"Bird's Eye View" Definition

By Dennis Hartman
This is a bird's eye view of Philadelphia, as shown in this arial photograph.

A bird's-eye view is an image gained when the position of the observer is significantly higher than that of the subject. This device is a fantastic device for photography and movies, as it gives the viewer the impression of either swooping down upon the subject or of flying over the subject. It can be difficult to pinpoint its use in movies, as the action happens within the blink of an eye; one of its uses is to get from one place to another, quickly. Looking down upon a subject can be achieved in a number of ways and may serve several different purposes. For filmmakers and photographers, bird's-eye views are also a way to add interest to a shot or relate important information about the subject.

What Bird's Eye View Means

While some glossaries refer to a bird's-eye view as any point-of-view that is above the subject, others specify that the image must be seen from a very high angle. Generally, the height of the observer relative to the subject must be conspicuous. Thus, a photograph of a person, taken from the eye level of a slightly taller person, is not said to be a bird's-eye view. A photo of a person taken from the roof of a two-story building would qualify as a bird's eye view.

How It's Used

Bird's-eye views are useful in a number of scenarios. Overhead shots of buildings or a landscape can be useful for establishing a setting or including a large visual field within a single image. Similarly, viewing a human figure from above can locate them in their space in a way that lower angles might not. The psychological effect of a bird's-eye view is to make the subject appear smaller and, by association, weaker or more subdued. In cinematography, movie characters shot using bird's-eye view are often the objects of sympathy.

How Photographers Achieve the Effect

There are many ways to achieve a bird's-eye view. One of the simplest is to mount a camera at a high location, such as on a scaffold or other structure. Climbing to the top of a building or using a ladder are other ways to place the point-of-view above a subject. For larger subjects or higher bird's-eye views, helicopters, airplanes, and cranes can be useful to place the camera in an appropriate position. Another way to produce bird's eye view is to lower the subject, either by constructing a pit or trench or by actually decreasing its size, if possible.

Examples of Bird's Eye Views

Landscape photography sometimes makes use of a bird's-eye view, with photographers in helicopters literally assuming the position of a bird. Commercially produced photos of famous buildings or cities are often made in the same way. Surveillance footage is also frequently shot from a high position, using a bird's-eye view to display a large field of view and covering as much of a space as possible. In art, paintings or photographs that employ a bird's-eye view convey psychological tension by placing the viewer in an unnatural position.

Worm's Eye and God's Eye Views

The opposite of a bird's-eye view, or a very low point-of-view, is sometimes referred to as a worm's-eye view. This can serve to make the subject appear tall and imposing. Worm's-eye views are common in cinematography as a means of making characters appear more powerful. An exaggerated version of a bird's-eye view -- in which an extremely high angle is employed -- is sometimes called a God's-eye view, although there is no clear distinction between the two terms, as it is simply a matter of degree of emphasis.