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The Power of the Camera

WIINDMILL PRESS (Canadian publisher of media books and resources)

Welcome to the Camera Center! The central force driving media in the last half century has been the camera and its ability to add images to create meaning. Whether you consider the transition from radio to television some fifty years ago, or the change from black and white newspaper photos to colour pictures in most dailies today, images make up much of what we study in media literacy.

In this area of the Ontario Media Literacy Homepage, we wanted, first of all, to acknowledge that the image has become the central focus in media literacy. You cannot discuss toys without discussing toy packaging and the presentation of toys in commercials; you cannot discuss music without talking about the music video or the staged concert or "character" of the singer-artist. Secondly, we wanted to give a brief lesson on camera angles and camera-subject distance, as well as the relationship between foreground and background content in pictures. Finally, as we decipher images, we wanted to look at the three types of photographs used to create illusion and reality in media ranging from magazine ads to travel brochures to news packaging. We suggest that while you study media literacy, make continuous reference to images and the meaning given by the content, colours, camera angles, etc within the pictures. You'll also find a variety of activities to incoporate into your classrooms.

A General History of the Camera

It's hard to believe the camera has been around for not much longer than a hundred years. Before that, pictures were rare. Those families who could afford it, had painting-portraits done. Cameras came along in the mid-1830s when Englishman William Talbot developed the basic process of photography. They were, like all new media, attainable to only a few; when the masses could afford cameras, they were cumbersome to say the least. Certainly families did not carry the camera around to every day trip and birthday party! The great-grandparents and even some grandparents of todays' youth were lucky to have a childhood picture to show their offspring. Imagine! Then, along came the motion picture camera near the turn of the century. In 1893, Edison exhibited the first commercial motion-picture machine, the kinetoscope. In 1896, two french brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere invented the first projected motion pictures (which eventually became "movies" in English because they simulated movement. One film, Train Arriving at a Station, showed the new moving reality. The camera was about 15 feet away from the track as an arriving train approached the camera. It is well documented that many people in the audience fled in horror as the train approached, thinking that they were about to be run over. A few years later, sound was recreated to go along with the pictures on the big screen. After World War II, "little pictures" entered households in the form of the television. No longer did people sit around the radio to listen to a hockey game; the hockey game came to them! No longer did people have to go to the movie theater to be entertained; comedy shows and murder dramas came to their living rooms! Today, many households have internet access. No image is unattainable. If you want to see a live picture of the Boston skyline or a clip of the latest Will Smith video, the internet can provide it to you if you have some computer know-how and a little patience. Recent reports show that WebTV is gaining more and more momentum in households. Some 20 million subscribers of WebTV prefer to watch television while browsing the internet on their TV screen.

In your study of media literacy, take time to talk about the impact and evolution of the camera as well as the increasingly sophistication with which cameras give us images in ads, music videos and news shows.

Here are some suggestions for students at all levels:

Create a timeline of the evolution of the still camera

Create a timeline of the evolution of the motion picture camera

Compare pictures from the early 1900s, mid-1900s and today

Compare magazine ads from the early 1900s, mid-1900s and today

Compare commecials from the 1950s, 1970s and today

Do a study of the home video-cam over the past 30 years, comparing the 8mm film to the VHS tape

Camera Angles

Not longer after people began representing images, they realized they could manipulate the content in the image by changing the perspective. For example, by taking a picture of a basketball player from the floor, the photographer accentuates the alreading imposing height of a tall person. The effect makes the audience feel a certain way. This is what we mean when we say the camera can create meaning.

High Angle Shot

A shot in which the camera is higher than the subject of the picture

Flat Angle Shot

A shot in which the camera is on the same level as the subject of the picture

Low Angle Shot

A shot in which the camera is lower than the subject of the picture

Camera-Subject Distance

Camera-subject distance refers to the distance between where the camera is taking the picture and the subject of the picture. Before deciding on the distance it is necessary that students know what the subject of the picture is. You could have long-shot picture of cows grazing on the side of a mountain with a farm scene in the foreground. What is the subject: the cows, the mountains or the farm? Many times it won't make a difference, but sometimes it does. Be aware of it.

Long Shot

The subject of the picture is surrounded by other material which give it context. If the long shot is of a person, you will be able to see his whole body with background or foreground material around him.

Establishing Shot

The establishing shot is a long shot which establishes setting. You will mostly see establishing shots in film or in comic books. For example, the opening shot of most situation comedies will take place outside the building of the group of characters you are about to watch. Every Cheers, episode began with a shot of the outside of the bar.

Medium Shot

The subject of the picture has some other material around it which gives it further meaning. If the medium shot is of a person, you will see the upper body of the person with background or foreground material around him.

Close-up Shot

The subject of the picture is the only material in the picture. There is no other material to define the subject. If the close-up is of a person, you will see only the face or some other body part.

