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|Greater roadrunner, Bosque Del Apache NWR, N.M. The bird was receptive to Morris’ careful approach, so he got out of the car and down onto the dirt road. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS on a Big Lens Ultimate Beanbag, ISO 320, 1/400 sec. at f/5.6, Av mode.|
It was a stifling late August morning. I lay in wet mud on the South Flats of the East Pond at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, New York. A thousand no-see-ums chewed on the exposed skin on the back of my hands. Ten feet away, a gorgeous juvenile least sandpiper slept peacefully.”
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, Canon EF 1.4X II teleconverter
I typed those words (on a typewriter, no less!) nearly 25 years ago. The capture medium was film: Fujichrome Velvia 50 pushed one stop. The lens was the Canon FD 400mm ƒ/4.5, the camera the T-90. The magnification with that rig was 8x. Today, it’s a whole new world: a Delkin 32 GB CompactFlash card, the Canon EF 800mm ƒ/5.6 L IS lens, a 1.4x teleconverter and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. The magnification? An astounding 29.12x.
Though a lot has changed in those 25 years, one thing remains the same: Getting down on the ground with your gear will enable you to create images that are both pleasing and intimate. And with a telephoto lens and good technique, your subject will be in sharp focus while your foregrounds and backgrounds will be rendered as suffused swatches of out-of-focus color.
Even though it’s a bit more difficult getting up and down today than it was back then, I don’t hesitate getting down and dirty when I encounter birds and animals in flat areas like beaches and fields. Even when feeling tired or lazy, I do so at every opportunity.
I can’t help myself; I just love the look of images created at the subject’s eye level.
Camera And Lens Support
The first consideration is supporting your lens while you’re flat on the ground. If I know in advance that I’ll be photographing sandpipers and plovers on hard sand beaches or muddy flats, I use my Panning Ground Pod, a flat metal support with a clamp that I use when working in perfectly flat areas. The lens foot goes into the clamp and the whole rig is placed on the ground. When working on soft sand or grass where I need to be a bit higher, the Skimmer II is a better option. Made of crush-proof, injection-molded plastic, it’s rugged yet weighs less than a pound; it’s about the size and shape of a large salad bowl. I spin the gimbal head off the tripod, mount it on the Skimmer, and attach the lens. A second advantage of the Skimmer is that it’s easier to follow moving subjects with it.
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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.
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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Delkin 32 GB CompactFlash card, Wimberley WH-200 V II head on a Skimmer II ground pod, Canon EOS-1D Mark IV
If you’re using your tripod, lower the legs before you begin your approach and hold the tripod in front of you. Swinging a big lens off your shoulder is the best way that I know to scare wildlife; can you say shotgun? Regardless of how you’ll be supporting your rig, it’s best to execute your approach in three stages: standing at full height (and walking in super-slow motion); kneeling or sitting (and advancing with caution) and; finally, getting prone (and continuing your careful advance).
The slower you go, the closer you’ll be able to get without disturbing your subjects. And the same goes for lower. Take extreme care during your transitions as you’re most likely to scare your subjects as you’re getting lower. And when I say “super-slow motion,” I mean exactly that: slower than you can even imagine. The better you get to know your subjects, the easier it will be to know when you can be a bit more aggressive with your approaches. When crawling, it’s not uncommon for skilled folks to get within arm’s length of young shorebirds, gulls or terns; they’re usually much more accepting of humans than adults of the same species.
Framing The Animals
As it’s much easier to get close when you’re low, be sure to frame your subjects pleasingly; for portraits of whole birds or animals, you don’t want to go larger than 75% of either the height or the width of the frame. You’ll make it easier to create interesting behavioral or action images without clipping off legs or wings.
If at all feasible, devise a way to get on the ground with access to a teleconverter or two as well as a 25mm extension tube. With practice, you’ll be getting so close that you’ll need a tube to allow for closer focus, and by adding a teleconverter, it’s likely that you’ll be able to create tight head portraits of even medium-sized birds with a 600mm or an 800mm lens.
Before I begin any low-level approach, I make sure that I have a double-bubble level in the hot-shoe of my camera. With your head angled to get at the viewfinder, it’s impossible to be sure that your camera is square to the world; before creating an image, glance up at the level and rotate the lens in the lens barrel or adjust your positioning if quasi-handholding with the lens alone on the ground.
Once you start getting low and see the types of images that can be created when working at your subject’s eye level, it’s likely that you may never choose to stand at full height behind your tripod again.
Arthur Morris, a Canon Explorer of Light for the past 15 years, is one of the world’s premier bird photographers and educators. Visit Morris’ website and online store at www.BIRDSASART.com. You can check out his blog at www.BIRDSASART-blog.com.