NATURE’S VIEW: Getting to Ground Level

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by Jim Clark

Oystercatcher_20120429_001(c) Jim ClarkOf all the genres of nature photography, my most challenging one is wildlife photography.

Challenge one: the primary subject is mobile and doesn’t tend to stay in place very long unless sleeping, resting or nesting.  Challenge two: the primary subject is more wary than a landscape, flower or inanimate abstract subject. Challenge three: The primary subject has eyes. It may very well be watching your every move.

The first inclination of many aspiring nature photographers is to remain standing to photograph a critter that is much smaller than they are. While I, too, will stand to photograph a smaller animal the first time I encounter it, I then make an effort to change my perspective and get lower.

What makes a lower perspective appealing? The short answer: intimacy. The viewer gets a sense of looking straight into the animal’s eyes and experiencing the world as the animal does. The background changes, too, and can be better controlled, especially when using focal lengths 300mm or longer. When photographing at a higher position, the background can sometimes look cluttered and chaotic. By photographing low, more emphasis is placed on the animal.

Photographing from a lower perspective also yields more success in getting a well-focused image. With the camera body more parallel to the animal, you have a better chance of having the image be sharp.

In many situations, the animal becomes used to you, more tolerant and less wary of your presence. My technique for getting low is simple. If I have to move my arms or hands to make adjustments to the tripod or camera, I keep them close to my body, tripod and camera, following the contours up to the camera controls. I don’t immediately go to ground level, but instead, make steady changes from standing to kneeling to butt sitting to maybe even “wet-bellying,” where I am flat on my stomach. It takes a slow methodical approach, photographing at each perspective, just in case the animal decides to move.

With all this advice, there are still situations where doing the whole kneeling, butt sitting, wet-bellying routine is not necessary; we are talking deer, elk, wading birds, and more. But what if you are photographing a smaller critter and can’t get to knee or ground level? What can you do? Use the longest telephoto lens you have. The longer the focal length, the better as it narrows the angle of view, which helps reduce a cluttered background and puts emphasis on the animal.

In this image of an oystercatcher, I was sitting in my vehicle. This beautiful shorebird was resting on a sand dune that was at the same height as my Highlander. Using a 600mm telephoto lens, I was able to compose an image with a pleasing, uncluttered background.

The next time you photograph our wonderful world of wildlife, be sure to get on the level with ‘em. Just stay your distance and don’t forget the kneepads!

A past NANPA president, Jim is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer and nature photography instructor for the Marine Science Consortium at Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson.  To learn more, visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.

© 2013 - North American Nature Photography Association
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