The best perspective of photographing birds is from the ground level instead of shooting down or up on your bird subject. By being on the level as your subject and keeping the bird in the same focal plane as your lens creates a very intimate photograph of your subject. Shooting from ground level creates subtle foregrounds and often creates dramatic out of focus backgrounds, especially when shooting towards the crashing waves of the ocean. This results in an artistic and surreal feel or composition of the bird being in a cloud. Ground level photography is a simple way to drastically improve the quality of your images. Here are my top six tips for capturing intimate pictures of birds from the ground.
Panning Ground Pod or Tripod Down to the Ground
When photographing gulls, terns, waterfowl and shorebirds on the beach or other birds in open grassy areas, I find lying down on the ground using a Walt Anderson Panning Ground Pod is the best method for capturing these intimate images of my subjects. The ground pod is small and lightweight with a 4×8 inch base plate and an Arca-Swiss clamp. When using the pod on the ground, it keeps your camera and lens just a few inches off the ground and is easy to capture both horizontal and vertical images. Using a cheap Frisbee underneath the ground pod keeps the pod from getting soiled with sand or mud and makes it easier to move around on the sand.
Another alternative to using the ground pod is to have a tripod where the legs open out wide and low to the ground. I have used my tripod and 500mm lens in this setup many times to capture shorebird images on the beach. Just getting as low to the ground as possible will give you the best advantage to capture that intimate image of your bird.
The above images are of a willet and sanderling (far right).
Approaching Your Subject
An advantage of lying down on the ground is that birds become accustom to your presence and feel less threatened. When standing or kneeling, birds feel threatened and fly away if you approach to close. When positioning yourself on the ground, some birds may flush anyway, but they will often return to the same area once you have settled into your position. Often positioning yourself a little further away from your subject is ideal as you can scoot slowly on your stomach towards the bird until you have reached where you need to be. By using the ground pod, I am able to move toward my subject without a cumbersome tripod. The pod attached to my 500mm lens makes it easier for me to crawl and scoot in the sand and allows for a quieter approach to my subject. I am able to move the ground pod and lens out in front of me and then use my elbows to scoot or crawl towards it. Scooting along the sand allows for minimal disturbance to the bird and gets you closer to your subject than walking or standing would.
Additionally, I use a 2-Way bubble level in my camera’s hot shoe, which allows me to level the camera and lens while on an uneven surface such as sand. I find this extremely valuable to have when using the ground pod. A tripod with a level on it would also be very useful if you do not have a hot shoe bubble level.
Below image of the pied-billed grebe walking is an example of when patience has paid off. I spent quite a while photographing and observing this grebe sitting on the beach. Then suddenly, the grebe stood up and started walking along the surf, and because of my patience, I was able to capture this unique image of the grebe.
Know the Subject’s Behaviors
To capture the natural behaviors of your subject, it is extremely important to know what to expect from your subject. This information is vital in composing your image. You need to know how your subject moves, the size of their wingspan, how they search for food, how they preen, and when they are about to fly away. Knowing these behaviors allows you to compose your subject ideally in your viewfinder and be able to anticipate their movement to capture that perfect image. Another consideration for composition is the background and/or foreground. Make sure that there is not anything that will detract from your primary subject. Blurred backgrounds and foregrounds will emphasize your subject in the image. The sand and/or crashing waves make excellent backgrounds and give you a very intimate image of your subject.
The images above are of a red knot in winter plumage, sanderling and willet.
Use a Wide Aperture
Lastly, choosing a wide aperture allows you to blur your foreground and background and brings emphasis to your subject. It will also give you a higher shutter speed to freeze the action. The bird will stand out or pop against the out of focus background and foreground.
Next time you go out to photograph birds, try these tips and see what a difference your images will give you by keeping your lens at the eye level of your bird. By getting down on the ground, as a photographer you can improve your images by creating more intimate and dramatic pictures of birds.
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All the very best,
Lori A. Cash
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