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Getting Down and Dirty: Photographing Wildlife From Low Angles

When I look back at my year in photography (something I will be doing a lot more as I begin to compile images for my “Best Of” lists in the next couple months), at least one pattern will undoubtedly emerge: I got down and dirty.  Literally.

With increasing frequency, I spent a lot of time on my belly this year, photographing several subjects from a “worm’s eye view.”  It’s something I’ve done a few times in recent years, but circumstances forced me to the ground much more this year.  I came face to face with a number of smaller critters that demanded some low angle photography.

Banded Mongoose

Banded mongooses, photographed while laying on my belly in South Africa.

Have you ever asked yourself how low you can go?  Next time you’re trying to come up with new ways to approach your nature photography, think about crouching, kneeling or, yes, flopping onto your belly to achieve a new perspective.

It takes a bit of effort to forsake your tripod and drop to the ground, but it’s often worth it.  Sometimes, it’s even necessary.  A busy or bright background may be managed by changing your position.  I remind my students that a step or two left or right can help achieve an angle that obscures or avoids some distracting elements you may see through your viewfinder.  Bright branches glaring in sunlight, distracting patches of sky, stalks of grass or bushes that are rising to block a clear view of the subject…  And the same can be said for moving vertically.  You don’t always have to do a belly flop.  Lowering your tripod or dropping to your knees may be enough to acquire a better, cleaner angle.  This can often be the case with a distracting horizon line, which may have been bisecting your subject before you made your adjustment.  Shooting from a lower angle can often isolate your subject against a cleaner background.

African Jacana

Photographing this African jacana at a low angle helped isolate it against a clean background and present a clearer view of that massive foot!

Sometimes, it’s the only way you can make good eye contact with a subject.  There were several moments during my Australia trip when I was working with subjects that moved low to the ground, usually digging for food or keeping their head down.  The only way to get a decent views of an adorable wombat face, or a clear view of that fascinating and strange echidna was to kneel or lay on my belly.  Even then, I had to hope the echidna stopped snuffling in the dirt and lifted its head long enough for me to get a clear shot.  I spent three hours and only came away with a handful of clean face shots with the little fellow.

Short-Beaked Echidna

Because its face it buried in the dirt most of the time, the only way to get a portrait of an echidna is to get down to ground level.

There are other reasons for going low, which fall more in the artistic side of the spectrum than the practical.  Often it’s something that can enhance your subject.  Large or tall subjects look even more immense and impressive when you’re looking up at them.  It’s one reason underground hides are becoming so popular in Africa.  Those elephants look awesome when photographed from a low angle.

Thirsty Elephants

A herd of elephants photographed from an underground hide. I was using a wide angle lens… the nearest one is only a few feet away!

Even smaller subjects can look big and majestic when depicted from a low angle.  Are these marine iguanas or dinosaurs?

Marine Iguanas

Sometimes just a slight change in elevation can present a subject or scene in a different way.  During a recent trip to Yellowstone, a pair of ravens were perched on a berm maybe five feet above the road.  I was able to snap some photos of them from my low angle (I didn’t even have to crouch), which allowed me to incorporate some of the foreground grasses into the frame as a contrasting tone and pattern.  It was different from a standard raven portrait.

Common Raven

This raven was perched above the road, allowing me to highlight the foreground grass in the frame for a different look.

Shooting low combined with a wide angle lens at close range offers a more intimate view of your subject.  Sometimes, shooting extra wide distorts or enhances certain facial features, presenting a rare and sometimes even surreal look at a subject we otherwise would never see from such a perspective.  The increasing popularity of radio controlled camera vehicles—the land-locked cousin of the aerial drone—has flooded the photo world with wide angle images of dangerous animals one could otherwise not approach safely.  Lions, leopards, wild dogs, bears and more are showing up in wide angle portraits with increasing frequency.

I have not bothered shimmying up to a big predator to get such a shot, but this year I was face to face with more benign critters like the echidna, ground squirrels and, in Africa, the elusive and exotic aardvark.  Daytime photos of aardvarks are rare enough.  Close-up wide angle shots are even rarer, and this particular animal was very comfortable with my presence.  So I simply laid down on the ground and waited to see if would come my way.  A couple different times it approached and began digging right in front of me!

Aardvark

I photographed this aardvark from the ground at 24mm.  It was only a couple feet away!


Are you thinking about going low to get the shot?  Here are some tips:

 

Small Subject?  Drop and Give Me Twenty (Photos)!

Eye contact is pretty important in your wildlife photos.  Well, not that the subject needs to be looking at you and your camera specifically (some photographers actually prefer shots in which their subject isn’t looking at them, allowing them to promote the illusion that they didn’t change the animal’s natural behavior in any way whatsoever).  It’s more than you probably want to get a good view of the eyes and the face, and also to present your subject on their plane of existence.  Naturally, with smaller animals this means you’re going to have to get down to look them in the eyes.  When a short-tailed weasel showed up at my Yellowstone cabin, I spent all of my time kneeling when I was shooting.  Forty-five degree shots from above weren’t going to help me get a good view of the little guy’s adorable face.