With all camera-subject shots, there will be "in-between" shots which use a combination of these terms. A "medium-long" is somewhere between a medium or a long shot. A "medium-close" is somewhere between these two types of shots in which, perhaps, some background material is added to a close-up of someone's face.


instruct students to find comic strip examples of each camera angle and camera distance shot. You may allow students who are artistically inclined to draw their own examples.

bring in a box of magazines and instruct students to find two examples of each kind of camera angle and camera distance shot. Do the same for pictures which use good foreground and background material around the picture's subject (see below).

if you have access to a video camera, instruct students to create a video dictionary in which they collect each type of angle and distance shot.

Foreground and Background Material in Photographs

Knowledge of the correct subject within a picture is important when deciding what is foreground and background material. The subject of a picture is given meaning by other material in the picture. For example, a child in a picture is given meaning by the run-down shack behind him or the three hundred dollar mountain bike in front of him. Through the foreground and background material, the subject of a picture is given context or meaning. The person analyzing the picture, of course, must decide whether or not the forground and background material truly defines the subject.

Foreground Material

Foreground material is anything in the picture that is between the subject of the picture and the viewer of the picture. Or simply, anything in front of the picture's subject.

Background Material

Background material is anything in the picture behind the subject.

The Photograph: Artificial Reality

Finding truth in photographs is an integral part of the critical thinking skills in media literacy. We view hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures a day--photos in newspapers, magazines, on billboards, on the internet, as well as TV images (moving pictures). These images shape our thinking about the world around us.

Pictures don't always tell the truth. Often, you need to question the subject in a photograph, the angles and distance at which the picture was taken and other material in the picture. Is the picture natural or posed? Has the photographer (and editor) chosen a photograph which defines an event accurately? In the 1980s, while former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney was giving an outdoor speech on a hot summer day, his secretary fainted beside him. Mulroney, reading his speech at a podium, stopped and knelt over the collapsed secretary in an effort to help. The following day, rival Toronto newspapers gave the public two completely different views of Brian Mulroney's character. In one, the audience can see the secretary slumping over in that split second before Mulroney noticed she had fainted; he appears to ignore the fainting and goes on reading the speech. The front picture of the other newspaper protrayed a concerned Mulroney bends over the secretary in an effort to help her. In the first picture, the prime minister appears uncaring and callous; in the second picture, he seems in control; the welfare of his secretary is far more important than a political speech.

Our understanding of photographs is essential in media literacy. If you consider photographs, all pictures come under one of three categories:

1. Posed

the subject is arranged, set-up; there is no attempt at hiding the fact the subject is totally aware of the presence of the camera. This one gets a little more slippery when the subject seems to indicate the picture is natural but is in fact posing. Most family pictures are posed.

2. Aware

the subject is aware of the camera, but tries to create an illusion that the image captured is natural. Political figures and celebrities in the public eye are always aware of the presence of the cameras which affects their actions and words. Advertising attempts to create "reality snapshots" which many people buy into continuously. The media literacy rule here makes it easy: no matter how natural and real a picture looks in a TV or magazine ad, if the image is selling something, it is posed.

3. Natural

the subject is genuinely "caught" within a real context. Some news photos and sports shots may fall under this category. Some would argue that athletes are aware of cameras which dictates their behaviour on and off the field during a game; others argue that the presence of a camera would not affect "the game" or a news story such as a protest. But recent history has shown that the presence of the camera adversely affects human behaviour whether it is measurable or not. Just take a video camera out at a family function and see how the behaviour of those present changes when the camera is nearby.

How do you decipher Truth in Photographs?

Analyze body positioning. Is the arrangement of those in the picture deliberate? Many advertisements show models in positions they couldn't possibly maintain for more than a few seconds.

Consider the framing of the picture. How is the subject arranged in relationship with the foreground and background material? How does the foreground and background material define the subject?

Camera perspective: consider the position of the camera during the event. In a large group, has a path been deliberately cleared for the picture to be taken?

Facial expressions often give clues as to the subject's awareness of the camera.

Photographs in advertisements are always either posed or aware of the camera.


1. Pre-select six pictures, two for each of the categories above. Divide the class into six groups. Give each group a picture. For each picture, group members must describe the photo, categorize and give reasons for their choice. Rotate the pictures every 2-4 minutes.

2. Make slides or colour overheads and, as a class, categorize pictures from newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Choose a variety of pictures--news photos, travel magazines, sports shots, celebrity photos, etc. A variety of discussion will ensue about the "truth" found in these photos.

3. Another concept you want to drive home to media students is that images change the meaning of words often. We see this in the news and in advertising. Demonstrate this to your class by finding an ad with good text. Take the text off and re-type without graphics or images. Ask students how they feel about the words, what they picture by the words. Show the same words with a picture you've taken from somewhere else to show how the picture changes the meaning, emphasis, tone of the words. At our school, we took travel ads for places and substituted various scenes and people (some beautiful, some unattractive) then read the words. Students were astounded at how they "heard" the words differently with the different images along side them.

4. You can also show how video shapes content. Cover the TV screen while playing an advertisement. Have students storyboard the commercial. Another exercise is to show the video but play a different audio (this takes some time and work but the results are gratifying). Finally, show the images and have students "supply" the music/sound/script for the ad including a description of the voice, etc.