These days, when I look through so many of the images posted on social media, it’s even more true to say that those images that make the most profound impact are those where the photographer has managed to attain an angle of view that is either level or slightly lower than the eye level of his subject.
In wildlife photography, this approach to your photography is especially difficult (and in Africa … sometimes dangerous!!). We become used to working from game vehicles or our cars and whilst this can often serve a purpose and allow is to view our subject closely, the results can often be somewhat unflattering as we are forced to shoot down on the subject, often losing the perspective of their environment as well as the animal’s real scale. Shooting from ground level overcomes this and often gives a much more natural image where you capture your subject from the animal’s perspective, from nature’s perspective.
For the below image of a juvenile Natal francolin I was waiting beside a hide I had erected to photograph elephant activity in Madikwe Game Reserve. This is a subject that we drive past a thousand times a day in our vehicles in the game reserve, but from ground level offered a unique opportunity to capture an image of a relatively common subject. I deliberately used a large aperture (f5.6) to soften the background and make the bird stand out as I lay flat on the ground outside the hide. Low angle shots certainly gives us a differing view of the natural world. The new perspective brings a bland, everyday scene into new light when done right. So here’s some great tips in bagging some great low angle shots for your portfolio ….
1. STAY SAFE!!
Don’t take huge unnecessary risks to get your shot. National Parks and game reserves post warnings about the dangers of wildlife for a reason. However, in the presence of an experienced guide who understands and can read the behaviour of the animal you can go about your photography safely. If you are on safari with a guide in a private lodge, tell him what images you are looking to get and that you’d like to get some ground level shots. Plenty of outstanding photography can be done of non-dangerous game and of course there is always macro that you can focus on also. Most importantly of all … do not break park regulations and photograph on foot without permission.
2. Get flat on your belly!!
I know that this can be a little unappealing at times … but for the sake of art, nothing comes without sacrifice!! Buy yourself a cheap piece of matting, or an old piece of carpet if you are planning on being down there for a long time!!
3. Vary your lens choice.
In my view, low angle shots work best with a wide angle lens. That said, it depends on the subject matter and you need to consider the fact that a wide angle is going to place you a long way from the subject when you view your image on the LCD screen. I love using my Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 whenever I can, but it has it’s challenges. That said, it delivers incredible and dramatic skies if you get the lighting conditions just right. My other favourite is my Nikon 200-400mm F4 zoom as it delivers the most incredibly dramatic depth of field capability. Being flat on your belly can deliver some challenges when using the zoom as you can end up with a little too much foreground which will inevitably be heavily out of focus. Try and use a bean bag to support the front of the lens barrel. It gives you some space with which to see through the view finder also and thus eliminate some of that distracting foreground.
4. Aperture and Depth Of Field
Frame the picture in your mind as you are getting into position. What are you trying to accentuate in your final rendition of the scene? How much of your surroundings are you trying to include? By it’s very nature, a low angle shot is going to have objects in the frame from the front to the back of your viewfinder. Shooting on maximum aperture, of say f2.8, is going to give you a very distinctive blurred foreground and background, whilst shooting on say f22 will give you much more detail from front to back in your image. Ask yourself .. “What effect am I trying to achieve here?”. It’s the great appeal of shooting low, the fact that you do need to think and compose clearly. Once you have the picture in mind, you now need to understand your camera and lens combination’s ability to vary depth of field. If you have a DOF preview button on the camera, use it to determine the final image in the viewfinder.
5. Keep it straight!!
Try and keep a nice level horizon and frame your scene carefully. Sounds simple … but shooting from a prone position on the ground is not all that easy. Sometimes the angle precludes you from even using the viewfinder to compose the image so in this case use your live-view and if you have one the modern moveable screens that allow you to position the screen so you can frame the subject without even trying to use the viewfinder, so much the better. The good news is that these days of post processing, if you can’t get it perfect, there always is the computer to make it nice and level when you get home. But like in many areas of my photography, I prefer to try and get it right “in-camera” were I can.
6. Expose correctly
Often shooting from low down means that you are including a lot of sky and with a darker subject such as the elephant scene below, getting the right exposure can be really problematic. Often, just changing the angle of your shot makes a huge difference. Ask yourself … can I lessen the amount of sky and still achieve the desired effect? Can I reposition myself and achieve some side-lighting of the subject? You may have to make some compromises and look to post processing to rebalance the image as your eye viewed it. However, I’ve said this before in previous blogs … shoot, bracket your exposures and vary the composition. The beauty of digital is that you can always delete afterwards, learning from your mistakes has never been easier!!
As with everything in photography, you just got to get out there and try a few things for yourself, but go armed with a clear plan and photographic purpose in mind . Don’t be discouraged if at first you struggle with this new technique. It can be quite challenging, certainly from a composition perspective. My advice to you would be to just hang in there, be patient and give it some time to get that composition right and I guarantee you will walk away with those very images that everyone goes “wow” about, when they appear in Africa Geographic or in the social media. Good luck and I can’t wait to hear from you on how you get on giving this technique a try …..