Short-tailed weasel

I had to photograph this weasel while kneeling in order to get a clear view of its face.

Don’t be Afraid to Get Dirty

Seriously, you can wash those clothes.  It’s not like we’re out in nature to look good, anyway.  Nature photographers generally look ridiculous anyway.  Floppy hats, bulging pockets, pouches and accessories dangling from head to toe, camouflage…  Just get on your belly and brush off whatever comes back up with you.  What are you afraid of?

Photographers

I was proud of these tour clients for getting “down and dirty” to photograph ground squirrels.

There are Other Ways to Go Low

Are you on African safari?  Try sitting in the front seat (if possible) next to the driver rather than one of the elevated benches in the back.  I’ve been able to get close to eye level shooting from a Zodiac (inflatable motorboat), photographing wolves and bears from a lower perspective while maintaining a safe distance.

Fighting grizzly bears

In order to photograph these tussling grizzlies at a low angle, we had to be seated in a small boat.

Consider shooting from a hide.  If you’re not traveling to a lodge, game reserve or ranch that has their own hide setups, you can always try a portable hide (essentially a small tent) to help you get closer to certain subjects.  Bring a small folding camping stool.  You may not fit in the hide standing up anyway, and there’s an added bonus in that it will help you get closer to eye level.

 

Cheating Is Allowed

Remember the ravens I mentioned?  They were perched above me.  Sometimes you can shoot low without actually having to get low yourself.  In Africa there were a couple instances when an animal was moving in a certain direction on a hillside, so I asked our rangers to position the vehicle ahead of the lion or leopard, but also below them.  This ensured that we’d get a moment or two in which the cat was actually above or even with our point of view.

Leopard

We moved our safari vehicle into position in advance of this leopard so we could get him walking toward us at close to eye level.

If You’re Close, Go Wide

Get intimate with your subject if you’re able to get close without disturbing it or putting the animal or yourself at risk.  Try shooting wide, or even super wide to see what sort of interesting results you can achieve.  It may also allow you to present the animal in its environment, like this cooperative quokka in Australia.

Quokka

Shooting wide allows you to capture shorter subjects in their environment.

Don’t Just Spray and Pray

Remember though: the closer you get to a subject, the shorter your depth of field range becomes.  It becomes increasingly difficult to ensure you get those eyes sharp.  Don’t just shoot blindly.  It’s not always comfortable shooting on your belly.  If you can manage to look through the viewfinder, be sure to do so.  You may need to constantly adjust your focus point to get your eyes and faces sharp.  This crane photo didn’t turn as well as I’d hoped because the focus point was on the back of the beak rather than the eyes.

Sandhill Crane

The focus point of this shot was not on the eyes because I was shooting blind. Oops!

You’ll also probably need to increase your depth of field for close range shooting.  This often means bumping your ISO, even if it doesn’t seem too dark, in order to maintain adequate shutter speed and a narrow f/stop.

 

Weigh the Risks

Crawling up to a harmless, tolerant insectivore, herbivore or small bird probably means you’re safe.  Doing so with a grizzly bear is another matter.  I recall a moment when I decided to photograph a viper in the wilds of Peru using a macro lens, a good six hours from any hospital.  Even though I felt comfortable shooting at close range based on the snake’s placid behavior at the time, the photo wasn’t really worth the risk.  I had better luck shooting with a long lens and extension tubes in that situation anyway.

Andean forest pitviper

An Andean forest pitviper, photographed with a 100mm macro lens. Probably not worth the risk.

Also consider how your presence may affect your subject.  Animals like the adorable quokkas on Australia’s Rottnest Island were curious and hopped right up to me.  But I wouldn’t feel comfortable entering a nesting colony filled with skittish birds and trying the same thing, lest an adult decide to abandon its nest due to my presence.

 

You can have a lot of fun shooting from the ground, and not just with macro subjects like bugs or flowers.  Next time, wear something other than your best shirt and pants when you’re out shooting, and get down and dirty!


Update: Thanks to reader Bill Gussman for providing this shot of me in action with the echidna!

Max photographing echidna

4 Comments

  1. Reny October 26, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for your photography tips Max.

    Your pictures are awesome, as always.
    I’m not a big fan of reptiles but I absolutely love that marine iguanas shot, wow !

    Keep up the fantastic work.

    • Author
      Max October 27, 2016 Reply

      Thanks a lot, Reny. I hope the article was informative.

  2. John Dykstra November 6, 2017 Reply

    I find right-angle finder attachments to be almost essential for low-angle shots. Being able to follow and frame a moving subject requires some practice (especially with long lenses), but the ability to work for long periods of time without fatigue more than makes up for the initial investment. You’re also able to quickly change your position–to follow the subject, vary your framing, or safely move away.

    • Author
      Max November 9, 2017 Reply

      John, that’s a good tip. Angled viewfinders are definitely handy for those that know they’re going to do a lot of low angle photography. I know videographers also find them quite useful. I think in my case, I don’t do a ton of low angle work, so it’s a piece of equipment I normally wouldn’t pack or have room for.

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