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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Get Low For Big Impact

Change your camera angle to free your wildlife shots from cluttered, distracting backgrounds

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Brown pelican, La Jolla, Calif. Setting up below the bird made the sky the background. The white foreground is a dirt ridge lit by flash. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 2x teleconverter, ISO 500, 1/60 sec. at f/6.3, Tv mode, Canon Speedlite 580EX II flash at -1 stop in ETTL mode.
There are times when you’ll be afield with just your big lens and your tripod and come across a situation where you need to be on the ground fast. On flat, even terrain, you may be best off simply removing your rig from the tripod and working with the lens right on the ground. In a pinch, I’ve supported the front of the lens either with a rolled-up sweatshirt or with a quickly constructed mound of earth or sand. You then can frame the subject as needed by placing your left hand between the rear half of the lens and the ground. As this is a form of handholding, it’s usually not very successful in low-light situations, but it’s a great way to get low quickly.

I don’t use tripods with centerposts so that when I need to get low unexpectedly, I can leave the lens on the tripod, splay the legs and get down on the ground. When you’re doing that, take a moment to shorten the tripod legs; if you splay the fully extended legs, your rig will be quite bouncy, and it will be difficult at best to create sharp images. Be sure to leave about four inches of each lowest leg section extended to minimize the amount of dirt, sand or grit that gets into the leg locks. It’s easy to damage your tripod if you put your hand in the middle of a leg section and push down on it so that you can get up, so resist the urge to do so.

I like wearing long sleeves of some sort or another (or even elbow pads) to protect my tender elbows when getting on the ground with my gear. When I’m getting up or down, I pull the sleeves over the heels of my hands to keep them clean. Getting sand or mud on your hands and then on your camera body can ruin your day. In addition, knee pads or carpet layer’s knee protectors are a good idea, especially on gravel or rocky beaches.

Brown bear, Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. Getting low and composing tightly gives the image an intimate feel. Canon EOS-1D Mark III, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS, splayed tripod with a Wimberley WH-200 V II head, ISO 500, 1/60 sec. at f/5.6, M mode.
Working The Angles
If you’re using an intermediate telephoto or telephoto zoom lens, it’s more important to get low when working with tame subjects than it is when you’re using a big lens. Why? If you walk right up to a tame bird with a 300mm lens, your angle of declination—the number of degrees that your lens is angled downward from the parallel-to-the-ground position—will be much greater than if you were working the same subject from much farther away with an 800mm lens and a teleconverter. In fact, when working with long supertelephoto lenses and teleconverters, you often can get the intimate how-low-can-you-go look to your images while sitting or even kneeling. And it’s far easier to track a running shorebird while seated than it is while prone.

At times, you can get the eye-level perspective and the look that you’re after by working from a low position like a big enough space between large rocks or boulders or the bottom of a sloped beach.

Take Care When Approaching Wildlife
Unless you spend lots of time in Antarctica or the Galápagos, you won’t be able to just walk up to your subjects and then get on the ground. And even in those locations, you’ll want to take care when approaching the birds and animals for ground-level photography. Your subjects will tell you when they’re concerned with your approach.


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