine them with canonical perspective.
There are some exceptions to this rule, but it’s interesting for photographers to think about. It helps make pleasing images because it goes along with how we “like” to think about objects.
Most of us probably photograph objects using the canonical perspective “rule,” whether we’re explicitly aware of it as a rule or not.
Same with the “rule of thirds” – many of us intuitively composed photographs that way before we explicitly knew about it, but it’s still a helpful guideline to think about when we’re stuck.
As I go back and look through my own work, understanding canonical perspective helps explain why some shots “worked” and some shots didn’t quite land the way I hoped.
For example, taking some shots of lunch at Les Halle awhile back, this snapshot of my chocolate mousse didn’t quite work as well as I wanted it to – you can tell what it is, but it’s a little disorienting:
It does the job, but the angle is a little too high, and I think the shot could have been improved by lowering my camera.
By contrast, I think this snap of my lemon water was more pleasing to the eye:
That’s pretty much textbook canonical perspective.
As I scroll through snapshots on my personal Facebook mini-feed, I see that many “amateur” snapshots look amateurish simply because they violate canonical perspective. When people want to take a quick snap to show off their date night dinner, often times people will photograph straight down on their plate, when it would have looked more appetizing if they had gone to the side and slightly above.
Photos of all sorts of things – sewing projects, new outifts, furniture, puppies, even babies – are often taken from high above or a straight-on side view, and frequently the shot could have been improved by understanding this “to the side and slightly above” rule.
Canonical perspective neatly lines up with how the human mind likes to picture things.
Not all of our casual snapshots need to be masterpieces, but it’s amazing what small changes of camera angle can achieve.
Of course, “rules” are made to be broken.
If we imagine objects from the side and slightly above, then breaking that rule can have interesting, startling, eye-catching effects. Shooting from far higher above may reveal new or curious patterns, things we don’t typically see in everyday life or take time to imagine.
Or rotating things to a new angle can make things appear surreal, like this cool shot.
Not all perspective problems are solved by canonical perspective. And, like the rule of thirds, not all shots should be taken that way (boring!).
But I’ve found this tidbit of visual cognition exceedingly useful ever since I read about it from Susan Weinschenk, a psychologist who writes extensively about making technology more useable. One thing she advises web designers to do is to create icons from this perspective to make them easier to recognize and more pleasing to the eye. Fascinating!
Just for fun: Go back through and look at the last time you shot objects, products, or other “stuff.”
See whether any “missed” shots seem off, at least in part, due to a violation of canonical perspective.
And next time you’re struggling to get just the right angle during a shoot, consider the “to the side and above 30-45 degrees” – it may give you a useful place to start.
Once you know about this idea, you start seeing it everywhere.