Camera angles and meaning

Kraft, Robert N. 1987. The influence of camera angle on comprehension and retention of pictorial events. Memory and Cognition 15 (4):291-307.

Kraft explores the semantic associations made to different camera angles (high, eye-level, low) in a four frame photo story. Subjects were asked to rate the story along a 7-point scale, use a recall test for remembering the order, and then a recognition task. Each story used two characters, which were contrasted in each frame position with differing angles in different story sequence types.

Overall, results dramatically supported that angle does correlate with semantic meaning when comparing how characters were discerned. Low angles support senses of shortness, weakness, afraid, timid, and passive, while high angles were thought of as tall, strong, unafraid, bold, and agressive. A lesser correlation was found to value judgements like good/bad. Eye level angles did not contrast between characters. These results seemed to be sustained across several experimental tasks.

In recall tasks, analysis did show that camera angles influenced a connotative meaning for how characters were remembered.

Explanations for this correlation claim it comes from of our experience with the visual world, such as how looking upward at taller people gives them a sense of power (like children to adults). An alternative view says that the different angles allow the viewer to see different things in the images, from which they draw the semantic implications.

If these results extend to drawings, it would be interesting to do further study on the semantic correspondences. I find it dubious to fully believe both of the reasonings above, at least in a universal sense. There is no semantics attached to the aerial view in Australian sand narratives, nor do fixed high angles in Japanese children’s representations or ancient Asian graphics have any semantic correlation that such a theory would require.

Rather, this may simply be a case of learned conventions. We’ve built up these meanings by continually viewing them, particularly in movies. Or… the “visual world” explanation could be valid, but only in systems that allow for flexibility in viewpoints, not those that have fixed perspective. To be honest, I had always had doubts about claims that camera angles had semantic meanings, so I’m glad there’s actually work that backs it up.


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